When the workhouse loomed large over townspeople’s lives

TODMORDEN Antiquarian Society member Dorothy Dugdale gave the final talk of this season, about the interesting, if somewhat harsh story of Workhouses, and will continue the story in the new season later this year.

Dorothy explained The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 required this area’s six townships of Todmorden with Walsden, Heptonstall, Langfield, Erringden, Stansfield and Wadsworth to form a Poor Law Union, writes Sue Clough.

This was to be overseen by a local Board of Guardians. Poor relief was to be levied by a rate whereby the better off residents paid more.

Previously the poor rates had allowed families relief during hard times as when trade fluctuated or during sickness. Under the new system “out relief” was to be discontinued.

Todmorden folk were against having to leave their homes and forced to be destitute.

It was humiliating to have to move into the workhouse where families were split up. Couples were separated, and only infants under two years could stay with their mothers.

The frail elderly, the sick and children were known as the impotent poor.

Life in the workhouse was cruel. Dorothy said the only paid people would be the Master, the Matron and a Porter to deal with admissions.

The high surrounding walls emphasised separation from freedom.

All able-bodied inmates worked long hours to keep the workhouse as self sufficient as possible.

Men would be put to farming, building, grinding flour, chopping wood and the like. Women would be put to cooking, cleaning, sewing, nursing and so on.

Not all inmates nor Masters were honest. Even the Guardians could profit by manipulating trade contracts. Petty criminals learned to work the system.

Dorothy had also researched documents pertaining to the dreadfully inhumane conditions at Andover Workhouse which led to amendments to the Poor Law.

Todmorden’s own Member of Parliament, John Fielden, reinforced his views against workhouses when these deplorable conditions were revealed.

In Todmorden, after nearly 40 years of defiance, the local Board Of Guardians eventually had to build a workhouse after being threatened by the Poor Law Commission that paupers here would be sent to Halifax or Rochdale Workhouses.

Todmorden Union Workhouse was built at Lee Bottom and opened in 1879. The building later became known as Stansfield View.

Dorothy concluded that in 1930 responsibility for the poor was officially handed over to local councils.

In reality, many Workhouse folk were abandoned, unable to get jobs, dependent and over-institutionalised.