Ancestry UK

A Visit to Bradford Workhouse (1904)

In March 1904, the first part of an account of an unnamed journalist's tour of Bradford workhouse was published in the Brighouse News. It came a few weeks after the author's undercover visit as an 'amateur casual' to the Bradford workhouse casual ward, an account of which also appeared in the Brighouse News.

The Visit to the Workhouse.



Having tasted the soup of the casual ward, I thought it not unreasonable to visit the other portions of the "big house" that we all dread having to reside at some day, for it is written down that every one in seven finds their way there at last — so you see we all have a chance. I therefore secured the aid of Miss Julia Varley who is one of the members of the Board of Guardians, and we journeyed round.

I hardly know where to begin, whether at the sad end or the pleasant. The story can really be divided thus into two chapters. Perhaps it will be better mixed. We entered the room devoted to the children of tender age, and I found everything that thought and care could suggest in the large, well-lighted, scientifically ventilated room. Some little mites have fallen asleep in their cribs, while others played about in their own sweet way under the careful eyes of the nurses, who seem extremely kind and suited for the job to which they are allotted. These children are there from various causes, but certainly through no fault of their own. Poor, dear little darlings, they looked very happy, and were most friendly with me as I put on that Sunday smile which I reserve for such occasions.

After a chat with the nurses we were passing out, when the children rushed to the doorway, and in a cheerful chorus shouted "Come again, good-bye." I don't suppose I shall ever go again, but they may meet me out in the cruel, hard world that awaits them, and in which I wander about pretending I am happy. with the vague feeling that it is not all it seems. Yes, good-bye, little ones, and whatever be your fate may you never meet a friend as you climb fortune's hill; overtake them if you will, but never meet them, because you see they would be coming down.

But that is just what occurred to me before I left the place. Let me tell you — that next, for fear I have filled up before I come to it. Well, would you believe it, but there's a first-class department in the workhouse. Women and men's first class departments! This affair of mine occurred in the men's part. It is a long, well furnished room, and in the middle there is a long and broad table, at which some to 20 men are seated. They are having tea as we enter, and invite us to join. Miss Varley took a cup of tea, and I tasted the bread, which happened to be sour on that particular day. But it was a mere accident, one that is likely to happen in the best regulated household. I was busy chatting with an old man who had fought with the great Garibaldi in the war for Italy's independence. He has drifted to this, with the consolation that it is first else — that is something surely to be thankful for.

On turning to speak to the next man I recognised a very old friend of mine, one with whom I had once travelled a bit of the way up fortune's hill, and then there came the parting of the ways, and our paths diverged. We promised to meet again, and he was to repay me a sum of, I think it was £40. And here we meet. But this was not the place arranged on between us, and the money is still owing. Poor old chap! He meant to pay alright; but he never had the chance. It is a fine thing to have the sincere intention of being honest. I would rather be this old chap to-day in the first class department of the workhouse than I would be some of the gentlemen who sit on the magisterial bench in judgement on thieves while they know that their own lives are not clear of guilt of the commonest and dirtiest description. Yes, he always intended to pay. It appears that he is allowed to go out after meals and come home at a given time at night, in time for bed. The food is provided by the Guardians, and if they have any dainties given while out visiting old friends they may bring it in and work it in among their ordinary fare. For instance. there was a pot of raspberry jam which one of them had had given, and it was going the rounds of the table in a kind of communistic way. A similar case occurred in the hospital, where a poor fellow was lying in a very bad way, and the whole room is crowded with flowers, for he was a gardener, and his pals have sent in hundreds of the most beautiful specimens of some really good blooms, which happened to be the sick man's favourite flower. So you see it is not all hopelessly mean and cruel. Kind hearts there be where'er we pass along. In every man there sleeps a hog. But there is an angel in us all that never slumbers, though we may sometimes succeed in pushing her aside and waking up the hog. The hog always has to be disturbed, but the angel is always waiting to serve.

Let me see, where have I got to? Oh, yes; while we were in one of the rooms a man passed to rest. Good old death! He is our best friend in the end, after all. An old lady who had rested on that same bed for these seven years past, said that life was sweet, too. She had a most charming face, clear and beautiful like wax, without a blemish of evil thought or worldly desire coming to the surface. She was calm and satisfied with her lot, and through the open door she could watch the folks pass along the street.

