Tony StoreyThe Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

A Life Apart

Looking after the Poor, and Workhouses

By Tony Storey

This article was originally published in the December 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

Looking after the poor and needy was once the work of the church, but as a result of the suppression of the monasteries by King Henry VIII, it eventually became necessary to legislate in order to protect the less fortunate.


The Poor Law Act, 1601, allowed parishes to levy a poor rate on householders, which could then be distributed to the needy of that parish by an appointed overseer. By the 18th century, neighbouring parishes were beginning to work together, some even sharing a building in which they could house their old, sick and orphaned poor, thus saving on individual payments for rent and food. The ‘workhouse test’ was introduced in 1723 allowing overseers to withhold relief to paupers who refused to enter the workhouse. Nevertheless, good intentions prevailed and, to quote the notice above the door of the East and West Flegg Workhouse in Norfolk, the workhouse was ‘for the instruction of youth, the encouragement of industry, the relief of want, the support of old age and the comfort of infirmity and pain.’


A typical workhouseHowever, a century later, the cost of poor relief had escalated and public opinion had hardened. Politicians on the right believed that paying out-relief to the poor merely encouraged them to be idle and live off the parish rate, while politicians on the left felt that making such payments allowed employers to abuse the system and continue to pay low wages in the knowledge the parish would subsidise the poor rather than allow them to starve. Consequently, the Poor Law Amendment Act became law in 1834, compelling parishes to amalgamate into unions, each with an elected Board of Guardians. These unions had to build workhouses sufficient to admit the able-bodied poor so that payments of out-relief could be withdrawn, other than to the old, the sick, or widows with dependent children. The ‘workhouse test’ was applied rigorously and the emphasis was now on the deterrence of idleness rather than the relief of destitution.


All unions had workhouses by 1865 although conditions varied and some were hardly better than prisons. On entering a workhouse, the pauper was stripped, bathed and issued with a uniform, typically of hardwearing cloth, the form and style branding its wearer as an inmate. The pauper’s own clothes were washed and disinfected and then retained by the workhouse along with any other possessions until such time as the pauper was discharged. Bad behaviour could be punished by a reduction in the inmate’s food ration or by solitary confinement.


Most of Victorian society seemed content to turn a blind eye to these unfortunates, caring little about what happened behind the Union wall as long as these people were kept off the streets and didn’t cost too much money to look after. Occasionally, the plight of workhouse inmates was brought to public attention as in, for example, the Andover workhouse scandal of 1845. Animal bones, including those of horses, were routinely delivered to the workhouse where they were crushed for use as fertiliser. On this occasion, the inmates were so hungry that they fought over the rotting scraps of meat still on the bones. Just three years later, a second scandal rocked the country when a report on a typhus outbreak in the Huddersfield workhouse revealed inmates having to share the lice-ridden beds with the dead and dying and the soiled bed linen not being changed or cleaned for up to nine weeks.


However, Victorian society’s main concern seemed to be how much the system was costing and, in 1860, questions were raised in the House of Commons concerning the number of long-term inmates in workhouses. Poor Law Unions were asked by Parliament to submit a return declaring the number of adult paupers in each workhouse who had been inmates for five years or more, stating the reason why such persons were unable to maintain themselves.


The report to Parliament revealed that in 1861 there were more than 14,000 long-term inmates of workhouses in England and Wales. Of these, more than forty per cent were old and infirm, thirty five per cent were mentally impaired and in general the remainder had a physical disease or infirmity. The report is of particular interest to family historians because it provides the name of each long-term inmate as well as the length of stay and the reason.


One of the saddest facts to emerge is that nearly half of these people had been in the Union workhouse for more than ten years and a small number had lived virtually all their lives behind the workhouse walls. Mary Wicketts, described as being of weak intellect, had lived in the St Pancras workhouse all her life, 67 years in fact. In Norfolk, Richard Dixon, an idiot, had lived in Kings Lynn workhouse for 66 years, while in Hampshire, John Deadman, also described as an idiot, had been a resident of Alton workhouse for 55 years. Selina Bence, being deaf and dumb, had spent 28 years in Carlton workhouse, west Yorkshire and because they were blind, Hannah Phillips had lived in the Isle of Wight workhouse for 53 years and John Stevens in St Marylebone for 68 years.


The reason given for the inmate’s dependency on poor relief often reveals a judgmental attitude by those in authority. Intemperance or having an illegitimate child could be sufficient reason for their being admitted. Sophia Cubitt had been an inmate of the Tunstead and Happing workhouse, Norfolk, for 15 years and is described as being of dissolute character, having had three bastard children, and being unable to procure employment. In Keynsham, Somerset, Elizabeth Birchell had been an inmate for 16 years because of her ‘indolence’, and Elizabeth Hurdle had spent 11 years in the Christchurch workhouse, Hampshire because of her ‘misconduct’.


The bare facts as presented in the returns often fail to do justice to the extreme poverty or tragic circumstances that led to an individual being admitted to the workhouse and sometimes we can only imagine what might have occurred. In Worcester in 1856, Emma and Henry Woolett were admitted after their father died and their mother deserted them. In Barwick-in-Elmet, west Yorkshire, George, Isaac and Samuel Clough had entered the workhouse in 1850, all three being of unsound mind. Similarly, in the Cricklade and Wootten Basset workhouse, Wiltshire, Elizabeth, Thomas and Mary Ann Ayres had been inmates since 1837, all three described somewhat bluntly as ‘idiots’. In Staines, Middlesex, Mary Parker had been admitted to the workhouse in 1831, but by 1861 nobody could say why.


