Ancestry UK

A Walk Through Northwich Union Workhouse (1869)

In 1869, the Northwich Guardian printed the following account of a visit to the Northwich Union workhouse.


In giving a sketch of the state of this establishment, and of the management and condition of its inmates, it must not be expected that anything like the experience of the “Amateur Casual” will be afforded, or any Marylebone mismanagement will have to be chronicled. Where everything is allowed to be laid open before the public, as by a spontaneous act of the Guardians a few years ago was done, when the local organ was invited to send a reporter to attend the meetings of the Guardians, and full liberty given to publish the proceedings, and where the Guardians are appointed from the agricultural districts composing the Union, as well as from the trading and commercial interests of the towns, there is little fear of any great abuses being perpetrated, or individual crochets being permitted to override the general intelligence and good sense of the body. Our short sketch will be simply an account of an hour's unpremeditated visit to the Workhouse on Monday last, from eleven to twelve o'clock.

There are at present in the house 146 inmates consisting of 40 adult males, about the same number of adult females, and 60 children of both sexes, from two years old and upwards. There are, of course, several infants in arms belonging, in most instances, to the unfortunate class, which are sadly too common in all similar establishments.

The first thing be noticed is the cooking arrangements, and this is admirably provided for now in Benham's patent cooking apparatus for boiling, roasting, stewing, baking, supplying hot water for baths, &c., and which leaves nothing further to be desired in regard to the cuisine. For cleanliness, economy, and despatch, where large numbers have to be provided for, the advantages of this apparatus over the old pan and kettle system must be incalculable.

An inspection of the sleeping apartments was the next thing attended to. All have iron bedsteads for a single occupant, and these are arranged on each side of oblong rooms with their heads to the wall, leaving ample space to pass along the middle and between. All the beds were made very neatly by those who had used them. The sheets did not seem soiled, but clean ones were laid on each bed ready to replace the others for washing on the following morning. The rooms having windows on each side, thorough ventilation is secured, and provision is also made for this important matter by ventilators in the upper part of the wall for the expulsion of impure air, and in the lower for the admission of fresh. The floors are most scrupulously clean, causing a degree of wonder how amongst such a motley assemblage this can effected. A spacious yard on this side of the establishment has a day room for the men, and the workrooms where oakum picking and the other working arrangements are carried on. The sick wards showed a few of the men, some in bed, and others in different stages of illness, having their dinners in the way they found it most convenient to help themselves. Amongst these we observed the man who was lately found in an outhouse in Vale Royal Park, utterly helpless and apparently dying, as noticed in the Guardian, but who is now so far restored as to able to sit up and eat his dinner, though seemingly not able to use one arm, and it is to be feared that this or some other similar institution will have to be his home for life.

A visit to the female side showed a precisely similar state of things as regarded the general arrangements. The children's sleeping apartments contained beds somewhat larger so as to accommodate two in each, and the schoolmaster and schoolmistress's sleeping apartment is contiguous to these. The yard on this side has for its most conspicuous object the washing arrangements for the bedding and clothing of the inmates.

But it is now dinner time and all are standing round the two long tables in the dining hall. On entering grace is being sung, which over, all sit down. The upper end of the tables is occupied by the adults: the children, and younger females the remainder. It is amusing to notice the children some not higher than the table, as they turn round to take their seats, mechanically reach out their hand to take the bread or meat, whilst their eyes are in quite another direction, and how the food finds its way the proper receptacle.

The dinner consisted of three ounces of good boiled beef, 16 ounces of potatoes, and three ounces of bread for the adults, which certainly seemed a very substantial meal. The children have a proportionate allowance. The fare is the same on Thursday. On Tuesday the dinner consists of 1½ pints of pea-soup made from the liquor of the meat, with five ounces of bread. On Wednesday and Saturday this meal is 1½ pounds of scouse, formed of meat and potatoes, with three ounces of bread. Breakfast and supper for adults is 6½ ounces of bread with a pint and a half of milk porridge. Friday's dinner is 16 ounces of potatoes, five ounces of bread and a pint of buttermilk. The Sunday's dinner is composed of 16 ounces of suet pudding with treacle sauce, and by way of an agreeable variety tea in afternoon.