Perhaps the most awful sight was that of the imbeciles. This was sad without a doubt. We happened to be there while they were at tea. The men's room is divided into two, and at the first portion there are two long tables with about 25 people at each. They are what we refer to as silly óninepence to the shilling individuals, who are harmless, but useless, and are never to be trusted. I want to express an opinion in connection with these people, and to do that I shall have to describe them just as I saw them that day.

The second part of the account was published in the same newspaper in May 2004. An abridged version is given below. It includes a reference to the 'Black Bottle', a medicine widely rumoured to be given to certain patients in workhouse infirmaries to help them on their way to death. It should be noted that the original newspaper contained several lines of print that had clearly been transposed — these have have been put back in what is believed to be the correct order.

Miss Varley introduced me to a few of the most intelligent ones among them, and this is what took place. "Paul, this is a gentleman I have brought to see you. What have you to say to him?" Where upon the poor fellow began in a childish voice began to pipe out his grievances concerning the cruel conduct of one of the other inmates, against whom he conceived continual fear. Just like a spoilt child he poured out his woes, and told us that this Josey had dragged him up to the top of the stairs, and thrown him down the opening. Then he began to bellow like a lost calf, so much so that we had to make a pretence of inquiry into his case, and turned to the culprit Josey, who was busy devouring his food. I say devouring because I have seen plenty of animals feed with better grace than this poor creature did. It appears that he never goes near this accusing Paul, and is as docile and childish as it is possible to imagine. Directly I touched him on the shoulder he turned sharply on me and held out his hand, bolted his mouthful of food and said "Giv-us-a-ha'ppenny," "Give-us-a-ha'penny," and after repeating this a dozen times without profitable result, he turned and bent down again to his devouring. This is all that can be got out of either of these poor fellows and they are amongst the most intelligent of the lot. They are absolutely useless and purposeless. We passed along and saw a most pitiable object reared on a stool against the partition dividing the room. It was an old man, blind, deaf, dumb, idiotic. Please, follow me carefully, will you, because I am preparing to put my question to you at the end.

Another man was feeding him, and it was a most distressing sight. But as we came back out of the inner ward he was still there, only grunting, just like a pig. This is all he can do.

There are dozens of other cases, perhaps equally as pitiable, if we had had time to stay, but we were anxious to see the Women's Ward, and reached there just as the tea had been put away, and they were resting after it. The first thing that struck me was the presence of three children. Poor little darlings, how strange to see these children acting so unhumanlike and weird amid such surroundings. I was introduced to a wretched looking creature, dressed in a sack-like costume made of canvas. The reason for this was that she tears all the clothes put on her, and they are bound to make her garments of the toughest stuff obtainable, so that she may be observed stripping herself before she has gone too far.

She a very strange being, more like a man than a woman, for she possessed a moustache and whiskers. They called her "Martha," and the fantastic way she shuffled about the place was enough to make a cat laugh in spite of the knowledge of her mental condition. As I was busy talking to the nurse, who philosophically smiles on all these scenes, as one used to it, I was tapped on the arm by a woman who enquired if I had seen her hat. It was a black one trimmed with lace and feathers. She was due in London at 10 o'clock. she said, and could not go because of having lost her head dress. I assured her I had not seen it, but would look for it and consoled her with the information that there would be another train a little later, even if she missed this one. This is all she can say.

There is another woman who is always calling out for Lord Wanefield to bring her opera cloak and not to forget to order a fire in her room for her return. She shouts this to the ceiling, imagining I suppose a staircase leading to the upper rooms. Scores of times a day she does this.

Need I say any more?

Day and night these scenes are enacted and in some instances continue for years.
Oh, life, life, life!
With its horrors and anguish and pain;
Is it worth the living for a tinselled fame?

Incurable, useless, floating, drifting, flotsam and jetsam on the tide of life.

I think it time to put my question. If the Black Bottle is a real institution at the Workhouse, why is it not applied in these cases.

No, my dear readers, I cannot believe in the existence of the Black Bottle for the simple reasons given above.

But I have an opinion on the subject to whether it should not become an acknowledged institution, and the mildest way I can put it is that if ever I should be reduced to a state of such utter uselessness, may the Black Bottle come into vogue.

Poor helpless things. The only consolation in the whole matter is that they are unconscious of their state. They have lost touch with the past. They have forgotten who they are. Death is preferable in my mind. Good old death! Thy kiss should be sweet to such as these.

(Transcription by Peter Higginbotham, 2023.)

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