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Sheffield, West Riding of Yorkshire

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Up to 1834

Sheffield Corporation's accounts from 1628 onwards record that they spent around £200 on the erection of a workhouse together with a stock of raw materials for providing employment. The construction of Sheffield's workhouse was based on others already in operation and the building's carpenters were sent to inspect the workhouse at Newark in Nottinghamshire. Sheffield's workhouse building was located on Workhouse Croft at West Bar, on what is now Paradise Street — another road at the north of the area still bears the name Workhouse Lane. The original workhouse was timber-built and stood in its own orchard. When the workhouse first opened, in about 1632, Nicholas Parkin was appointed "Master of the children," and there were bought "79 yards of blewish cloth for the apparelling of 20ty poore children putt into the Workehouse" for "cotes," and 98 "yardes of harden cloth" for forty "smockes". An expert was brought over from Chapel-en-le-Frith "to have taught children to knitt." A cow was purchased and the Master paid for agisting (grazing) it. The premises were gradually extended, with the addition of a school-house and a stable. At times, the workhouse seems to have been larger than was required for the accommodation of the poor, and some of it was let off in tenements. Robert Fisher rented a part in 1638, and in 1660 it was agreed "that Mr. James Fisher shall have and enjoy such roomes at the workhouse as were formerly in the occupation of Mr. Whittaker, under the yearly rent of three poundes."

In 1722, the town records note the "building of new Almshouses in West Barr" while 1733 saw the "first opening of the house of maintenance for the poor". It is not completely clear if these are references to the same site, but the latter is presumably to the brick building, enlarged in 1759, that was to continue in use until 1829.

Discipline in the workhouse was strict: in 1746, two of the female inmates, caught conveying a linen sheet and three breadths of blue lindsey to a receiver at the White Horse in Gregory Row, just over the yard wall, were first relegated to "the black hole," and afterwards "whipt," by order of the Overseers and Churchwardens. The Workhouse accounts contain many evocative entries, e.g., "1759. To William Roberts's funeral, 1s. 6d.; to bread for the same, 1s. 6d.; for bleeding a child with horse leeches, 2d.; for the books carrying to church, 4d."

By 1776, the Sheffield workhouse could accommodate up to 160 inmates. A report in 1795 by Sir Frederic Eden noted that:

Of the Poor of Sheffield, 148 persons, (who are mostly old and infirm, lunatics, soldiers' wives, or young children,) are, at present, in the work-house. Some of them are employed in spinning wool and lint, for flockings, shirts, sheets, and other articles for the use of the house. Men, who are able to work, are sent out to various employments in the town. The earnings of the work-house are, upon an average, about £170 a year.

The work-house is situated in an airy part of the town. The staircases are narrow and steep: the lodging-rooms about 9 feet 6 inches square, with 2 beds in each; except in one, which is rather larger, and contains 6 beds: the beds and pillows are filled with chaff: each is provided with 2 coarse Sheets, a coverlet, and I blanket, of the woollen manufacture of the house. The whole number of beds is 43. Two, three, and, sometimes, even four, Paupers sleep in a bed.

The following is the usual bill of fare: it is, however, somewhat varied in summer, when milk-pottage is occasionally served for breakfast and supper.

Breakfast.Dinner.Supper.
Sunday,Water-pottage, gravy, (forming a sort of soup,) and bread.Beef, bread, broth, and potatoes; or cabbage, and beer.Broth and bread.
Monday,Same as Sunday.Puddings and sauce, and beer.Bread and beer.
Tuesday,Same as Sunday.Same as Sunday.As Sunday.
Wednesday,Same as Sunday.Same as Monday.As Monday.
Thursday,Same as Sunday.Same as Sunday.As Sunday.
Friday,Same as Sunday.Same as Monday.As Monday.
Saturday,Same as Sunday.Cheese, bread, and beer.Milk-pottage, and bread.

The Poor are allowed to carry their breakfasts and suppers into their lodging-rooms ; but must eat their dinners in the hall, and leave on the table what they cannot consume. 3 oz. of cheese are allowed, on cheese days, to grown persons. The dinners, at Easter, and Whitsuntide, are veal, bacon, and plum-pudding.

The old people dine first: what they leave, forms part of the dinner of the children. The food is plentiful and good.

Although the West Bar area has been greatly altered and redeveloped in recent times, a small road named Workhouse Lane still exists, with an adjacent car park.

Sheffield's Workhouse Lane car park, 2010.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In 1812-15, during a national shortage of coins, Sheffield was one a several urban workhouses at that period to issue poor relief in the form of specially minted tokens which could be used at local shops and then redeemed by shop-keepers. The coin depicts a large building which was presumably the workhouse in use at the time.

Sheffield 1815 workhouse token.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In 1829, a former cotton mill on Kelham Street at the north of Sheffield's city centre, was purchased at a cost of £7,500 to replace the Workhouse Croft establishment. The new premises could house about 600 inmates. The old workhouse site was then sold for £970.

Kelham Street workhouse site, 1849.

