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A Grim Almanac of the Workhouse
Image by brizzle born and bred
Workhouses were often painted as places of shame, starvation and cruelty. People would rather die, it was often claimed, than enter such institutions.
But were things really that terrible? Sadly, the answer has to be in the affirmative.
A new book, entitled A Grim Almanac of the Workhouse, by Peter Higginbotham, reveals some of the grisly, gruesome, and occasionally downright bizarre events that took place behind workhouse doors.
As Peter explains in detail in his book, the dread of the workhouse even drove some people to take their own lives.
In 1890, Bristol workhouse inmate Elizabeth Clevely hanged herself using a towel and some bandages.
She had attempted to take her life twice before but, despite being certified as insane, Bristol magistrates had refused to consign her to an asylum.
Peter also reports that, in 1871, an inmate of the Plymouth workhouse committed suicide by throwing himself from a high window.
Two years later, a pauper hanged himself with a rope destined for oakum-picking – the laborious workhouse task of teasing apart old ropes into their raw fibres.
An inquest into the death of 36-year-old lace worker, Fanny Jane Hayball, who had escaped from Chard workhouse, revealed that she had drowned herself in the town’s reservoir.
But it wasn’t only the workhouse inmates for whom the stresses and strains became too much.
In 1891, 66-year-old Rev Michael O’Meara, the long-time chaplain of Bristol’s Barton Regis workhouse, committed suicide.
The chaplain, who had been in bad health for some time, was found by his wife lying on his bedroom floor, having inflicted a fearful gash to his throat with a razor.
He had written a note stating that he could endure life no longer.
In 1838, William Caswell, who was employed as a surgeon at Bridgwater workhouse, took his own life following a dispute over payment for his services.
After being forced to settle for less than half his original fee, Mr Caswell became severely depressed.
Later, he made his way to a spot beneath the town’s sea walls and nearly beheaded himself with a razor.
Workhouse staff were often at risk of being attacked by those under their care. For example, in 1860, the matron of the Clifton workhouse, Mrs Phoebe Hunt, died after being struck on the head in a struggle with Ann Richards.
Inmate Ann had been diagnosed as suffering from "hysterical mania".
Mrs Hunt was the widow of a former Master of the workhouse who, coincidentally, had died on the same day nine years earlier.
There were other dangers too. In 1902, a disastrous fire which broke out at Devon’s South Molton workhouse resulted in deaths and serious injuries.
Oil escaping from a lamp which had been knocked over led to a blaze which rapidly took hold.
Many of the rooms were occupied by old people, some of whom had not been out of bed for several years.
One woman, an inmate for only a few weeks, could not be found and her charred remains were only discovered later.
In 1907, an early morning fire at a crowded Plymouth workhouse caused serious damage.
All of the inmates, many of whom were elderly, were safely evacuated although some, dressed only in their night attire, suffered severely from exposure.
Over the years, a number of workhouse scandals made headlines in the newspapers.
One of the most shocking incidents concerned Miss Ann Mance, who, for almost 30 years, had been matron of the Newton Abbot workhouse.
An inquiry, held in 1894, heard that the inmates were rarely, or never, bathed.
At night, elderly inmates were stripped naked and placed into a "jumper" – a kind of sack used as a straitjacket – and tied to their bedsteads.
One elderly inmate, Sarah Bovey, who was paralysed, had been placed naked in a "jumper" every night for a week.
One morning, after Sarah had made a mess, the woman in charge of the ward took a handful of faeces and put it in her mouth. Sarah Bovey died that very same night.
Despite complaints by nursing staff, the matron said that the use of "jumpers" saved on washing.
A recently-appointed nurse at the workhouse, Alice Hinton, testified that she had found one inmate apparently dying.
The woman, she said, was very dirty and covered with vermin. In addition, her hair had been cut off and her toenails were like claws, being two and a half inches long.
The matron, who emphatically denied all the charges, was dismissed from her post following the inquiry.
A few weeks later, she died from a heart condition.
Life in the workhouse, however, was not all doom and gloom.
