Ancestry UK

Life in Leigh Workhouse, 1910.

Between 1910 and 1912, Henry Stuart Baker stayed in a large number of workhouse casual wards in central England, plus a few in Wales. On many of these occasions he first contracted with a local newspaper to write an article giving an account of his experience.

In April 1910, the Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser published an account by one of its reporters of a visit to the Leigh Union workhouse.





Boards of Guardians throughout the country are discussing the question of the advisability of throwing open the workhouses and other institutions controlled by them, for one or more days each week, with a view to allowing ratepayers to form their own opinions, from personal observation, of the allegations made against Boards of Guardians in the Poor Law Commission reports, especially in the Minority Report. Several Boards have already thrown open the workhouses for public inspection, and at their meeting next week our local Guardians will decide the question with regard to the Leigh Workhouse. The reason for this move on the part of Boards of Guardians is to checkmate, if possible, the proposal that workhouses should abolished, inmates of 70 years of age and upwards given a pension by the State, the old married couples accommodated in a kind of almshouses, and others granted more generous out-door relief. The knowledge the general public possess of the interior arrangements of a workhouse is of necessity very elementary, and it was with the object of enlightening them at this critical period of the existence of these institutions that a "Chronicle" representative sought an inspection of the Leigh Workhouse, and explanation of its workings. The Master and Matron, Mr. and Mrs. France, readily granted permission, and with a patience and courtesy that it pleasure to publicly acknowledge. spent three hours in escorting him through the institution, explaining details that in the end became almost wearisome to him. not to mention what it must have been to them, and answering questions with a frankness and absence of reserve that was proof positive they bad nothing to conceal. But more of the Master and Matron, the male staff and the nurses anon. The object of this article is not to record the daily mechanical routine of the institution: what the writer desires is to convey to the public general idea of how the poor are treated and whether the money voted out of the rates could or could not spent in more profitable directions. Frankly, I believe that it could. I have visited many workhouses in Lancashire, and freely give Leigh the credit of being conducted well, if not better, than the best of them.


It is not the management that is run on Local Government Board regulations; the law in this instance, though it may not be under other circumstances, treats all men alike, and women too. Here lies the unsoundness of the whole thing, and this is the secret why the poor hate the thought of entering the workhouse. Some the inmates have lived a life that deserves a better ending than anything the workhouse can offer; there are others who are not deserving of the comforts provided for them; while of the people who frequent the vagrant wards fully 90 per cent, are parasites who are not deserving of a roof ever their heads. In a word the workhouse is a failure through insufficient classification; the finer feelings of the honest poor are outraged by compulsory daily contact with the profligates. This can be remedied by giving to the deserving poor sufficient out-door relief or a State pension to enable them to maintain themselves in a cottage or live with relatives, establishing a separate colony for the epileptics or imbeciles, making the workhouse too hot to held the won’t-works, and placing the inmates of the wards on fresh footing by giving the Master discretionary powers in the treatment of a genuine working man tramping from town to town in search of employment, and the idle loafer who deserves far less consideration than he receives. At the present time the regulations state that both classes of men shall be treated alike, but to the credit of the Leigh Workhouse Master he often runs the risk of stretching a point by giving the honest man, who is easily distinguishable from the ruck, more comfortable treatment, and allowing him his freedom early next morning instead keeping him the regulation two days in which to repay, in the form of labour, the price of his bed and breakfast. And now to details.


The regulations and accommodation for both sexes are very similar, with a dividing line in the buildings to prevent access to each other. In the case of husband and wife they are allowed to see each other once week, and then only under supervision. I will first deal with the inmates, distinct from the casuals. An order from the relieving officer passes the holder through the great gates, and he or she is taken to the receiving room. The first process is a bath, as a rule a very necessary proceeding, but in all cases imperative; in fact it is easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a man or woman to be dirty after passing into the workhouse. Baths and wash-basins abound in endless number, and they are not there for mere ornament. In one block alone there is accommodation, and it is put to the fullest test, for giving hot baths and shower baths to 250 men every morning. Every appliance is of the very latest. As a man washes his hands the water in the basin flows from him; this obviates the danger of a person with a skin disease in its infancy, not yet officially detected, conveying the infection to another. The quantity of soap and water that is consumed must be enormous. but whatever the cost the money is well spent. Cleanliness amidst such a concourse of people — there are usually about 500 inmates — must of necessity be the first consideration, or dire consequences would result. Dirt cannot exist on these premises; scrubbing and cleaning has become a fine art; the floors, the staircases, the walls, and the brass gas brackets shine with the use soap and cleansing powders, while strong disinfectants are run through the baths, the lavatories, and the drains to an extent that defies disease. A healthy residence indeed the workhouse; here, under such conditions of cleanliness, with the requisite exercise, wholesome though perhaps not toothsome food, a bed with a spring mattress, and a plentiful supply of spotlessly-clean clothes, and regular habits, you could live to a good old age if — but it is the “if" that makes all the difference — you had more liberty and could get away from