The Kelham Street workhouse clearly catered for a wide variety of inmates as indicated by the presence of blocks marked Hospital, Asylum, and Boys' School.

In 1777, a parliamentary survey recorded workhouses in use at Attercliffe with Darnall (for up to 24 inmates) and Brightside Bierlow (24 inmates). In 1822, Eccleshill had a workhouse on Sharrow Moor.

The township of Brightside had its own workhouse in Pitsmoor, at the east side of Rock Street. The building was erected in 1801 at a cost of £1,140 and replaced an earlier one also at Pitsmoor. It was a substantial establishment, complete with its own porter's lodge, and could accommodate up to 250 althoug the average number in 1835 was 58. In 1836, the Governor, rate collector, and vestry clerk was Mr George Sykes, and the matron was Mrs Housley.

Brightside workhouse site, 1849.

After 1834

Sheffield Poor Law Union was officially declared on 30th June 1837. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 11 in number, representing its 3 constituent townships as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

West Riding: Attercliffe-cum-Darnall (2), Brightside Bierlow, Sheffield (8).

The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 71,720 — Attercliffe-cum-Darnall (3,741), Brightside Bierlow (8,968), and Sheffield (59,011). The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1834-6 had been £13,599 or 3s.10d. per head of the population.

The new Sheffield Union decided to continue using the Kelham Street workhouse and also retained the Brightside workhouse which was used for the accommodation of children.

The Kelham Street workhouse was enlarged in 1843 at a cost of £6,000. However, the building increasingly suffered from overcrowding, and also had no provision for caring for the sick. In 1855, the Sheffield Board of Guardians were visited by the Poor Law Inspector for the district, Mr Farnham, who strongly encouraged them to build a new workhouse. The following year, the Board set about buying land for a new building. However, the local ratepayers were strongly opposed to the scheme and in 1856 and 1857 voted out the old members of the Board. In the end, £6,000 was spent on alterations at Kelham Street. In 1874, the Board proposed buying additional land at Kelham Street to expand the workhouse site. However, the Local Government Board vetoed this and instead a green-field site at Fir Vale was found on which to erect a new workhouse.

Hollow Meadows Workhouse / Industrial School

In 1848, the Sheffield Guardians leased from the Duke of Norfolk about fifty acres of moorland, at Hollow Meadows, about six miles from the town, with a view to reclaiming it by pauper labour. An ancillary workhouse was established on the site. Nearly the whole of the land was brought under cultivation and sub-let to farm tenants. "The Farm", as it was called, was retained by the Guardians and, in times of bad trade, able-bodied men in need of poor relief were sent to labour at it.

The new venture was the subject of a report by The Builder magazine:

Sheffield Hollow Meadows Builder report, 1848.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In 1879, the workhouse site became an "Industrial School" where persistent school truants were detained. The buildings were enlarged in 1887 and could accommodate around 90 children. The site later became Hollow Meadows Hospital which was closed by 1981. The site was then sold for redevelopment and the buildings have now been converted to housing.

Sheffield Hollow Meadows site, 1854.

Sheffield Hollow Meadows site from the south-east, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale Workhouse

The 44.5 acre site at Fir Vale was purchased in September 1874 at a cost of £16,800. The new workhouse, which was expected to have a total cost of £180,000, was designed by James Hall. The foundation stone for the building was laid on 16th September 1878 by Alderman Searle, Chairman of the Sheffield Guardians.

The formal opening was almost exactly three years later, on September 22nd 1881, although the workhouse had actually already been in use since the previous year. At the time of the opening 1,188 paupers were in residence in the main building, with a further 365 in the hospital. The opening ceremony took place in very bad weather at 3pm when a large party of invited guests were given a tour of the buildings by Alderman Richard Searle (Chairman of the Guardians), Mr Spencer (Clerk), Mr John Heastie (Workhouse Master), and Mrs Annie Heastie (Matron).

A contemporary account relates that:

The visitors were conducted through the house by Alderman Searle. ... They were much interested, not only with what they saw in the aged and infirm wards, but with the departments for the able bodied, and especially the workshops, where the "timber merchants", as the industrious paupers were familiarly called, were busy cutting firewood, of which about five tons are sold weekly. In the female wards there were several curious incidents. One old dame, who had a clay pipe concealed in her bosom, pleaded earnestly for a bit of tobacco, and did not rest until she got it. Another poor woman, an imbecile, said, "I am going to heaven for twenty one years, and have some rags under my bed to clean the windows". In the hospital there were some pityful pictures of human suffering, but here, as is the case indeed throughout the vast building, every effort is made to lighten the burden of poverty and sickness. The gigantic kitchen aroused some wonder, and so did the bread store, where 2,600 loaves are cut up every week for use in the house. One of the most cheering sights was the school, where the boys and girls who had been busy at their lessons, sang admirably on the entrance of the visitors. "When there's love at home" was the song they gave, and it is to be hoped that these children, when they have quitted the workhouse, and made their own way in the world, will fully realise by their own firesides that "peace and plenty oft abide when there's love at home."