Despite the enforced separation of males and females, it was even a place where romance could blossom.
In 1908, 60-year-old John Salisbury discharged himself from the Tiverton workhouse to marry fellow inmate Eliza Roberts, who was ten years his junior.
Nobody, including the other inmates, had known of their secret courtship.
In 1893, a farm labourer called at the Yeovil workhouse. With much shyness, he told the Master that he was in work, with a cottage and garden, but that his wife had died.
His complaint was that he had no children, and no-one to keep house for him.
The Master informed him that there were several inmates who would be only too pleased to become his housekeeper.
He then introduced him to a widow, the mother of a 10-year-old boy and a baby, who was domesticated and comely in appearance.
After leaving the two together to discuss terms, he returned shortly to find that progress had been made.
The man, George, now declared that Lucy was everything his heart could wish for, an affection which she reciprocated.
After bidding her an affectionate goodbye, George promised to fetch Lucy and her family the following Monday.
True to his promise, he arrived at the workhouse with his employer’s horse and farm wagon and drove triumphantly away with his intended wife and her children.
The happy couple’s wedding took place a fortnight later.
A Grim Almanac of the Workhouse by Peter Higginbotham is published by The History Press at £12.99
Secrets From The Workhouse ITV
Celebrities go on an emotionally charged personal journey to investigate their family’s experience of life in the workhouse.
In this moving and insightful two part series, five well known personalities, actor Brian Cox, Felicity Kendal, Fern Britton, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Kiera Chaplin, will go on an emotionally charged personal journey to investigate their family’s experience of life in the workhouse. They will delve into the dark heart of Victorian poverty to unearth stories of heartache and sadness as well as tales of extraordinary triumph that help to unravel the secrets of this notorious institution.
In Victorian society the workhouse represented the underbelly of society, where anyone who was poor, homeless, unemployed or ill was sent to live.
With no benefits system in place, destitute people were either left to starve on the streets or forced to submit themselves to the harsh conditions of the workhouse where they worked ten hours a day doing menial tasks such as breaking rocks up or picking apart ropes.
Now, in this brand-new two part series, presenter Fern Britton, actress Kiera Chaplin, actor Brian Cox, actress Felicity Kendal and author Barbara Taylor Bradford go back to the sites of the workhouses where their ancestors lived to find out what happened to them.
In the first episode, Fern Britton is shocked to discover one of her ancestors was dissected for medical research because his family couldn’t afford a funeral for him.
Brian Cox learns that his great grandfather was branded a malingerer by the workhouse when they refused to believe he was really ill.
Barbara Taylor Bradford discovers her grandmother was forced into the workhouse to give birth to two illegitimate children.
And Kiera Chaplin discovers her grandfather, Charlie, was sent to a school for poor children when his mother was taken away from him and put in a mental asylum.
The first programme starts in Lambeth with Kiera visiting the place where Charlie Chaplin was born. Secrets From The Workhouse explains that Charlie’s mother was a singer and his father was an alcoholic who left the family. When work for Charlie’s mother dried up, she was forced to take Charlie and his half-brother to the Lambeth Workhouse.
Kiera meets historian, Alannah Tomkins, at the site of the Lambeth Workhouse, which is now a museum, and she gives Kiera details about what life in the workhouse would have been like. She reveals that there would have been 1000 people living in the workhouse at the time and that Charlie and his brother would have been separated from their mum and put in different areas of the building as soon as they arrived.
Kiera visits what is now a screening room at the museum, but would have been the room where, once a week, Charlie and his brother were allowed to see their mother. Shortly after arriving in the workhouse, Charlie and his brother were sent away to a pauper’s school. Alannah reveals to Kiera that Charlie’s mother, Hannah, was admitted to the infirmary suffering bruises to her body. It was thought that she had been bullied by the other residents.
Then, after just seven weeks in the workhouse, Hannah was sent to a mental asylum.
Kiera says: “This place sounds like hell. The poor thing.”
