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BMJ Reports on the Provincial Workhouses and Infirmaries, 1867 - Northleach.

In 1867, in the wake of the damning reports by the Lancet on London's workhouse infirmaries, the British Medical Journal inspected a number of provincial establishments in Gloucestershire and the Bristol area. Below is their report on the Northleach Union workhouse, published in November 1867.


NORTHLEACH is a small Gloucestershire town of about a thousand souls, situated in a gorge, on a high level of the Cotswolds, and on the high road between London and the West. Once upon a time it was a town of note, containing men and things of mark. Two hundred years ago it was a centre of the cloth trade; a quarter of a century ago it was a flourishing coaching town, until the whistle of the engine sounded its knell, and then it fell on evil days. Its occupation is now wholly gone — a more trade-forsaken town we have seldom seen; its very gaol is empty, and seems, from its wide-barred eyes, wistfully looking for the felons that never come where there is nothing to steal. The gaol is at one end of the town, the workhouse at the other — strong morals without adornment. The workhouse is placed at the upper end of the town, looking south. A legend over the entrance tells us it was built A.D. 1835. The whole aspect of the frontage is somewhat prepossessing, and more like an almshouse than a workhouse.

Before our advent, we determined upon a course we shall subsequently follow, and which seems to us straightforward and courteous. We wrote to both the chairman of the local board and the surgeon of the workhouse, asking permission to inspect. In both cases we received frank permission; in both cases we tender our cordial thanks. The house is certified by the Poor-law Board for 200 inmates — greatly in excess of its containing powers; but the matron, who has filled her office for twenty years, tells us the maximum number has never exceeded 150, and that only during the potatoe famine. The average number of inmates is 70; the average number of sick, 6. The weekly cost of each pauper was 3s. 6d., reduced by the present master to 3s. So much we learnt in the board-room during an introductory conversation with the master and matron.

We propose in this report, first, to describe the hospital and schools, and subsequently the general arrangements of the house. The infirmaries are non-detached.

The Male Infirmary is a room forty feet long, seventeen feet wide, and eight feet high; its cubic space being 5440 feet. It contained thirteen beds, but only four were occupied; two by cases of paraplegia, one by a case of general paralysis, and one by a rheumatic patient. Had all the beds been occupied, the cubic space would have been very insufficient; but as, according to the surgeon's statement, it is a rare thing to have as many as six patients at the same time in the ward, no such deficiency can be complained of. The one pauper-nurse, however, (sole nurse on the male side, and who has been "most amongst horses, and in for rheumatiz"), and three of the other inmates, sleep in the ward. The bedsteads were of iron; six feet in length, and two feet five inches, and two feet eight inches, in width. The mattresses, some of cocoa-fibre and others of flock, which would be all the better from fresh pulling. The bed-furniture was clean and comfortable, and the general aspect of the ward was fairly good, though an increase in the number of wall-pictures and cocoanut-matting down the centre of the ward and between the beds, would not cost a great sum, and would produce a much more comfortable appearance. The fire-place is in the north-west corner. The windows are four in number; two looking towards the north, and two towards the south; the ventilation, therefore, is good, and it is increased by two perforated metallic cylinders running across the ward from east to west, and communicating with the external air.

There is no water-closet in the house, the "excreta" of the patients being received into close-stools, of which there were two in the ward. There were no bed-pans to be seen, and we were informed by the master that he had never seen any; but subsequent inquiry elicited from the matron that there were some in the house, but that they were unused. There was a Moule's earth-closet in the ward; but, from some imperfection, it was without earth supply and unemployed. One of the paraplegic patients, suffering from bed-sores, was on a water-cushion; disinfectants were used with the topical applications, and his condition as to cleanliness was very fair.

The Women's Sick Ward is twenty-four feet in length, eighteen in width, and ten in height, with a cubic space, therefore of 4320 feet, lighted by two windows on the north side and two on the south (like all windows in the house, without blinds). There were two ventilators in the roof; no bed was occupied, but in the adjoining day-room, with door communication, were six old women, who seemed perfectly happy and contented; but their only cupboard was a shower-bath, and their only washing place a small stone trough.

The Men's Fever Ward, built nineteen years ago, has not been used during the residence of the present master, a period of ten months; it has three windows; two on the north side and one on the west, and ;a fireplace in the north-east corner. Its cubic space 2646 feet. It contained three beds, which, if any necessity of using them for fever cases should arise, would have to be diminished by one.

The Women's Fever Ward, of similar dimensions to the men's, is, like it, untenanted by the cases for which it was built; and, at the time of our visit, was used as a day and night nursery, ten children and three nurses inhabiting it in the day, and one nurse and three children at night. The room was comfortably warm, and the children seemed in good bodily health, though what on earth they did with themselves was a problem that we could not solve, there being no toys to play with, no pictures to look at; and, ranged in a row on a bench, they seemed surcharged with a gravity beyond their years.

The Lying-in Ward, also untenanted, is a light, airy, and pleasant room, twenty-one feet in length, seventeen feet in width, and nine feet in height, with a consequent cubic space of 3570 feet. It contained four beds; was lighted by four windows, two north and two south; had two ventilators in the roof, and an open fire-place.

The Boys' School-room is at present unused, there being but two boys in the establishment, who are taught with the girls; and at our visit were playing in the recreation-ground, which is fifty feet in length by sixty-five in width, furnished with a swing and gymnastic apparatus, and its bareness partially relieved by a fringe of garden.

The Girls' School-room and dormitory were exceptionably good, the denisens, thirteen in number, who were engaged in sewing, seeming pictures of health, and but for the absence of window-blinds, and the sparseness of pictorial decoration, were deserving of the highest commendation.