At 5pm, the guests dined in the Committee Room, after which Alderman Searle formally declared the workhouse open and gave a speech in which he said:

They had spent a lot of money and the people of Sheffield would have to pay it. (Laughter) He could assure the ratepayers the guardians had been exceedingly careful how they had spent the money. They had not spent it recklessly, but had tried to get value for their money. They had spent the money well, and had got something durable. The buildings would not tumble down in a year or two, they were commodious and substantial , and second to none he had seen in the kingdom. (Applause). Concluding, he hoped that, with the spread of education, pauperism would decrease, and that the people would be more careful, thoughtful, and thrifty, so that the time might arrive when the workhouse would not be required (Applause).

After other toasts and speeches, the evening concluded with a performance by Mr H Makin and his Glee Party.

The new building had six main sections:

  • A main building which would accommodate up to 1,800 inmates.
  • An asylum to the south, accommodating a total of 200 in two pavilion wings, mean at the east, women at the west.
  • A school building for 200 children, situated to the north.
  • A hospital building to the west, accommodating 366 patients in a number of pavilions.
  • A fever hospital, further to the west.
  • Vagrants' wards at the south-eastern entrance to the site.

The layout of the site can be seen on the 1890 map below:

Fir Vale workhouse site, 1890.

Fir Vale entrance gates, c.1910.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale main building from the north-east, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale main building entrance from the north-east, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale hospital pavilions from the north-west, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale fever hospital from the east, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Fir Vale school building from the south-east, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

An insight into life at the Fir Vale workhouse is provided in an 1896 report by Mr Rutherfourd John Pye-Smith, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Sheffield University, and Consultant at the Royal Hospital). In the course of an investigation of the workhouse system, he visited Fir Vale and his account of what he found was sent to the Editor of the Sheffield Daily Star in August 1896.

24 August, 1896.

Sir, — The day after my visit to Ecclesall, I went, provided with a kind note from the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, to the workhouse of the Sheffield Union. It was a bright morning, and the beautiful situation of the establishment, and its long avenues of poplars, bright with nasturtium borders, and the well-timbered wood beyond, were quite refreshing. A few men were at work, wheeling earth, in the field, where were also a crop of oats and large quantities of vegetables. But then the "Great House!" a block of buildings close on a quarter of a mile long, with isolated blocks springing up all over the estate. Some of these are the "Cottage Homes", large houses one might call them, but cottages, indeed, compared with this great pauper palace. The date on the foundation stone is September, 1878, and the house has been in use for 15 or 16 years. It has accommodation for 1,748 inmates.
   On asking to see the Master, 1 found that he was away, but the Matron very kindly offered to take me over the institution. In a bright-looking grass-yard a few old women were walking about, their ugly uniform spoiling what might otherwise have been a pleasant picture. The first room we entered was the sewing room, where some 60 or more old women were busily engaged making the same ugly garments that they are forced to wear. Passing through one of the day-rooms, where a few books seemed to be the only source of recreation, we came to the Nursery, where in their quaint little cage-like cradles, infants were being attended by infirm old women. How unlike the bright young nursemaids one sees in ordinary life! We have recently been told why the babies are considerately removed from such influences when they arrive at three years of age! The poor little mites have only a dreary asphalted yard to take their out-door exercise in.
   The next was, indeed, a dismal room, but happily it was empty. It is for able-bodied women who misconduct themselves in the house, or who are constantly returning after their discharge. On an average there are half-a-dozen here every day. They sit here, with no outlook through the windows, and pick two pounds of unbeaten oakum a day. The work makes their fingers sore at first, but not to the extent of blistering them.
   We then passed through several dormitories, on the doors of which is marked the cubic space of each room, and the number of occupants. About 440 cubic feet of air per person seems to be generally allowed. It is none too much, though well over the minimum allowed by the Local Government Board.
   I was glad to find that the pauper wards-women have no authority over the inmates, their duties being cleaning only. The doors of the dormitories are locked from outside at night, and, indeed, locked doors during the day time seem almost universal throughout the building, but, inside a glass case, which can be broken in case of fire or other need, a key hangs near the door in almost every room.
   The next department seen was the laundry, where about 20,000 articles are washed every week! A dozen women, out-workers, get 1s. 6d. a day and their three meals for working here. Besides these, about 30 of the able-bodied inmates assist the two paid laundry women. In other parts of the house out-workers receive 1s. 3d. a day and their meals for scrubbing. These are women without children. The extra 3d. a day earned by the women in the laundry is for the support of their children! There is apparently plenty of work in the house to occupy all the able-bodied women. It is with the able-bodied men, in times of bad trade, and when most outside work is stopped by frost, that the Guardians seem to experience the greatest difficulty.
   After a glance at the dining hall, where, but for the addition of pepper pots, the scene presented much the same appearance as at Ecclesall, we went to the kitchen, and I was invited to taste the dinner of the day, which happened to be soup. I was rash enough to take a breakfast cupful, with a piece of their excellent bread, and I paid the penalty of a severe attack of indigestion. A professional cook and five bakers are employed here, and have half-a-dozen inmates to assist them. Black beetles, as at Ecclesall, are a great nuisance, and occasionally get into the food, but vigorous steps are being taken to decimate them.
   In the stores I saw specimens of the milk, which is tested daily, and is on the whole very satisfactory, 145 gallons are consumed every day! It might be well to have the margarine and other provisions analysed occasionally. Large quantities of clothing were seen in another part of the stores. Exactly the same articles of underclothing are given to every inmate according to sex and age — an arrangement I have known to act harshly and injuriously in individual instances.
   The Lunatic Asylum was next visited. Both male and female day rooms are provided with a piano, which, when a good performer is obtainable, must exercise a most beneficial influence. In the male ward, a poor old Scripture reader was pathetically singing hymns to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"! The hospital wards are, most of them, very bright, the decoration of the walls and the fine show of flowers giving an aspect of cheerfulness which forms a pleasing contrast to the rest of the institution. Previous to the introduction of trained nursing, six years ago, the nursing, I was told, was done by a staff of seven untrained women. Now, there are as many as 36 nurses. Much of their time is, however, occupied in attending to the bed-linen and clothing of the patients.
   Passing through the dispensary and operation room, we were shown the manufacture of aerated waters, which, by means of a machine lately purchased, are supplied to the hospital and other parts of the institution at a surprisingly cheap and rapid rate.
   The married people's quarters were not on view, in consequence of classification alterations. There are at present four such couples in the institution, but provision is being made for nine old couples near the old site, and for about 20 more at Goddard Hall. They are to have a day-room and a bath-room to every nine persons.
   Taking leave of the matron, who had so courteously devoted three or four hours to showing me over the main building, and finding that I should not have time to visit the Children's Homes, I was now conducted to the casuals' quarters.
   The general plan of the casual block is similar to that at Ecclesall, but the Tramp Master has two paid assistants under him. The porter's wife looks after the women and children. The numbers of late have considerably exceeded 6,000 a year, giving a weekly average of 120. No stone-breaking has been done here for the last three months, the Corporation not requiring it; 13 cwt. of granite is the quantity given for a day's task. The casuals present at the time of my visit were all engaged in cutting wood. I was told that, perhaps, three-quarters of the casuals are chronic tramps, and that drink is the main cause of their falling out of the ranks of honest labour, into which their very appearance must make it well nigh impossible for them ever again to enter.

