Protectors or Oppressors?: Welfare through the prism of Sherborne’s history

On a recent fieldtrip to Sherborne, our Sociology and Social Policy students, taking the ‘History of Social Welfare’ unit, explored the interconnections of past and present social movements and social policies. The mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty and disadvantage in Britain are reflected by Sherborne’s history, which represents a microcosm of historical trends.

Students and staff visited the almshouses (now St. Johns’ House), which is no past relic but instead has offered a remarkable six hundred years of unbroken community service, being set up in 1437 and continuing without interruption to the present time. St Johns’ Almhouse built on earlier charitable provision by the monks and we heard of its violent beginnings, of when townsfolk rioted and burned significant parts of the monastery church before gaining a voice in provision for the town’s poor folk. Students learned how the distinctions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ were applied then in similar ways to today, as a means of separating and distinguishing people and maintaining a particular social order.

Bringing their learning of social welfare in this case study town to the present day, we gained insight from the Rev Dr Ray Catchpole of how difficult it was in our current times of austerity to convince the people of Sherborne that people were again experiencing poverty even to the point of near starvation. He described the food bank that he now runs that has grown over six months to deliver over 200 food parcels each month.

Students reflected that the fieldtrip gave vibrancy to the classroom learning and demonstrated some of the pervading interconnections in British social policy thinking – the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor, the power relations between capital and the disenfranchised and the continuing political and moral struggles concerning how, as a society, we deal equitably and fairly with people in poverty and how we challenge normative thinking and tackle the disadvantages caused by prevailing social structures. Using the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, former resident of Sherborne and campaigner on behalf of a mistreated pauper, those with responsibility and power ‘should be protecters and not oppressers off poor pepill.’

Prof Jonathan Parker & Dr Sara Ashencaen Crabtree