Robert Priestley, vice-chairman of Todmorden Antiquarian Society, valiantly gave Dorothy Dugdale’s last episode on Todmorden Workhouses.
In past talks Dorothy (who is currently poorly) described religious shelters for the poor, British Poor Laws, small township workhouses with the preferred outrelief for those falling on hard times while helping them back to work, writes Sue Clough.
The Poor Law of 1834 created years of upheaval and rebellion in Todmorden. The elected Union Guardians failed to levy rates but were finally forced into action when threatened that poor folk would be sent to Rochdale or Burnley.
The proposed workhouse was fraught with land purchase, planning and building problems. It is probable that the influential Fielden family, who led the opposition, were behind some of these delays.
Eventually opening at Beggarington in 1879, Robert described the huge internal layout with lofty dining room doubling as chapel, long 7ft wide corridors, hospital with mortuary, kitchens and storerooms, inmates’ dormitories, vagrants area, staff rooms, workshops etc. The ‘aged and helpless’ had a ground floor dormitory.
There were few paid staff, some staying only weeks. One was sacked for being drunk in Todmorden during her time off! Female inmates worked long hours at cooking, cleaning and laundry tasks, while men did maintenance work. The Master had substantial authority, troublesome inmates’ punishments included solitary confinement.
Vagrants stayed one night only, isolated for fear of infection. The hospital with 100 beds treated epidemics and accident victims. There were plots for workhouse deaths at the back of Mankinholes graveyard.
From around 1900 extra facilities were installed. The dining room and dormitories were heated and electric lighting installed in 1902. Water mains were connected after the lodge was so low that no baths were taken during the dry summer of 1905! There was growing concern for children’s welfare.
Maintenance costs were kept low to not overburden ratepayers. Robert said that Todmorden Workhouse was not as harsh as some notorious establishments. There were occasional treats such as an annual picnic, visiting Hebden Bridge Agricultural Show, small music groups came into the workhouse to perform.
Robert gave so much information from Dorothy’s extensive research into this subject that we even heard of the Christmas Day dinner menu for 1883.
The next open meeting of Todmorden Antiquarians will be at 7.30pm in the Town Hall Court Room on Tuesday, January 14, when Robert will show slides of Todmorden. Visitors are welcome.