Fir Vale vagrants' drying room, date unknown.
Courtesy of Northern General Hospital Archive, Sheffield.

   I went home, wondering that we citizens of Sheffield should be so apathetic to the final lot of many who have helped to build our city's reputation, and to create the wealth that abounds in its suburbs, that those who undertake the work of dealing with the destitute seem so blind to the evils inseparable from pauper palaces, and that practical Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century has found no better way than this for meeting the needs of the poor; and I felt, with Wordsworth —
    Have I not reason to lament?
    What man has made of man?
   Whilst admitting to the full the great improvements effected of late by the Guardians in the working of the Poor-Laws, the removal of the children from the workhouse being the most conspicuous, the most valuable, and the most hopeful, and whilst gladly admitting, from personal inspection, that the Fir Vale workhouse appears to be generally well and carefully managed as an institution, there are as yet, I think, many occasions for criticism. The vast size of the building must make it impossible for anyone to know all that goes on within its walls, and the enormous number of inmates must render it utterly impracticable for anyone to show personal interest in each one. On the same account the hateful system of locking every door is perhaps almost inevitable, since it must be a question between the paupers being locked or lost! The same lack of suitable occupation for the old and infirm is noticeable, as at Ecclesall, with the same absence of interest and hope in almost every face. The common rooms of the able-bodied are, I think, disgracefully lacking in the smallest attempt at anything comfortable or elevating. The conditions of the casual and of the out-worker are very similar to those found at Ecclesall, and are open to similar criticism. The evils of pauper superintendence, though not entirely absent, are much less apparent than at Ecclesall, owing to the greater proportion of paid assistants in the various departments. The numbers of the medical staff and of the nursing staff, in proportion to the number of patients approach much more' nearly than at Ecclesall to those usual at charitable hospitals. The sick wards are bright, and a piano has recently been purchased for use in various parts of the institution. The uniform of the women is in every respect about as bad as it can be. Why should it be uniform at all? Surely the numbers dealt with would render variety as easily attainable as uniformity. A workhouse badge is as repulsive to adults as it is harmful to children. The regulations for visiting and leave of absence are, I think, unnecessarily restricted, in spite of the occasional luxury of a stroll in the wood. The diet, which I propose to discuss more fully in another letter, is in many respects extremely unsatisfactory. The entire absence of tea from the dietary of all under 60 years of age, women as well as men, is a great mistake, and is on a par with the great restriction in the allowance of tobacco to the old men, not a quarter of whom seem to get it. What will the wives of the Guardians say when they hear that the women who work hard at Fir Vale all day never get a taste of tea? This brings me to my last criticism. A great deal might be done here, as at Ecclesall, by the appointment of a Ladies' Visiting Committee.
   Finally, I must repeat my conviction that, if the Guardians would look at the questions which must constantly be presenting themselves to them "from the point of view and feeling of the helpless poor," that is, if they would put themselves in their place, the conclusions arrived at would be more satisfactory than they have often been. Why not start a Poor-Law Discussion Society? If our Guardians and others who take an interest in the welfare of our poor, ladies as well as gentlemen, and some of the poor themselves, could meet once a month for the friendly discussion of questions of principle and of detail, of schemes of legislative reform, as well as of administration, such mutual interchange of opinion might, I should hope, bear good fruit.
    I am, yours truly,
      R.J. PYE-SMITH.