On leaving the dining hall and its important engagements in which all concerned were deeply interested, about a dozen little tots are dropped on in another room, probably in charge of an old dame not too far distant, and these miniature human beings are comfortably enjoying their dinner in every imaginable attitude of ease; a painter might here have a good study and have the opportunity of treating his subject a la Raphael. These youngsters appeared amongst the most intelligent portion of this branch of the community, and give hope to the future character the race. Amongst the large number there are, of course, a great variety of physiological development, and in a few cases amongst the children a low mental capacity is apparent, but there is no case of confirmed idiotcy; amongst the old the stages of second childhood are naturally to be found.

The yard for the girls has lately been relaid with suitable materials and covered with gravel, which seems to complete this kind of work. The repairs and painting of all the rooms inside, done by the inmates themselves principally, tends greatly to the cleanliness which everywhere exists through the house. The wonder is, knowing the general habits observable amongst the poor, that such order and cleanliness can be maintained, this without any straining or effort on the part those in authority.

A visit to the “casual wards” was of course necessary, but unfortunately on entering these were found empty, so that any desire to meet with “a case” of “gross neglect” or “cruel treatment” of some one who, through intemperance or sensual indulgence, had rendered himself helpless, was quite frustrated. Two males had domiciled in their department and one female in hers during the night, but having completed their morning's task of oakum picking — the woman one, and the men two pounds each — had departed. The applicants for this accommodation are principally young men “on the read,” or youngish women “going after their husbands.” A series of boards about a yard in width, adjoining each other, and hinged with the end to the wall, against which they rest, and are turned down for the occupants, compose the sleeping places. The “bedding” consists of simple rug, which the party can wrap round or put over him. Any more complicated bedding would soon become too active, as all the occupants would not leave together. The female ward adjoins the other, and both are locked as persons arc admitted. On the whole these places do not strike the visitor as giving any special inducements to try the luck of the road to enjoy them, and one would suppose that the “casual” would not write up Northwich either in prose or poetry as the place to make for by his associates for the night.

Rather a more pleasing subject is the school room, which, although empty for dinner, showed indications of useful work both in regard to the three “r's” and in the industrial department for the girls. About 60 children receive instruction and are also put to some work a portion of their time, the girls under Mrs. Meachin, their mistress, in sewing. &c.; and the boys, who are able, in the garden, or in other ways in which they can be useful under Mr. Meachin, the master. The state of the school has been favourably noticed by the inspector. The garden in front and the kitchen garden at the back provides useful healthy occupation for many of the inmates, but the ground at the disposal for such purpose has been considerably lessened by the new railway having taken a slice.

The Workhouse Visiting Committee is composed of the following Guardians:— Messrs. Joseph Lea, Davenham; H. Neumann, Winnington; T. Davies, Northwich; T. J. Rigby, Comberbach; A. Royle, Hartford; T. Lightfoot, Leftwich; J. Frith, Shurlach; W. Boosey. Middlewich; and the entries in their book express general satisfaction with the conduct of the house. The Government Inspector's report expresses approval in regard to the general arrangements, with the exception of some alterations which have since been made to meet his views.

We have thus given the impressions received on a visit to the Workhouse, which was rendered the more agreeable by the kindness manifested on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Anwyl, the respected governor and matron whose readiness to shew all the operations carried on under their superintendence, and to give every facility to become acquainted with them, made the visit one of pleasure, especially so to see such a number of our suffering fellow-creatures well cared for. We have so far only referred to the attention given to the bodily wants of the inmates, but at the same time ought not to omit mention of the attention paid their spiritual necessities, of which there is evidence in the attention given to these by the respected chaplain, the Rev. D. Waller, who conducts a suitable service for the inmates on Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoon, and in addition is found regularly visiting the sick and administering to them suitable consolation. Besides this the inmates are allowed to go to any place of worship at which they may feel inclined to attend. The only wish expressed on the part of Mr. Anwyl was a desire publicly to make known the fact that by far the greater portion of the adults who seek admission to the Workhouse go there directly or indirectly through the influence of drink, whilst on the other hand, during the ten years of his experience as master of a workhouse, he has never known a single instance of a teetotaller presenting a ticket of admission.

It may be interesting to know that the Northwich Union comprises 59 townships, embracing an area of 56,817 acres, and including a population of 33,329. The provisions and necessaries supplied to the inmates for the half-year ended last Lady-day cost £612 10s. 10d. The average cost of in-door maintenance, including apprentice fees, outfits, funerals, and clothing, amounted to 3s. 9d. a head.

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