We probably all have an image of workhouse life and how the inmates subsisted on weak gruel, but Peter Higginbotham’s exhaustive researches reveal a far more complex and fascinating story, as he told Hebden Bridge Local History Society.
From the age of Elizabeth I each parish was responsible for providing help for those inhabitants who found themselves destitute.
A poor-rate was collected to fund the relief, and the able-bodied were expected to work in exchange for help. For some parishes this forced work was best undertaken in a house, where those unable to work could also be sheltered. These workhouse grew in number through the 18th century and reminders can still be found locally – at Workhouse Farm and Workhouse Green in Colden for example.
The more formidable workhouses of popular imagination were built as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Act, which established Poor Law Unions covering a much wider area than the old parishes. ‘Out-relief’ was abolished and the workhouses were to act as a deterrent to anyone claiming relief.
Although this was popular among the ratepayers of the south, in the northern manufacturing areas is was seen as an unnecessary expense. Todmorden in particular stood out against the proposal for forty years until eventually building a workhouse at Mankinholes – Stansfield View.
The workhouses were strictly regulated: no-one was forced to enter, but whole families had to be admitted together. Once inside the inmates were classified and strictly segregated – males and females never mixed, and children beyond infancy were housed separately and perhaps saw a parent on Sundays.
As the name suggests, the regime involved work – mainly domestic for the women and physical labour for the men, such as breaking stones for road-making. The elderly and infirm were not required to work. All the inmates wore a uniform, and meals were also regulated – mainly gruel, bread and cheese with meat or bacon twice a week.
Research has shown that many of the residents were single parents and their children as well as elderly men beyond useful work and the so-called ‘imbeciles’ and ‘idiots’ who could not fend for themselves.
Bit by bit the workhouse hospitals, at first staffed by mostly illiterate inmates who got drunk on the various medicines, became a more reliable source of treatment for the sick. By 1930 the workhouses were rebranded as Public Assistance Institutes and control passed to councils, and eventually their role was taken over by the NHS and welfare state.
The old workhouses were perhaps not essentially cruel, but the shame and stigma of being sent to the workhouse never disappeared. There is a wealth of stories still to be discovered, with records in national and local archives as well as on Peter’s own website www.workhouses.org.uk and in his collection of books.
The final meeting of the society’s season will be on Wednesday, March 25, when Dave Smalley will speak about ‘The dam that isn’t and the great floating plug of Colden’ (7.30pm at the Methodist Hall, Hebden Bridge.