The diet in the workhouse at the time of Mr Pye-Smith's visit comprised:

  • Breakfast (at 6.30am in summer, 7.30am in winter) — milk porridge and bread, or coffee and bread on Sundays. The elderly were allowed butter and tea instead of porridge
  • Dinner (at noon) — boiled beef and potatoes, or hash (meat/potatoes/onions), or thick soup, each of which was served two or three times a week. Occasionally fish replaced the boiled beef.
  • Supper (at 6pm) — as breakfast.

Meals were eaten in the large dining hall where males and females were segregated. The tip-up seats created a lot of noise when the inmates stood up.

Fir Vale rear of main building and dining hall from the north, 2001.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In 1896, in order to provide work for the inmates and also a source of cheap fresh food, the Guardians took out a lease on Doe Royd Farm. A Farm Committee was formed to manage its 160 acres and by 1903 the farm was running at a profit and also supplying all the workhouse's milk requirements. In 1906, Longley Hall Farm was also acquired for the sum of £10,500.

A nurses' home was erected in the late 1890s at the south-west of the workhouse.

On 21st March 1906, the Local Government Board issued an order to separate the hospital from the remainder of the site, renaming it Sheffield Union Hospital. It gradually became known as Fir Vale Hospital. After 1912, the workhouse officially became known as Fir Vale House Poor Law Institution.

Fir Vale inmates, c.1910.
Courtesy of Northern General Hospital Archive, Sheffield.

On 1st April 1930, control of the workhouse passed to the Sheffield Public Assistance Committee who renamed it Fir Vale House. On the same date, Fir Vale Hospital came under the control of the Council Health Committee who changed its name to the City General Hospital. After the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948, the whole site became the City General Hospital, then in 1967 was renamed the Northern General.

Fir Vale site, 1923.

Lyn Howsam's study of Fir Vale reveals that virtually the only record of workhouse life is the punishment register:

It seems on the whole to consist of people who were guilty of not returning on time after being allowed a pass to leave the grounds either to attend Church or visit friends and relatives. These were in the main the habitual offenders who persistently returned late and drunk, some just an hour or two late, others several days late. Some took their own discharge at this point and were to be punished should they bother to return at a later date. Many were not to be punished for being late as it was stated they were 'too feeble' or 'infirm' hence their lateness. Some, for that very same reason, were not to be allowed out again. 74 year old Henry Lee was punished for attempting to abscond over the wall, having been stopped six times previously. William James Day, 72 years old, 'returned drunk and committed a nuisance in front of Nurse Dobson'. A few were arrested by the police. John Hamilton who returned late and worse for drink put the blame on his nephew for putting whisky in his tea. Tom Lilley was drunk and insulted not only his wife, but also the storekeeper, a nurse and some visitors on the drive. He was also said to have caused a disturbance in the dining hall.
   Punishments ranged from meals consisting of just bread and water to that of being sent to D block and passes were stopped occasionally, or sometimes for good, for the more persistent offenders. Some were eventually classed as too ill or infirm to be ever allowed out again.
   Classes D block (later known as Ward 28/Dryden) was for all those who were decidedly bad. The accommodation was purposefully inferior with forms rather than seats. Older, patched clothing was used for the inmates. Luxuries such as broth, sugar, tea, butter and cheese were denied the inmates and there were no extras allowed such as snuff or tobacco. The punishment cell would accommodate the offender until the Master took action. Crimes also included swearing, refusing to work and violence.
   Mr C L Marshall, Lodge Porter, who retired in 1965, commented in the Hospital Journal — 'Whenever I visit Dryden Ward I remember the time it housed 276 men of all characters completely lacking entertainment; they remedied this by amusing themselves singing and playing the mouth organ. The supreme form of entertainment was the boxing booth. This was composed of two heavy tables laid side by side acting as the ring. The contestants wearing their waistcoats, having placed their legs through their armholes making them appear as shorts. The timekeeper had a watch and an old fashioned spittoon as a gong. Charge for admission was one cigarette, mostly handrolled from tea-leaves. On occasions the doctor came along and was allowed in for free. Many of the contestants were professional boxers. (This was the late 1920s.)'

