Saturday 12 May 2018

The Workhouse

I was very excited when I found out that the National Trust owns a workhouse. I was very excited because it gave me the opportunity to go there and say "please, sir, can I have a scone?" and then laugh uproariously at my own great joke. 

The Workhouse

But I probably don't need to tell you that the workhouse was no laughing matter. I read a joyless tome called The Workhouse before I went, which explains that the national workhouse system was set up in the 1830s to stop poor people from seeking state support for themselves or their children - you'd basically have to be utterly desperate to go anywhere near the place.

So I turned up in Southwell today expecting to find a huge Scooby Doo-esque house with lightning bolts and creaking doors and general misery. But it's not like that at all - it's clean and bright and free of rats and general misery, which makes it quite hard to imagine what it must have been like for the poor souls that ended up stuck in there grinding bones or breaking rocks.

I've tried to condense everything I learned from the book into 6 key facts:

1. Who used the workhouse?
In the TV series Who Do You Think You Are, nearly every celebrity ends up in an archive at some point reading out a census form: "Frederick Jones...the workhouse!? He ended up in the workhouse?!" followed by sobs.

But according to the book, only between 0.5-2% of the population of England & Wales was in a workhouse in 1898. That's still a lot of people - anything between 165,000-660,000 - but it was a smaller percentage of the population than I expected.

2. Why were workhouses built?
  • In the days pre-Elizabeth I, people who were down on their luck had to turn to their families or the monasteries for shelter and food
  • The closure of the monasteries led to the Poor Law of 1601, which made each parish responsible for taking care of its own poor people
  • A lot of this care took the form of 'out-relief' - giving fuel and clothes to poor people in their own homes (often nothing more than a hovel)
  • But parishes couldn't cope as times got tougher - industrialisation and the joblessness and urbanisation that went with it led to a big increase in the cost of caring for the poor 
  • The government looked into the options and were impressed by the work of a Reverend Beecher who had written a pamphlet with the charming title of 'The Anti-Pauper System'
  • He based his theories on a small workhouse he had built in Southwell - he had seen good results, and so expanded it to a large institution funded by a number of parishes (the workhouse we can now visit today)
  • The New Poor Law of 1834 took his ideas and put them into practice across the country
3. How did they work?
  • Each workhouse had a master and a matron and a school teacher - the master reported to a group of local Guardians, who were usually District councillors or similar
  • The inmates were divided into categories: able-bodied men and able-bodied women (also known as the 'undeserving poor'), old and infirm men and old and infirm women (the 'blameless' poor), boys aged 7-15 and girls aged 7-15, and children under 7. 
4. What happened to the 'undeserving poor'?
  • The workhouse was designed to stop the able-bodied looking for support, but if they did need to enter its walls they were forced to work - either breaking rocks or grinding bones
The work yard for the able-bodied (aka 'undeserving') poor
  • Another task was picking oakum - basically old ropes that were tarred and knotted and had to be unpicked:

5. What about the children?

This is the surprising thing about workhouses - they were basically orphanages (as Oliver Twist attests). In 1889, of 192,000 people in the workhouse, a whopping 54,000 were children and 33,000 of those were orphans.

I was amazed to read that the explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (of "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" fame) had been a workhouse orphan. He wrote an incredibly sad account of his time there, which included a sadistic teacher who seems to have treated his charges very cruelly indeed, even beating one of the boys to death. One day the young Stanley retaliated and "determined to die before submitting again" he apparently scaled the workhouse walls and made his escape.  

6. What happened to the old and infirm?
The aged and infirm were supposed to be treated well in the workhouse (as they were the 'deserving' poor) but the book catalogues a long list of cases where elderly people were subjected to cruelty and neglect. 

infirm bedroom
Bedroom for old and infirm men
The guidebook at The Workhouse paints a less depressing picture than the book by Norman Longmate did - the guidebook points out that children got an education that they wouldn't have got otherwise and so on - but I'm sticking with the book.

In fact, one of the depressingly recognisable things in my workhouse reading was the Guardians turning up for their annual visit and enjoying a big sumptuous lunch on expenses, while the inmates were denied any such thing (it didn't mention the Guardians getting their moats cleaned or having a duck house built at taxpayer's expense, so clearly our elected officials have got a bit more brass-necked over the years). Anyway - I felt a bit self-conscious tucking into a scone in a place where destitute people had once made do with the barest of rations, but I soldiered on.

The Workhouse scone had me worried at first glance, as it looked a little bit flat. But it turned out to be delicious - a really, really tasty fresh scone that I enjoyed immensely. 

Workhouse Scone

I'll leave you with a passage from the book, written by an MP in the East End who was also a Guardian at the Poplar workhouse:

"On one visit I inspected the supper of oatmeal porridge...served up with pieces of black stuff floating around. On examination we discovered it to rat and mice manure. I called for the chief officer, who immediately argued against me, saying the porridge was good and wholesome. 'Very good, madam', said I, taking up a basinful and spoon, 'here you are, eat one mouthful and I will acknowledge I am wrong'. 'Oh dear no,' said the fine lady, 'the food is not for me, and is good and wholesome for those who want it'. I stamped and shouted until both doctor and master arrived, both of whom pleaded it was a mistake, and promptly served both cocoa and bread and margarine."

The Workhouse: 4 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Realism of rat-themed light show in cellar: 5 out of 5 

1 comment:

  1. Horrifying! None of my direct ancestors were in the workhouse, but one collateral ancestress, unmarried, was in the workhouse in the Lake District in 1851 with her two children, ages 1 and 2.