Occasionally the return provides a little more detail. For example, Joseph Owner was admitted to the Dudley workhouse, Worcestershire, in 1849 because of injuries received in the coal mines. In the same year, John Jones entered the St Pancras workhouse suffering ‘a weak intellect, caused by the kick of a horse’. John Asquith had an accident in 1855, ‘having both arms and legs broken and skull fractured’, resulting in his admission to North Bierley workhouse, west Yorkshire.


Many of the long-term inmates were suffering from tuberculosis, asthma, ulcers, venereal disease and other ailments that nowadays would be successfully treated so that the patient could return home. Victorian medical knowledge and practice was rather basic by our standards. In addition, the medical officer of a workhouse had to rely on female inmates to provide nursing care as in 1861 there were no trained nurses in any workhouse infirmary outside London.


There were examples of corrupt workhouse masters who treated inmates with cruelty, but even under a benign regime, the workhouse was a place of great sadness where the sick, the old and the poor, having lost all their material goods, also lost their dignity. Intended originally as a safety net for the least fortunate, the workhouse became the ultimate shame and people lived in constant fear and dread that one day they might be compelled to enter its gates.


After 1834, workhouse inmates were segregated by age and sex. Each category of inmate had its own area of the workhouse so families were split up, and husbands, wives and children were kept separate and forbidden to speak to each other except at certain times. Elderly married couples could request to share a bedroom but it seems this did not always happen, possibly because of lack of space. In the 1861 report there are several married couples, for example, Erasmus and Elizabeth Kent in Ecclesall Bierlow, west Yorkshire, who are living in the workhouse for no other reason than that they are old and, one assumes, unable to care for themselves. It brought to mind a passage in Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider With Rosie’, an account of life in a Gloucestershire village in the 1920s, which I read nearly forty years ago but which haunts me still. The author tells the story of Joseph and Hannah Brown, who had lived in the same house for fifty years, ‘never out of each other’s company’. One day, the ‘Authorities’ decided they were too frail to look after each other any longer and they should be moved to the Workhouse. Lee describes the couple’s shock and terror as they lay clutching each other’s hands.


Hannah and Joseph thanked the Visiting Spinsters but pleaded to be left at home, to be left as they wanted, to cause no trouble, just simply to stay together.


‘You’ll be well looked after,’ the Spinsters said, ‘and you’ll see each other twice a week.’ The bright busy voices cajoled with authority and the old couple were not trained to defy them. So that same afternoon, white and speechless, they were taken away to the Workhouse. Hannah Brown was put to bed in the Women’s wing, and Joseph lay in the Men’s. It was the first time, in all their fifty years, that they had ever been separated. They did not see each other again, for in a week they both were dead.


A surprising number of our ancestors spent their last days in the workhouse, not because they were paupers or long-term inmates but because the workhouse infirmary was often the only place available once they could no longer be cared for at home. The workhouse medical officer would certify death and the body would then be reclaimed by the family to make the funeral arrangements.


In Cumberland in 1861, Sarah Sewell, described as a lunatic, was an inmate of the Carlisle union workhouse and had been there for 5 years. Jane Saul had been in Wigton workhouse for a similar period because she was blind.


In Westmorland, Mary Saul, suffering from paralysis, had entered Kendal workhouse in 1855, the same year that Margaret Sewell had been admitted to West Ward Union because of her ‘weak intellect’.


In Middlesex in 1861, Sarah Soul was in the Bethnal Green workhouse, having entered in 1855 with an unspecified illness. Mary Sewley, too old to look after herself, had been in St Pancras a similar time. James Sully, an old man, had been in the St Luke union workhouse for the past 7 years.


John Sewell was in the workhouse in Billericay, Essex, in 1861 and had been there for 5 years suffering from paralysis. From that year’s census we see he was aged 41 and a Chelsea pensioner. 


In Southam, Warwickshire, William Saul, an ‘idiot’, had been an inmate since 1855, while in Pwllheli, Caernarvonshire, William Sully, a cripple, had been admitted in 1854.


Finally, poor Grace Solley, who was blind, appeared in the 1861 return as an inmate of the East Ashford union workhouse in Kent, having been there for 24 years.


Sadly, it is very likely that the majority of these people were destined to remain in the workhouse for the rest of their lives. Many of them are not currently on the Sole Society’s database because they do not appear on anyone’s family tree. It is as though they walk through the workhouse gates and disappear. It is also possible that, as the years passed, many lost touch with their families and, when they died, it was left to the Guardians to arrange a pauper’s burial in an unmarked grave. Unclaimed bodies might also be given to medical schools for dissection in the cause of training and research.


I would like to think that the Sole Society might be able to give these unfortunate people some posthumous dignity by identifying them and adding them to their family chart, thereby reuniting them with their loved ones after a life apart. It will not be an easy task because, although we have a name and the Union gives us an approximate area to look in, without a family context it is difficult to make a positive identification. We are fortunate in that the survey date is so close to the 1861 census, although information on inmates of institutions is sparse and likely to be provided by those in charge and therefore ‘second-hand’. We cannot even be certain of spelling because of possible errors in transcription and the inmate’s own incapacity. However, we may be able to find these people in the censuses either side of 1861, perhaps with their families, and those workhouse records that survive may enable us to throw a little more light on their family histories.


If any of the names I have highlighted appear on your family tree or if your ancestors once lived in the areas mentioned, you might be able to help us. To find out if more of your ancestors were long-term workhouse residents in 1861, I recommend Paupers In Workhouses, 1861 indexed by George Bell.


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