Those arriving at Fir Vale were greeted by:

Large iron gates with the porters' lodge at one side of the long drive, lit at night with gas lamps that cast shadows through the trees and bushes. When the fog came down it was like a long road to nowhere. At the top of the drive was the main building with the clock tower. Three long corridors with three wards at each end. Each ward consisted of an ambulant ward, a sick ward and one containing cot beds. Other large buildings were situated in different parts of the grounds. To the left of the drive were two large buildings separated with their own drive. These were closed wards, the doors of which were always kept locked. Only the senior staff had the keys that were kept on a chain attached to their uniforms. Just through the iron gates to the left of the lodge was the reception ward, which was where the tramps, entering it via the doorway on Herries Road, asked for a bed for the night. Families with nowhere to go were admitted — the workhouse being their last resort. Husband and wives were separated, the men set to work in the garden or chopping wood while the women cleaned and scrubbed the floors. The children too were expected to help. No money was given, just food and shelter, the meals plain and monotonous. In the Thirties when no work could be found many families split up. The husband would leave and the rest of the family would be thrown out of their homes when the rent wasn't paid.
   A large building at the very top of the drive was where the older men, now disabled and unable to look after themselves were housed. They mostly had no relatives and were no longer able to work in the gardens. On the ground floor was a very large room with a wooden floor around which was placed wooden armchairs their backs against the walls. Each man had his own chair. Meals were eaten at the long tables and the only pleasure were boxes of dominoes donated by a charity. The days, weeks and months must have seemed endless. Beds on the wards were close together with no room for private possessions. Clothes were taken from a communal pile of clean shirts, trousers, vests, pants and socks. It was hit and miss as to whether they would fit. Once a week everyone had a bath and it was written down in a book with the date and the time. Young girls, who became pregnant out of wedlock, would be turned out onto the streets by their families for bringing shame on them all. They would turn up at the workhouse where they would be taken to one of the closed wards. When their babies were born they were taken away from them. These girls were classed as being of loose morals and were kept locked up. Eventually they became institutionalised and unable to look after themselves.

Life at the workhouse wasn't without its lighter moments however. By the early 1900s, a sports day was held each year with races held on the ground at the east of the main building.

Fir Vale Sports Day, c.1909.
© Peter Higginbotham.

A 1902 Photo Album

A vivid glimpse of life at Fir Vale is provided by a unique collection of photographs taken in 1902, after Duncan Ernest Elijah Burgess and his wife Eliza Ann (née Lewis) became Master and Matron. Their great-granddaughter Pamela Repussard has very kindly allowed their reproduction here. In 1881, Duncan had been working at the West Derby Workhouse, Walton on-the-Hill, and Eliza was at the Union Workhouse School at Kirkdale, Lancs. In 1893 they were married in Walton, then in 1895 became Master and Matron of Fulham Workhouse, London. At some point they were in charge at Skipton Workhouse, then in 1902 took over Fir Vale. Sadly, Eliza died later that year and Duncan then left to become a 'gentleman farmer'.

Fir Vale entrance to main building from the east, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale men's ward, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale women's ward, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale women's ward (detail), 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale Lying-in Ward, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale Lying-in Ward, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale nursery, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale nursery (detail), 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale kitchens, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale nurses' home, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale staff sitting room, 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

Fir Vale staff sitting room (detail), 1902.
© Pamela Repussard.

The above pictures appear to be from a 'souvenir' photo album of the workhouse compiled in around 1900. It's possible that other similar albums may still survive. If you know of such an album, the Northern General Archive at Fir Vale would be delighted to hear from you - please email ngh.archives@blueyonder.co.uk

Scattered Homes

After the opening of the new workhouse, the Sheffield Guardians turned its attention to finding the most satisfactory way of caring for its pauper children. In 1888, 40 children were placed in private homes in a "boarding-out" scheme — what we would now term fostering. Plans were then developed for a new scheme of care which was to become widely adopted by other unions. The "isolated homes" system was devised in 1893 by J Wycliffe Wilson, Chairman of the Sheffield Board of Guardians. Isolated homes, or scattered homes as they became more commonly known, placed small groups of children in ordinary houses scattered around the suburbs of the city, under the care of a foster-parent employed by the union. Unlike cottage home village sites which usually had their own schools, the children in scattered homes attended ordinary local Board schools and mixed with other children in the local neighbourhood. The placing of homes was arranged such that there were never more than 30 scattered homes children attending any one school. The first homes were opened in October, 1893.

A 1907 Report by Report by the union's Children's Homes Committee outlined the main features of the scattered homes system as follows:

  • It ensures that no children over the age of three ever enter the Workhouse. It is applicable to ALL children, not to "Orphan and Deserted" only.
  • It provides Homes for the children approximating as closely as possible to the conditions of working-class life.
  • It secures a training and development on natural lines apart from pauper associations and artificial arrangement.
  • It keeps the children within reach of the effective oversight of the Guardians and their officers.
  • It scatters the children among the ordinary population in different suburbs of the city, and prevents the aggregation of any large number in one place.
  • It permits the attendance of the children at Public Elementary Day Schools in numbers sufficiently small to prevent their presence being specially noticeable.
  • It results in the attendance of comparatively small numbers at a considerable number of different Churches, Chapels, and Sunday Schools.
  • It allows the children the opportunity of attending Evening Classes, Bands of Hope, and other Juvenile Societies along with other children.
  • It secures the mixing of the children with boys and girls occupying superior social positions, as companions and friends.
  • It secures some of the best features of the Boarding Out and Village Cottage Homes Systems.
  • It secures the interest, and in some cases the active co-operation, of some of the best men and women in the city.
  • It is applicable to all large Unions, and with sonic slight modification to small ones also.

