Inhumane, but in the end they had to do it

Dorothy Dugdale, own knowledgeable member of Todmorden Antiquarian Society, opened this season with her fourth Workhouse talk telling of 40 years Opposition to Todmorden’s Workhouse.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 grouped townships into Unions to be administered by Boards of Guardians. This area’s six townships comprised of Todmorden with Walsden, Heptonstall, Langfield, Erringden, Stansfield and Wadsworth. The Union was empowered to register births, marriages and deaths, and to build one large Workhouse.

Previously poor rates had given families relief in their own homes during hard times or sickness. Dorothy explained that hostility arose over helping those from other parishes and that the existing benefit system of “out relief” was preferable to families losing their homes, split and dependent in workhouses. There was compassion for honest poor, not for vagrants.

A meeting up on the moors made resolutions condemning the Act. Meanwhile 12 appointed Guardians met in the Golden Lion in Todmorden, but nobody represented Todmorden with Walsden or Langfield. James Stansfield was appointed clerk, remaining so for 37 years until his death. Dorothy added that the powerful Fielden family were often at the forefront against this Poor Law. Townsfolk paid dues, and wanted control.

In June 1838 John Fielden threatened to close his mills thus putting 3,000 workers out for poor relief! Riots ensued and the peace had to be restored with cavalry troops based in Todmorden. Dorothy continued that a lull followed for many years. Todmordians’ hostility lay dormant. Local improvements in drainage and sanitation were implemented by the Board of Guardians.

The cotton famine of early 1860s brought more unemployment and pressure onto the Union to build a workhouse. Now Todmorden and Walsden township was threatened with being placed under Rochdale’s Union. The following year the Poor Law Board thought they had no alternative but to plan their workhouse build. Joshua Fielden described the workhouse “inhumanity of orphans mixing with rogues” in the House of Commons. After much prevarication a site at Beggarington, Lee Bottom, was acquired.

Todmorden Union Workhouse opened in 1879. The costly building took 3 years, yet there was no celebratory official opening. Concluding, Dorothy stated that thus Todmorden became the last Union in England to provide a workhouse after 40 years of defiance. Next April 2013 Dorothy will tell of life within workhouses.