In fine, taking all things into consideration, there is not much fault to be found with the arrangements for the sick in the Northleach Workhouse, and when compared with Farnham and Cheltenham, its hygienic shortcomings seem but few. Gas instead of candles, bed-pans for use and not for ornament, a medicine glass in lieu of a broken pewter spoon, cocoanut matting instead of bare floors, windows furnished with blinds, walls more concealed by pictures, toys for little children who can neither read nor work, water-closets instead of the privies which are veritable "holes in the rock," are "desiderata" which we trust to the good sense of the guardians to provide as soon as possible; for it should be borne in mind that workhouses are no longer penitentiaries for able-bodied idlers and lazy vagrants, but homes in which the declining years of most of our labouring population must be spent, and in which it is but simple justice that they should find no inconsiderable amount of home enjoyments.

In returning to the central hall, we pass through a passage in a dull court-yard, and on to the Old Men's Day Room, which is little else than a bare and stony cell, with not half the bright, neat, and cosey comfort of a prisoner's cell in the Gloucester County Gaol. It contained, on our visit, six old men, the average being nine. Two forms with backs, and a table, are the only furniture. Its cubical capacity is about i,900 feet. Its windows are on one side only. There are no blinds. The same may be said for every ward in this house; and, in the wards looking south and west, they are sorely needed. The floor is of large stone slabs, broken and uneven.

The Young Men's Day Room contained only three very old men. Two were picking oakum, and one feebly darning a pair of braces. This room, like the last, was whitewashed, with about its lower half coloured a dirty pink, giving to the whole a dull and tawdry look. There are windows on both sides, 6 ft. 8 in. from the ground, precluding sight. There is a small shelf containing rubbish, and a small cupboard containing books. We had the curiosity to take a catalogue of these; they consisted of four bibles, one prayer book, one hymn book, one eucharistical book, and three elementary reading books for children. There is no house library — a fault resting with the chaplain.

Both these rooms are dirty, ill kept, and desolate. In both cases, it is right to say, reform is contemplated by the guardians. A five-pound note, well spent, would work wonders.

The whole of the Men's and Women's Dormitories — given a water-closet, and only the present number of occupants — are very good, leaving nothing to be desired.

Able-bodied Women's Ward. — This ward contained seven women. Four of the women were of the illegitimate-mother class. The three other "able-bodied women" were senile imbeciles. This was not the only instance in which inmates were irregularly classified; but it appeared to us, in a small and thinly populated workhouse like this, much discretion must be left to the master and matron, who appear to exercise it wisely. We only wish the two forlorn little lads who compose the boys' school might find occasional playmates with girls their own age. It could do no harm, and might serve to modify what must be a most deadening monotony.

The Chapel is a memorial one, detached from the workhouse, and far above workhouse architecture.

We next approach the Vagrant Wards. We, however, only visited the men's; and, as time was pressing, we took the master's word that one was a counterpart of the other. If so, our strongest condemnation must rest on both. The one we inspected is at the western extremity of the frontage, close to the chapel. On opening the door, we found ourselves in an ordinary one-stalled stable, minus its manger and its drainage. We saw no bath, and believe there is none. The wretched wayfarers are turned into this as they are. They strip, if they please, and put their clothes, if wet, on a flue that runs across the place, dividing what may be called the stall from the gangway. The stall was in this case the dormitory, littered with by no means fresh-looking straw. Three old tattered counterpanes were the only covering. In taking the cubical capacity — 1,728 feet — one commissioner looked at the other, doubting who should have the pas and tread the straw. The master grimly smiled, and, saying he was used to it, took up the tape and saved us from the fleas. The ventilation is from a window in the roof opening by a cord, and consequently under the control of the inmates. The only convenience is a large open tub in a corner, which bore recent and unmistakeable evidence of its uses. There is no communication with the house in case of need. The tramp-master and the schoolmaster are one — a strange medley of duties! As we understood it, the wretched vagrant is sent supperless to bed, and has a scanty breakfast in the morning by breaking a bushel of gravel or picking a pound of oakum. The women pick half that quantity. The night before our visit, six men occupied this place. The present master, who has held his post ten months, remembers as many as fourteen. We can only suppose they slept in layers.

We willingly admit the general run of vagrants are, as the master said, "too bad for anything". We do not know that for the professional vagrant we should plead; but it is for the occasional wayfarer who now and again is put to such desperate straits as to accept on a November night such a hole as this, in preference to the shady side of a hay-rick; and we put it to the Guardians, who, we are convinced, are above the average, and to the Chairman, who is a kind, honourable, and Christian gentlemen, whether it is not better that twenty tramps should get more than strict desert, than that one poor fellow who has seen better days should be herded and fed worse than horses or swine. The one good feature in Cheltenham Workhouse is the treatment of its vagrants. Northleach is a near neighbour; let it learn a lesson from one to whom, in return, it could teach many.

Lastly, let us speak of the kitchen. Its arrangements are excellent; and it is well and conveniently situated next to the dining-hall and the buxom matron told us with pride with that she carves and serves the whole of the dinners "smoking hot within ten minutes." The bread, cheese, milk, and beer, were so good that we did more than taste them, and heartily hope worse samples may never reach our own tables. The cream on the milk was a sight to see. The general dietary is sufficiently varied and liberal.

It remains but to mention that every facility for inspection was afforded us by the master and matron (who are not man and wife), who, as far as we could judge, performed their duties kindly and satisfactorily, and who appeared anxious and desirous to fall into any scheme by which the condition of the inmates could be ameliorated, and honestly desirous to do as they would be done by.

Our best thanks are also due to Mr. Bedwell, the surgeon, for his courtesy and kindness in accompanying us in our inspection, and in giving up to us so large a portion of his valuable time.

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