In the centuries before the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the almost paternalistic parish workhouse system prevailed, but with the coming of the new Poor Law Unions, a way of life for many poor changed forever and it must have been with fear and trepidation that they began to realise what these changes would entail. Instead of one, or maybe two parishes, which had joined together in the past to fund a poor house where everyone knew everyone else, the new Poor Law Union workhouses, which now contained several parishes, were built to accommodate the destitute.
These grim new institutions were built around 1845, or were original buildings adapted to the Poor Law Commissioners’ specifications. They usually had iron railings, high walls and small barred windows much like a prison. Until the new workhouses were built, usually one or two of the old parish workhouses of a Union area housed the poor.
To enter the Union, applicants had to be wholly destitute, not just poor. Entry and discharge was by the Porter’s gate where paupers were searched for forbidden items such as alcohol, tobacco, matches, pipes and knives. They entered the receiving ward for a medical examination where they would be classified as ‘able bodied’ or ‘infirm’ and segregated into separate wards for males, females, boys and girls. Their clothes were taken away to be fumigated and stored ready for the day when they entered the outside world once more. After a close hair crop and a bath, the workhouse uniform of numbered garments, usually made of harsh grey calico and coarse linen, and a pair of heavy boots was issued. A weekly bath was a rule of the workhouse, often to the disgust and dismay of some inmates who probably had never had a bath in their lives from day they had been born! The workhouse barbers shaved the men once a week as razors were forbidden.
Everyone, including the elderly and infirm, was put to work for many hours a day, the maxim being that no-one should be idle, as idle hands were made for mischief. Occupations were those of stone breaking, oakum picking*, corn grinding, bone crushing and fire wood chopping. Some women worked as domestics whilst men laboured in the kitchen gardens and elderly women tended the babies. Children were educated in the workhouse by the schoolmaster and schoolmistress and trained for service on the ‘outside’. On occasion, some children were boarded out with approved foster parents who had to observe the Union rules as to school, cleanliness and attendance at church or chapel, but these rules were not always observed as seen by the Parliamentary Reports by the Poor Law Commissioners into Boarded Out Children.
Workhouse rules were severe and had to be obeyed implicitly and without question. Everyone had to ‘know their place’. Silence was observed especially during mealtimes and in chapel. Prayers were said before breakfast and after supper, and names were called over twice a day followed by an inspection to see that everyone was clean and in a proper state. Inevitably, some inmates rebelled, which resulted in punishments meted out in stern measure and further bad behaviour would be dealt with severely by local magistrates and this could be a term in the local gaol with hard labour. It was said that many paupers were unable to see the difference between gaol and the workhouse! It was the duty of the workhouse master to make life in the workhouse as degrading as possible and some carried out this instruction to the extreme as in the Andover workhouse scandal, which occurred around 1845 when, through the harsh administration of the workhouse master and matron, the starving inmates were forced to eat the green mouldy bones they had been breaking up for bonemeal.
The Great Western Railway works in Swindon attracted people from all over the country for work, including many from Devon, as can be seen from the censuses and the local workhouse census returns. Inevitably, with an influx of people into the town, there was an increase of those seeking entry into the workhouse. These were a mixture of agricultural labourers, domestic servants and skilled workers. Although, initially, no outdoor relief was to be granted according to the 1834 Act, it was soon recognised that this was impossible and lists of outdoor recipients can be found in local poor law union records.
News from the ‘outside’ filtered in to the workhouse by new inmates, rumours of riots, wars and local happenings. Deaths were frequent in the early days of the Unions, often of newborn babies and, surprisingly, deaths of those aged from two to forty three years, rather than the elderly. Even workhouse staff were not immune from sudden illnesses and death. There was always a dread of contagious diseases occurring in a workhouse, which could run through the place like wildfire, hence the emphasis on cleanliness.
Mothers of illegitimate children often entered the workhouse to give birth and many records of Poor Law Unions include lists of illegitimate births and baptisms in a workhouse chapel. Registers of deaths, religious creeds and punishment books (subject to a closure ruling) can also be discovered. As time went on, census returns began to reveal that the birthplace of many was the ‘Union Workhouse’.
Boards of Governors were empowered to take reputed fathers and immediate relatives of dependants to the nearest Petty Sessions, later the Magistrates’ Courts, to sue for maintenance of their bastard children, aged relatives or deserted wives residing in the workhouse, who were a burden on what was termed the ‘Common Fund’ of a Union. Refusal to pay the amount determined by the magistrates would result in what was known as ‘distress’, meaning the seizure of goods and chattels. If no goods and chattels were available, then a term in the local gaol with hard labour was imposed. One instance of maintenance was discovered in 1891 when the army pension of an inmate had to be given up in return for his accommodation in the workhouse.
When county asylums were built in the middle of the 1800s, many Unions brought cases of lunatics and insane persons, including children, not being under control, to the magistrates, where they were examined by doctors and, on the recommendation of a Union relieving officer, would be sent to the county asylum and, once again, a direct relation was expected to pay a certain amount towards their upkeep. Census returns reveal that some inmates lived, on and off, in the workhouse for many years and that poverty could strike not only the poor, but also the once well off. Drink was often the downfall of many a family wage earner so that the workhouse was the unavoidable option for the whole family.
Poor Law Union correspondence with the Poor Law Commissioners (PRO Kew) can be advantageous when researching ancestors in the workhouse. For example, Giles Wreford, a relieving officer, was brought to task for defrauding the poor in Crediton Union in 1838 when Elizabeth Labbett, who then resided in Bristol, arrived to attend the Union Board to ask why she had not received her allowance for the previous quarter. Wreford admitted that, by some oversight, he had not remitted her allowance. Other inaccuracies in his accounts came to light and he was dismissed as being incapable of discharging his duties of office and was relieved of his duties. Crediton Poor Law Union correspondence from 1834 to 1838 between the Board of Guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners in London in MH12/2193 not only contain Wreford’s accounts with names of parishes and recipients of outdoor relief, but also names of other paupers and is quite a revelation about the Crediton Union in general. A transcript of Wreford’s accounts has been deposited in Tree House.
The Poor Law Union Gazette, which was published from April 1857 to April 1903 (British Library Newspaper Library, Colindale), provides descriptions of staff, and local newspapers can be fruitful sources for research into this particular aspect of family history.