that pervades the place, have a change for a few hours occasionally from the undesirable company you are compelled to associate with, and get rid of the horrible feeling that comes to every self-respecting Englishman that he is a pauper. But I am progressing too quickly; let us return to the building near the lodge gates, where the newcomer is having his bath. Having been thoroughly cleansed, the new guest is provided with clean underclothes and the regulation outfit of corduroy and moleskin in the case of men, and blue galatea material for the women. If the clothes that are cast off are not too far gone or too filthy — in some cases they have to be handled with a hay pikel and consigned to the furnace — an inventory is taken, the man or woman signs it, the clothes are placed in 250 degrees of heat in the steam disinfector — guaranteed to kill anything — to be afterwards washed, placed in a bag, numbered and dated, and stored away until such times as the inmate takes his or her discharge, which may be 25 years hence or not until released by death. In the latter case the relatives may claim the clothes if they desire, but in the absence of a claimant they are passed on to some future inmate who on taking his discharge has no clothes to claim. The man is passed on to the Barber, and in order that no risks of infection be incurred pending the visit of the doctor, he is placed in a special room, and he sleeps on a straw mattress, which is afterwards burned if found necessary. The doctor makes a thorough examination of him, certifies as to his mental and physical condition, the class of labour, if any, that he is capable of performing, and the ward in which he is to be placed. His work for the future will depend upon his state of health. He may be employed on the 18 acres of farmland surrounding the workhouse; if he is a tradesman he can find much to be done in the bakery, the joiners' shop, the Smithy, or the engineers department, while there is always some painting or plumbing required. If he cannot perform labour that requires him To stand for long he can sit in a large room and chop firewood, pick oakum, or peel potatoes. The active men do the scrubbing and the cleaning of the men's wards, including the hospital, while a few well-behaved men are allowed to “run” (?) errands into the town, and thus enjoy a fair amount of freedom, or act as door-keepers. It is the duty of certain of them to see to the fattening of about 30 pigs, and others are engaged keeping the vegetable garden, the lawns and the greenhouse in order. On the occasion of my visit a nice square patch of land was being transformed into a lawn for the special benefit of the old women. Machinery is in readiness for cutting the firewood. One machine alone can cut 200 chips a minute, but just now the work is done being done by hand in order to provide labour for the men — a reversal of the usual order of things in the labour market, but a necessity withal. Day-rooms, with a comfortable fire, are provided for


and here the men — and the women in their respective wards — sit and chat about the “good old days,” and recall the incidents that have occurred in their lives before Fate consigned them to the workhouse. Papers, periodicals and games are sent by the thoughtful section of the public, and if the donors could see the pleasure their gifts bring to those on whom time hangs heavily they would well repaid. The old ladies, if not too crippled with rheumatism — this complaint and bronchitis are the predominating ailments — sit knitting and sewing. One old dame of 84, with a pleasant face and possessing most of her faculties, sat in the repairs room working a sewing machine making blouses. She said it passed time on nicely, and that she would miserable if she was unable work. I believed her. In the large room where about score of old women sat the sight was a most impressive one. Most of them seemed have passed the allotted span three score years and ten, and one could not help a feeling of reverence towards them, even though they were in the workhouse and their history was a sealed book. Each of them is probably someone’s mother, and in their clean print dresses and grandmother’s bonnets, their snow-white hair in itself commands respect. They may have had their failings. or they may have been the victims of circumstances. It was not my business to enquire what brought them there, neither was it my place judge or condemn. Old age commands respect, and should be proof against criticism or comment. There were a few who were superior the rest. They talked of local affairs and local people. My heart went out to them, and wished they could be placed in more congenial company. Perhaps this will happen when the pauper clause of the Old Age Pensions Act is abolished. If so. the sooner the better. It will be money well spent. I have thought of those old women scores of times since I visited their room, and T have also thought of a few younger females (Note: I differentiate in the title) which the law compels the workhouse to harbour, and recollection of them also brings with it thoughts of the disinfector with 250 degrees — the machine “guaranteed to kill anything.” Will the law ever make it possible apply such apparatus to human beings? If it does a good start might be made with some of the young females who visit the maternity wards of Leigh and other workhouses with a periodical regularity that is a scandal and