Secrets From The Workhouse sees Kiera as she visits the school that Charlie would have been sent to, which is now a community sports centre. Professor David Green meets Kiera and takes her to the gym, which doubled as a punishment room when it was a pauper school. Prof Green tells Kiera that Charlie was taken to be punished after being accused of setting fire to a toilet block.
He hadn’t committed the offence, but, when asked in front of everyone, he said he had done it. Prof Green explains that extracts from Charlie’s autobiography reveal that, despite being caned, Charlie felt triumphant because he managed not to cry.
The programme explains that when he was 24, Charlie moved to Hollywood and was soon earning the equivalent of m a year, making him one of the highest paid people in the world at the time. He then came back to England to get his mother out of the asylum and she spent the last seven years of her life living in luxury in California.
Actor Brian Cox heads to Glasgow to find out more about the life of his great grandfather Patrick McCann who survived on the breadline before becoming so poor that he had to enter the workhouse.
Brian is shocked when he visits the building where Patrick and his wife and eight children lived together in one room. And he is devastated to learn from historian Dr Anne Tindley that documents show that Patrick’s mother-in-law was forced to live on the stairs in the building, as there was no room for her anywhere else.
Brian says: “Family structure seems to have been destroyed. It seems to have been eradicated…all around you there’s despair. People are constantly applying for Poor Relief and constantly trying to keep ahead of the game. I have talked about my fear of poverty, and now I know where it lies. It’s a reality, it’s right in the system, it’s there because of what they went through. It’s really bad. It’s really bad.”
Brian discovers that Patrick was forced to submit to the workhouse for the free healthcare they provided every time he was too sick to work. But whenever he was thought to be better, he was thrown back out to work.
Brian says: ‘It’s an endless assault on human dignity. We’ve got to rub their faces in it.”
Finally, after years in and out of the workhouse, at the age of 54, Patrick was declared insane and sent to an asylum. There are emotional scenes as Brian is stunned to discover that his great-grandfather was also branded a ‘malingerer’ as the authorities didn’t believe his bronchitis was genuine.
Presenter Fern Britton investigates what happened to her ancestors when her great, great, great grandfather, Friend Carter ended up in a workhouse in Kent. Secrets From The Workhouse reveals to Fern that Friend managed to scrape a living working on the land in Kent, but was forced to go to the workhouse temporarily with his youngest son, Jesse, when Jesse fell ill. Records show that Jessie was then transferred to a London teaching hospital and Fern goes there to meet with Dr Elizabeth Hurren, a medical historian.
Dr Hurren takes Fern to a galleried operating theatre where she reveals to the presenter that Jessie was alive when he arrived at the hospital but then died and was given a post-mortem in the very room where they are stood.
Dr Hurren also reveals that it is likely that Jesse’s body was given up for a full dissection for the medical students because his family couldn’t afford to bury him.
Fern says: “I always think of the Victorians as philanthropic, very religious, God-fearing, charitable, kind, and yet, if you were living on the poverty line, you were considered, scum. You were a criminal because you’d never made it up to the next rung of the ladder and, because of that, you were penalised. So much so that you gave your body when you died. That was it.”
After learning about Jesse, Fern discovers Friend subsequently managed to stay out of the workhouse until he was 91 but eventually had to move into one shortly before his death. Fern tells Secrets From The Workhouse that she is relieved to discover that her great, great, great grandfather had saved for his own funeral so was able to be buried and didn’t have to be given up for dissection.
Author Barbara Taylor Bradford visits the site of the Ripon workhouse in North Yorkshire in a bid to find out more about her mother’s time there. Barbara’s mother and grandmother went to live in the workhouse when Barbara’s mother, Freda was just six years old. Barbara tells the programme that her mother never mentioned the workhouse to Barbara, and Barbara only found out about it when her biographer was researching her biography.
She says: “I really cried one day as I couldn’t imagine my mother, who was a very sweet and rather reserved woman, as a little girl put in the workhouse. And then it leads to that awful question, why?”
