A Visit to the Blean Union Workhouse, 1838

The following account, slightly abridged, is taken from letter written George Trifle, Esq., to Miss Lydia Laring, of Somerset, and published in the Kent Gazette in February 1838.

Having ascertained by inquiry that a van would leave Canterbury at nine o'clock the following morning for Herne Bay, I resolved to go by that conveyance. But when I arrived at the office door the van had been gone more than half-an-hour. Nothing now remained for me but to walk over Herne, about six miles and half. I was never very partial to walking alone, and that day felt less inclined than ever. The morning was dull, my journey, if performed, must be through drizzly rain, accompanied by cold wind, and over dirty broken roads, which you will allow were ill calculated to seduce me to walk to Herne. But the fact I had determined to go, and such being the case, nothing, save the moat urgent necessity, could have prevented me.

I accordingly started off, and having made particular inquiries concerning the road was to take, managed to pass through Sturry in safety. As I was ascending Sweech Hill, I overtook a blue-looking person, dressed in brown trowsers, black coat and waistcoat, with a white cravat, he had with him an umbrella of faded brown which served him for a walking-stick. My fellow traveller (after the usual remarks of Englishmen upon the weather) informed me that he was going to the Union Workhouse, Herne Common, at which I was not displeased, and in return for his confidence, told him I was going to the same place. The following conversation then ensued:—

I suppose, said my companion, you are one of the candidates?

Candidate! for what?

Why, have you not heard that the Board of Guardians intend electing a clerk to-day?

Not I. My object is merely to see the arrangement the building, and the inmates. Are you one of the candidates? if so, I wish you success.

Thank you, thank you (said he). I am one of the candidates. There are in all 143, but I flatter myself—however, I shall merely say my testimonials are such, that if the Board of Guardians act impartially, I have no reason to despair.

Really, I added, I congratulate you on your good fortune. The salary must be very high to induce so many persons to become candidates?

No, not much, only £80; but I was told in confidence the other day that all the lawyers in Canterbury had offered for it. However, they have not the slightest chance. If the Guardians act impartially, I need not, with my testimonials, fear all the lawyers in the kingdom.

You are very fortunate, I replied, and I am glad to learn there will be so much company where we are going.

Ah, ah. The more the merrier, I suppose you think, rejoined my companion.

Our conversation continued until we came within sight of the workhouse. There it is, said he; that's the place we're going to. How many persons have entered there, and will yet enter to-day, with high misplaced hopes, to meet only with disappointment.

Truly, I replied. But what a cold desolate place it looks; its very appearance chills me. One would scarcely think it possible hope could ever enter the doors of that building.

We were soon within-side the massy doors, and entered door way on our right hand; we then proceeded along a short passage, and went into a spacious room at the extreme end. This they told us was the Board-room. A long table down the middle was partially covered with books and papers. The Guardians had not all arrived, consequently the candidates were suffered to remain in the room. When we arrived we found one of the Guardians declaiming against a report that had gone abroad, and was highly disadvantageous to the Board. The following are the best particulars I was able to collect, but I do not vouch their accuracy.

A few weeks since, a woman far advanced in pregnancy was admitted into the House, and in consequence of refusing to work was condemned the black hole, as a just punishment for the offence. During her confinement she was said to have been delivered of twins, and the three bodies were found frozen to death about a week afterwards. This report, like many others relating to the treatment of paupers in the different Unions, was found to be wholly false. I cannot distinctly state whether anything relating to the case was entered in the minute book. As several of the other Guardians had now arrived, we were directed to go up stairs, when it turned out that, instead of 143, there were only 16 candidates. Every countenance betrayed confidence of success, but all denied any such expectations.

The letters of the different candidates were soon called for to lay before the Board. My old friend strutted up consequentially and delivered his with the others, then returning to me, he winked his eye and whispered:—There, my friend, we shall see what they will do; but mind, I don't expect to get it.

In a short time the Governor came in to know if any of us would like to go round the wards with the visitors and himself, upon which most of us got up and followed him. But before I mention the paupers, let me endeavour to give you idea of the building itself. Facing the room door in which we then were, is a large bow window, from which I shall make my observations:—The building leaves a large open square in the interior; a wall down the middle separates the male from the female paupers; opposite the window are some low buildings, probably stables, with the back of which one end of the separation wall joins. These buildings are at a sufficient distance to leave a small open space or yard, on the right hand of which is a door leading to the male paupers, and on the left side a corresponding door leading to the female paupers. There were only ground and first floors; the latter were approached by stone steps, leading on to a gallery composed of the same materials, with an iron railing round, and on to which the doors opened. Our first visit was to the kitchen. Not only here, but throughout the whole building, the greatest cleanliness prevailed. I have little to say respecting the paupers; was very agreeably surprised to observe the mode of treatment adopted towards them. They presented generally a healthy and satisfied appearance. The men were mostly engaged in picking oakum, which is afterwards sold to boatmen. But too much praise cannot be given to the Guardians for the manner in which they treat the children. The latter, when we entered, were engaged at their lessons; the books selected were all religious. Their healthy and happy countenances presented the most cheerful appearance. One young gentleman asked where the black hole was; but some one called out, Does he expect to find a ghost there? Now, whether he really expected to find a ghost, or the three frozen bodies, I am unable to say, but he looked very timid, and the question was not again put. I did not observe the person who called out, otherwise I would describe him to you, possibly you might have recognised him from your general knowledge of the people in these parts.

When we returned to the room up stairs our patience was sorely tried (for even I took an interest the matter) in waiting for the decision of the guardians. Various topics were introduced; but that which related to the object of their meeting was the only one that excited any interest, and, after various surmises, silence at length reigned amongst us. Some sat gazing upon the ceiling, probably endeavouring to decipher a few magical symbols visible them alone; others were looking at their boots, and turned their feet in every direction likely to afford them an advantageous view of those articles. The latter appeared to me to be the most sensible employment, as, doubtless, they were considering whether their understandings were sufficiently strong to perform the duties attached to the office. The heat of the room having communicated itself to the windows and occasioned a thick mist to settle thereon, the young gentleman who made the inquiries about the black-hole displayed his ability by drawing a profile with his fore-finger on of the panes of glass, which afterwards drew forth a few remarks at his expense.

The silence was not destined to be of long continuance; it was broken by some person in the room calling out, "a Quaker's meeting!" upon which another one remarked to the aforesaid ingenious young gentleman, that birds were never seen to fly over the Union building. At that instant a large raven flew close to the outside of the wall, croaking and flapping its wings. The successful candidate was absent from the room at the moment—the circumstance was ominous; and on the announcement of the choice of the guardians, after a full and deliberate discussion on the merits of each gentleman's testimonials, I found that my pedestrian companion had been unsuccessful!

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