Cases can quoted of young unmarried females who have visited this ward on many occasions. Is it good for the country that such specimens of humanity should be at large? Most people will agree not. An inspection of this particular ward is a revelation to the visitor. Everything is as white and clean as the newly driven snow. A cot, prettily draped and comfortable enough for a young prince, is suspended alongside the bed of the mother, who is placed in a position of comfort such as cannot be provided in any working man’s home. A doctor attends her daily, nurses faithfully minister to the wants of mother and child night and day, all the requisite nourishments are showered upon her — in fact she lives a life of luxury that cannot be excelled any rich man's home. In some cases the circumstances are such that the public do not begrudge a halfpenny of the cost or a particle of the trouble incurred, but in other cases, and unfortunately they form the majority, it is blot on the system, for these women are not ordinary human beings; when the mother and child are removed from the hospital to the special bedroom in the general ward a close watch has to be kept upon them in the night to prevent the possibility of the child being "accidentally" suffocated, for it must remembered that the child is regarded as a burden when the mother takes her discharge and goes on tramp again. It is clearly a case requiring the colonisation of such women. While Hie subject women and children let peep into


Here were sixteen babies lying in swing cots, and in the adjoining room about ten children three four years age running about and apparently as happy as the days are long. They are in charge of a lady attendant who possesses a wonderful amount of patience and ministers to their wants in the kindliest of ways. For 18 years she has performed this duty — and still lives. The law says that these children must be kept alive, however delicate, crippled or defective, mentally or physically, they may be at birth — the wisdom of this law in some cases is open to question — and the nurse perseveres with commendable patience as long there is a sign of life in the child. In most cases the mothers of the babies are in the Workhouse, and they are allowed to go to the nursery at stated intervals to feed and otherwise attend to the requirements of the children. The playroom contains an up-to-date mechanical nurse and a very handsome rocking-horse which the boys make full use of. The elder children are accommodated in separate building, fronting Leigh-read, known as


This building has no communication with the Workhouse, and is in charge of a foster-mother and assistant, under the superintendence, of course, of the Master and Matron. It contains about 30 boys and girls. They are attired in ordinary clothes, so as not to taint them with pauperism in any way, and allowed to attend the various schools in the borough according the religions faith of their parents, when such is known. In many cases the children's parents are inmates of the Workhouse, though the children are kept in ignorance of this as much as possible. If the children are to be on the hands of the Guardians permanently the Church of England and the Nonconformists are transferred to the Cottage Homes at Culcheth, and the Roman Catholics to the homes at West Derby and Colwyn Bay.


occupies a large portion the buildings, and as far the structural arrangements will allow — it is an old building — the patients are made as comfortable as possible. Everything is wonderfully clean and sweet; nothing is spared in the matter of medical skill, surgical appliances, nourishments, or nursing. One portion of the building is devoted to cases of phthisis, better known consumption. Here the open-air treatment is in vogue. Doors and windows are open as much as the elements will allow, there is a verandah facing south, and in the grounds a large shelter has recently been erected where hammocks can fixed, or the patients walk about on a large lawn. The public money in this part of the institution is well spent, and if more was devoted to the comfort of the afflicted there would not a murmur.


number about 50 — 28 females and 24 males. They are housed in separate blocks in charge of four trained attendants. Every precaution is taken to prevent these unfortunate people doing themselves or others injury, and a padded cell is provided in case they develop dangerous symptoms. They present a pitiable sight, and most of the cases seem to be entirely hopeless. The attendants, while being of necessity firm, make every allowance that is advisable.


Adjoining the hospital are four isolation wards, two for men and two for women. I deemed it wise give this department wide berth. It is an unsavoury business, and all credit to the doctor and nurses who faithfully strive to combat this dreadful affliction.


is a very important institution, and boasts a record of turning out 1,200 articles per day all the year round, the total on some days reaching 2,000. One machine alone will take 250 shirts, and the hospital demands the washing of 700 sheets week. The greatest care is taken to classify the clothing so that there shall be be no spread of infection. Every article is stamped with the name of the ward to which it belongs, and the foul linen is dealt with separately. The drying room is kept at 160 degrees, so there is no need depend on fine weather for drying purposes.