A Central or Headquarters home was located on Smilter Lane (now Herries Road), at the south of the main workhouse site (see map above). It included three children's houses used for those children who were frequently in and out, or whose behaviour required close attention. The three homes, known as Rose, Hawthorn and Ivy Cottages, had bare floors and hard beds, but were also light and airy, with plastered walls, and were decorated with pictures and flowers.

Southern part of Fir Vale site, 1905.

The Headquarters Home acted as an administrative and supply centre for the other scattered homes, and also provided a receiving house for accommodating up to twenty new arrivals. The site incorporated an old house called Goddard Hall, initially used as a home for Roman Catholic children, and later used as a communal building and fitted out with a tailor's shop in which to provide training for the boys.

Sheffield HQ Homes - Goddard Hall, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The opening of the Central Homes in November 1894 was the subject of a report in the Building News:

SHEFFIELD.—The cottage homes, built by the Sheffield board of guardians at a cost of £30,000, were opened by Sir Walter Foster, M.P., on Saturday. The buildings are situated on the Goddard Hall estate, in Smilter-lane, Crabtree. The administrative block contains a waiting-room, medical officer's and examination-rooms, with bath, sitting-rooms for the foster parents, kitchen, separate day-rooms for boys and girls, lavatories, baths, and store-rooms. In the same building the residence for the superintendent is placed, so as to command the entrance from the road and the various buildings. The three detached homes which at present complete the headquarters, each have a piece of garden, a playground, a shed, and a washhouse. The children's hospital is on the same estate. Mr. C.J. Innocent, George-street, Sheffield, has been the architect; Messrs. George Longden and Son, Neepsend, were the contractors; and Mr. George Malpas, the clerk of works.

Sheffield HQ Homes - commemorative plaque, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

New arrivals at the receiving house were given a bath, haircut, and medical inspection. Their own clothes (often only rags) were sent to be laundered and stored, although had to be worn if the children visited their own parents. The children, unless suffering from health or other problems, were then assigned to one of the scattered homes.

Sheffield HQ Homes - administrative building, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

A separate children's hospital building was also included in the scheme at the north of the homes, shown in the picture below.

Children at the Sheffield HQ cottage Homes, 1903.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Although none of the headquarters' children's houses survive, one of the original playshed/washhouse blocks from the rear of the houses still exists.

Sheffield HQ Homes - playsheds/washhouse, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Initially, nine scattered homes were set up, each containing between fifteen and twenty-eight beds. Seven were allocated to Protestant children, and two to Roman Catholics. Each house was presided over by a foster mother, assisted in the household work by the elder children and an occasional charwoman. By 1911, the number of homes in the scheme had risen to around 30 as listed below:

Home no.AddressFoster parent(s)
112 UpperthorpeMiss Hannah Evans
214 UpperthorpeMrs G Gelder
3149 UpperthorpeMiss A Gilbert
4151 UpperthorpeMiss Ethel J Dronfield
514 Abbeyfield RoadMiss Sarah Annie Stringer
616 Abbeyfield RoadMiss Lucy Woodhead
792 Andover Street (boys)Mrs Bertha Woolhouse
8aDaisy Cottage (RC), Smilter LaneMis H Donavan
8bFern Cottage (RC), Smilter LaneMiss E Byron
9Ivy Cottage, Smilter LaneMr & Mrs Thomas Leeming
10Rose Cottage, Smilter LaneMiss M Morton & Miss Artindale
11Receiving House, Smilter LaneJoe Fawcett Sykes (Supt); Mrs Mary Sykes (Matron); Mr & Mrs Thomas Slater
12279 Grimesthorpe RoadMrs Jennie Crooks
13281 Grimesthorpe RoadMiss Susie Martin Coleman
1471 Scott RoadMiss Harriet Eyre
1573 Scott RoadMrs Mary Emma Whitehead
16399 City RoadMiss Florence Hobbis
17401 City RoadMrs Alice Turton
18Manor LaneMiss Clara Mallender
19Manor LaneMiss Mary Colley
20521 City RoadMrs E Letts
21523 City RoadMiss SA Haslam
2275 Duchess RoadMiss Kate M Nicholson
2377 Duchess RoadMiss Annie Hawkins
24278 Edmund RoadMiss Harriet M Teeling
25280 Edmund RoadMiss Kate Stewart
26110 Heeley Bank RoadMrs Agnes Mary Girdler
27112 Heeley Bank RoadMiss May Lowe
28196 Heeley Bank RoadMiss Laura Gibbons
29198 Heeley Bank RoadMiss MA Nuttall

Sheffield scattered homes (149-151 Upperthorpe), 1898.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Sheffield scattered homes, 1898.
© Peter Higginbotham.