The programme shows Barbara meeting with her biographer, Piers Dudgeon, outside the house where her mother was born. Barbara is shocked when Piers shows her her mother’s birth certificate and she has no father listed. Piers also reveals that Barbara’s grandmother gave birth to two more illegitimate children, both of whom were born in the workhouse.
Barbara goes to the workhouse and meets a woman who used to live there and there are emotional scenes as she discovers what life was like. The residents were fed a diet of gruel, bread and, sometimes, meat and all their personal things were taken off them.
Barbara now understands how the workhouse was the making of her of her own destiny. How the shame and stigma of the institution made her mother determined to give Barbara a different life, she wanted her to be a ‘lady’, which is exactly what Barbara became. In the next episode, Barbara will discover how her family eventually escaped the workhouse once, only to return, be split up, and then forced to migrate to the other side of the world.
Image by antonychammond
Herstmonceux is renowned for its magnificent moated castle, set in beautiful parkland and superb Elizabethan gardens. Built originally as a country home in the mid- 15th – century, Herstmonceux Castle embodies the history of Medieval England and the romance of Renaissance Europe.
Set among carefully maintained Elizabethan gardens and parkland, your enchantment begins with your first sight of the castle as it breaks into view.
Visitors are invited to walk around our beautiful Elizabethan walled gardens and the many woodland trails, leading to delightful discoveries such as our Rhododendron Gardens, Rose Garden and Herb Garden.
Take a slow stroll past the lily covered lakes to the 1930’s folly and admire the sheer magnificence of the castle.
Herstmonceux was a significant place long before the Castle was built. There is evidence of Roman remains, and in the 12th century a saxon lady, Idonea de Herst married a Norman nobleman, Ingelram de Monceux, to give the place it’s name. The name of the owners changed through marriage to Fiennes, and the family increased in wealth and power. James Fiennes distinguished himself fighting for King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt and later became sheriff of Surrey and Sussex.
It was his elder brother, Sir Roger Fiennes, Treasurer of the Household of Henry V1, who started building the castle in 1441. This is one of the first major brick buildings (today it is the oldest brick building of any note still standing in England) and was years ahead of it’s time in other respects, with concentration more on grandeur and comfort than on defence.
The family fortunes are interesting and varied, but by 1700 the last Lord Dacre, Earl of Sussex, was forced to sell Herstmonceux Castle. By the end of this century the owner, Robert Hare had demolished most of it and used the bricks to refashion Herstmonceux Place, further up the hill.
It had deteriorated into a ruin until 1911 when it was bought by Lt. col. Claude Lowther who used Local craftsman to carry out the building work, and by 1912 most of the South front was rebuilt.
Col Lowther was responsible for much of the present design and for installing a number of pieces of fine woodwork and panelling purchased from other great historic houses in England.
After Col Lowther’s death in 1929, Sir Paul Latham contributed very greatly to the construction of the castle both internally and externally. In 1946 he sold it to the Admiralty who bought the estate for the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and it became an important scientific institution for the next 40 years.
In 1993 Herstmonceux Castle was acquired by Queen’s University of Canada through the generosity of Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader, and is now an International Study Centre attracting students from around the world.
It was during a visit to their Sussex home that Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader chanced on an advertisement offering Herstmonceux Castle for sale, and their vision and support for the potential of the Castle taking on a new guise as an International Study Centre, bringing students from all over the world to study in the beauty and tranquillity of East Sussex countryside.
Enjoy a delicious cream tea in the castle Tearoom and browse through interesting and unusual gifts in the castle shop. For those who wish to know more about the history of the castle, there is a visitors centre displaying various artefacts, photographs and information.
Also visitors are encouraged to take part in a guided tour of the interior of the castle to gain an insight into what life was like in times gone by and to become familiar with the stories and rumours which have circulated over the years, including those of smugglers and our resident ghosts.
NB: The castle is not open to the public, however guided tours are conducted at an extra charge and subject to availability, but due to the operation of a busy working university we strongly advise you to phone for confirmation of times before your visit.
Generally tours are conducted once/twice daily, Sunday – Friday between 11am-2pm.
For more information, please visit www.herstmonceux-castle.com/