The feeding of such a large number of people is naturally a matter of anxiety and elaborate preparation. It is no small achievement to cater for 568 people, but at the Leigh Workhouse everything is worked on a system; everyone has his or her duties to perform; the officers see to it that such duties are strictly carried out according to time-table, so all goes well from day to day. The bakery is equipped with all the latest appliances, including a modern oven which turns out bread that would credit the best private bakery; a gas roaster, steam vegetable cooker, four large stewing or boiling pans, and huge tea-urns. No less than 350 quarts of new milk are used daily, while the store-rooms are piled up with kegs of butter and margarine, cheeses, sacks of flour, beans, peas. &c., tins of currants and raisins, and all the delicacies required for the hospital such as bovril, oxo, jellies, biscuits, &c.


will accommodate about 200 people at each sitting. On Sundays it is used for service at 9-30, 3 o'clock and 6-30, for Church-people and Nonconformists. The Catholic inmates are allowed to go to their place of worship at Plank-lane. The Rev. T. B. Boss is the Church chaplain, and is assisted by the Mission Church choir. The Nonconformist services are conducted in week-days by the local Nonconformist clergy, and on Sunday evenings by Mr. Goodall and other laymen. Friends of Mr. Goodall frequently assist in the singing.


is perhaps the greatest source of anxiety of all the departments, for its inmates mainly consist of the scum of the universe, men and women, though chiefly men, who detest the name of work, who make tramping the country their profession and yet expect when they enter the workhouse at night treatment equal to that accorded to honest members of society. Unfortunately they get it; for just now, owing to unavoidable circumstances, the tramps are the most favoured of all the able-bodied inmates. A casual cannot enter the workhouse before 6 p.m., but after that hour there is no refusing him. Ten o'clock is supposed the limit — at all events the porter turns the lights low and goes to bed at that time — but if Weary Willie turns up at 1 a.m. the official must rise, attend to his wants and see his majesty safely tucked in between three blankets, on on plank bed with a straw pillow, each man or woman in separate cell. Just now the accommodation is insufficient, so some of the men have to bee accommodated in a kind of day-room, which is heated to the same temperature as the cells. In each cell is a bell communicating with the porter’s bedroom, and if at any hour of the morning Mr. Tramp may desire a drink of water as the result of too much beer the previous evening his wants have to he attended to. There are 22 cells in the men’s department, and on the evening prior to my visit there were 37 persons accommodated, thus leaving 15 to be provided for in the dayroom. When a tramp enters the building his clothes are taken from him and stoved all night, so there is risk of conveying filth to the cells, and it also tends to check the carrying of disease germs about the country. Having received a hot hath he is given pint of gruel and six ounces of bread before retiring. The regulations provide that the tramp shall be detained for two days, but so overcrowded are the cells at the present time that the Master has to send them away at eleven o’clock the following morning in order provide room for the newcomers. For their bed and breakfast they therefore only perform 2½ hours of labour — sawing timber — instead of 8½ hours. This, of course, is very pleasing to Willie.


Everything considered, I do not think public inspection desirable. Any ratepayer whose object is other than idle curiosity will at the present time find little or no difficulty in securing admission if he will communicate with any of the Guardians, but the Workhouse ought not to used for exhibition purposes as though it were art gallery. No doubt many of the hardened inmates would welcome the presence of visitors, probably in the hope getting some tobacco or perhaps drink smuggled to them, but the decent section would be pained if they were to subjected to the gaze of large numbers of the public. To be in the Workhouse is sufficient punishment to these honest poor; let us not then add to their agony by parading their trouble before the citizens to whom they are known. The ratepayers have sufficient power over the Guardians to prevent any grave irregularities occurring, and there is the further safeguard of frequent inspection by officers of the Local Government Board.


The heavy responsibility for the control of this huge household, with its varied individual temperaments, rests upon the Master and Matron. Their first duty is to carry out, both in letter and spirit, the regulations laid down by the Local Government Board, along with instructions on minor matters given by the Guardians. This they faithfully and conscientiously do, but there is a still higher duty about which the regulations are silent, but the exercise of which means so much to the inmates. Mr. and Mrs. France are capable of exercising the strongest discipline and dealing drastically with the wastrels and the unruly, but on the other hand evidence can seen in the hospital, the wards where the infirm and the aged are confined, and the children’s home, that a feeling of human sympathy exists, and a kindly leniency is exercised towards those who are deserving of it. The same spirit has been inculcated into the staff, numbering close upon 30. The nurses, in particular, deserve a word of commendation for their patience and untiring efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the unfortunate people under their charge. Everything seems to be conducted as the public would wish that it should be. Whether or not the system be at fault, one thing is certain, those in authority make the best of the prevailing conditions and exercise a good deal of common sense.

H. G.

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