14-16 Abbeyfield Road - one of Sheffield's first scattered homes, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Despite being "ordinary" houses, Sheffield's homes appear to have been purpose-designed. The Grimesthorpe Road homes were clearly based on the same plan as Abbeyfield Road.

279-281 Grimesthorpe Road, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The Scott Road homes had a different though distinctive design.

71-73 Scott Road, 1903.
© Peter Higginbotham.

71-73 Scott Road, 2006.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Although the foster parents were carefully chosen, several instances occurred of a foster parent beating a child, or instructing other children to do so. In January 1896, Mr and Mrs Hunt — foster parents in the Central Home — were dismissed after a boy was roughly treated. The children's teeth were sometimes neglected. Mr Tolputt, a dentist employed by the Guardians, found that in one house there were only seven toothbrushes between twenty-two boys. An official inspection of the homes in May 1896 found that four out of fifteen house-mothers, and five out of eight married couples, had resigned as listed in the following table.

No. of Home.Foster-ParentsStill in Office.Resigned.Cause of Resignation as stated by Superintendent.
1MotherNoHealth broke down and not sufficiently energetic.
2MotherYes
3MotherYes
4MotherNoYesMother was a wife separated from her husband. Asked to resign because she continued to invite to the home a man whom she could not marry.
4MotherNoYesIll-treated children and did not keep their heads clean.
4MotherIn charge of another home
4MotherYes
5MotherNoYesStayed away all night without leave.
5MotherYes
6MotherYes
7Father and motherNoYes, recently.Mother's health, failed. (The clothing of the boys seen by us at this home showed much-went of care.)
7Father and motherYes, just appointed.
8Father and motherNoYesBoth incompetent.
8Father and motherNoYesIncompetent.
8MotherYes
9Father and motherYes
10Father and motherNoYesBoth ill-used the children.
11MotherNow a relief mother
11MotherYes
12MotherYes
13MotherYes
Receiving HouseFather and motherNoYesIncompetent.
Receiving HouseFather and motherYes

The inspectors' report suggested that the salary paid to house parents (£18 a year for a mother, £40 for a married couple, with board and lodging) should be reviewed. The report made a number of detailed criticisms of the operation of the homes, such as a lack of mixing with local children outside of school, arrangements for parental visits, and the presence of nits on some children's heads. However, the report concluded:

The advantages that very few of the children are exposed even temporarily to the evil influences of workhouse life, though not by any means restricted to this particular system, is a very great one, and has been carefully maintained. The breaking up of aggregations has been the aim of cottage homes for many years past, but the special feature of the Sheffield plan is to so distribute the little groups of children that they may be merged as far as possible in the population. Much credit is due to the guardians for the initiation of this principle, and so far as regards co-mingling in the elementary schools the scheme has been highly successful.

On 26th March 1942, the premises at 71-73 Scott Road re-opened as a Girls' Hostel. There was accommodation for 14 female girls over the age of 15, most of whom worked out in the community.

Smilter Lane Aged Homes

In 1896-7, a block of eight single-roomed cottages, known as Fir Vale Cottages, was erected at the east of the Children's Central Home on Smilter Lane. The homes were formally opened in October 1867 by the Lord Mayor of Sheffield (the Duke of Norfolk) who was presented with an inscribed silver key. Each room measured fourteen feet by eleven feet and accommodated aged and infirm people of good character over the age of 60, either a married couple, two men, or two women. A caretaker's house lay at the centre of the block, with four cottages at each side.

Sheffield Aged Homes, c.1897.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Staff

Inmates

Records

Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.

  • Sheffield Archives, 52 Shoreham Street, Sheffield S1 4SP. Holdings comprise: Guardians' minute books (1890-1930 with gaps), Punishments register. The majority of the Sheffield Union records are said to have been destroyed when the former Union offices were bombed during World Ward 2.

Bibliography

  • Howsam, Lyn (2002) Memories of the Workhouse & Old Hospital at Fir Vale.(ALD Design & Print. ISBN 1-901587-22-3)
  • Howsam, Lyn (2006a) Sheffield Union - The Children of the State (from the Councillor and Guardian, 1898) together with The Scattered Homes for Children - Historical Sketch (Report from Sheffield Board of Guardians Children's Homes Committee, 1907). An enlarged facsimile edition containing both reports, published by Northern General Hospital History Project (ngh.archives@blueyonder.co.uk) at £4.50+P&P.
  • Howsam, Lyn (2006) Life in the Workhouse & Old Hospital at Fir Vale.(ALD Design & Print. ISBN 1-901587-60-6. £6.95). Email lyn@howsam.co.uk for further details.
  • The Institution and Hospital at Fir Vale: A Centenary History of the Northern General Hospital. P. Speck et al. (1978).
  • Leader, R.E. (1905) Reminiscences of Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century

Links

Acknowledgments

  • Many thanks to Lyn Howsam for her contribution to this page, to Northern General Hospital Archive Project for the cottage homes report extracts, and to Pamela Repussard for the wonderful photos.

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