Ancestry UK

Joseph Rowntree at Blackburn Workhouse, 1860

Between about 1859 and 1868, Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker from Leeds (not to be confused with his illustrious, chocolate-making namesake, Joseph Rowntree of York), conducted a vigorous one-man crusade to improve the running of workhouses and the conditions they provided for their inmates.

Below is an extract from a letter by Rowntree, published by the Blackburn Standard in February 1860, describing the Blackburn Union workhouse. The new workhouse referred to was opened in 1864.


The Blackburn Old Workhouse is in a very unsatisfactory condition. The resolution of the Board and the ratepayers to build a new workhouse is evidently a wise one. Provided the new house be built on the best plan, with a spacious hospital, and good lunatic and imbecile wards, admitting classification to be carried out; the patients duly attended by competent attendants, with a doctor who is not satisfied with a superficial walk through, but who will from time to time, really examine all the sick and dress the wounds of the paupers under his official charge, much good will result. Then, doubtless, patients will not complain, as several have done before the master of the house and myself to-day; they complain very much of serious neglect. Mc. Laven's statement was that “he was brought to the workhouse in a cab at Christmas, from an injury sustained in his hip; that he had kept his bed ever since in the hospital; that the doctor had not examined his hip during more than three weeks,” &c. This was in no way contradicted by the master, who heard this statement, whose duty might have led him to have reported this bad case, and those of Calvert and Hargreaves, who also complained to the Board, and who occupied the adjoining two beds.

Other cases might be given. The doctor's son called at the house whilst I was in the office. He is said to be under 21 years of age. There should be no palliation by the Board of Guardians. I think there is far too much reliance placed upon some doctors. One guardian informed me that they could not order blankets for the household without the doctor's instruction. They are almost without blankets on their beds; most of them have none. The house visiting committee, I learn, are not regular in their weekly attendance. There is a large number of infirm and old men in this house, and a few very capable are wasting their time when they might earn their bread with mat making, &c, and do all the work they now are doing, which is of a trivial character. The mat making pays well at Ashton and Bolton, &c. The industrial training for all, including the boys, is neglected.

Will the new house be provided with tailors', shoe makers', joiners', and mat making shops? Will it be provided with a good bakehouse and various plunge, warm, and shower baths? All these are essentials which ought to be considered and not omitted. However, I have found very costly new workhouses, from £24,000 to £44,000, recently erected, that lack most of these appendages to health and true economy. They lavish expenditure on outside decoration and avoid utility to some extent and pay the architect and builder without any consideration for the ratepayers, &c. My own aim is true economy, and to instruct boys and girls so as to enable them to grapple with the world and maintain their own independence in after life, and not be perpetuating pauperism. The school was not open for the boys. The master lives in the town and was stated to be unwell. This room and the boys looked very forlorn and dirty. Some young boys, 9 to 10 years of age, were being sent out of the house finally to work at chemical works, which are known to be very injurious to health. Their schooling will probably cease. Is this true guardianship? Lady visitors are much required. I think the matron is a humane woman.

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