Ancestry UK

Ecclesall Bierlow Union Workhouse

In August 1896, Mr Rutherfourd John Pye-Smith, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Sheffield University, and Consultant at the Royal Hospital, toured the Ecclesall Bierlow Union workhouse as part of his investigation of the workhouse system. An account of his visit was published in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 2 September 1896.


22nd August 1896.

Sir, — On the first Wednesday in August I visited the Ecclesall Workhouse. I arrived about eleven o'clock, and found the Board sitting. On requesting to be shown over (as already courteously promised by the Chairman), I was asked into the Board Room and told that one of the guardians would accompany me, as the Master was engaged. I found my guide well acquainted with all parts of the institution. He spends a day there once a week, I heard. Would that more members of the Visiting Committee did the same!

I was anxious first of all to see the casual quarters, and accordingly we went there at once.

A superintendent and his wife reside on the premises, which are separate from the rest of the workhouse, to admit casual paupers of either sex any evening. On admission, each casual has to strip and bathe, and then has a dark woollen night dress given him and some rugs. He is then locked into small cell in which is a large plank that serves for his bed, with a raised boxlike end for a pillow There is no other furniture; this plank is his table, chair, and bed. A tiny inner cell opens out at the end, provided with iron grating of two-inch squares. In this inner cell the stone-breaking is done, and the broken stone has to be thrown out through the grating. Each cell is provided with a bell, to call the superintendent in case of need. Two casuals only were in the cells on the day of my visit, and they were both picking oakum. By Act of Parliament it is provided that every casual pauper shall perform a certain task in return for his night's lodging and board. Men sleeping (as is usual) two nights in the casual ward are required to break from 5 to 13cwt. of stone, or to pick 4lbs. of unbeaten oakum (or twice that quantity of beaten oakum), or to do nine hours' work digging, pumping, sawing, or grinding. Women are required to do half this amount of oakum picking, or else nine hours' work washing, scrubbing, or needlework. The Master the Workhouse, or the Superintendent of the Casual Ward, is required to keep hung, where casual paupers can see it, a printed copy of these regulations, with dietary, etc. I noticed that the copy displayed did not state the quantity of stone to be broken, and on examination I found that it had been out of date for fifteen years! an evidence, I fear, of some carelessness in this department, though, in justice, I must say that a more recent card, containing the present regulations, was found hanging in the hall of the main building, not, however, where it could be seen by the casual paupers. Of the two men present, one had got through about half his task in four hours. He had done such work before. The other was a poor little fellow, one of whose legs had been amputated some months ago at the Firvale Workhouse. He was anxious to get there again, as the stump was sore from the pressure of his artificial leg, which had been purchased for him, he said, by a collection among kind friends. He took the opportunity of our visit to ask leave for early discharge, in order that he might be in time to get an order for admission to the Firvale Workhouse Hospital that evening, and he was promised that his application should be reported. Two pauper inmates were assisting in the casualty department. One had been there nine months, and was asked by my guide if he was allowed tobacco. He replied in the negative, but (doubtless emboldened by the query, and, perhaps, also the fact that my guide was enjoying a cigarette) said had meant to ask if might not have a little. He, too, was promised that the Master's consent should asked. The number of casuals admitted through the year amounts to over 5,000, giving a weekly average of about 100, or over a dozen every day. The night-dresses and rugs are stoved once a week and washed "less often!" The amount of stone given to be broken is the maximum allowed by law when it is limestone, but is reduced to 10cwt. when it is ganister. The dietary on which this work has to done is as follows:—

At 6 a.m., breakfast, 6oz. of bread and a pint of gruel; at noon, dinner, 8oz. of bread and 1½oz. cheese; at 6 p.m., supper, the same as breakfast.

It was a relief to turn from the prison-like casual cells to the recently-erected wood shed. Stone-breaking and oakum-picking seem unremunerative to all concerned, but the sawing and chopping up old railway sleepers for fire-wood is a respectable trade, and in this shed a dozen or twenty men were busily engaged, under the eye of task-master, earning their own living, and thus helping to reduce the rates. Some, indeed, were casuals, who would get nothing in return for their work beyond two nights' lodging, and the meals I have mentioned. Some were inmates, glad to be thus occupied. Others were outworkers, technically paupers, but sleeping at their own homes, bringing their own meals with them, and free to take home on Saturday evening their meagre and hard-earned wages. I spoke to an honest-looking Irishman, who was getting through his work more rapidly than most, and found that he had been working there for 18 months. He is paid 1s. 10½d. on the four days that he works full time, and 1s. 6d. on Mondays and Saturdays. Out of this weekly wage of 10s. 6d. he has to support himself and a sick wife! Pauper women working in the laundry get 2s. a day for four days in the week, and their meals.

It was now nearly noon, and I was anxious to get the dinner served to the inmates, who number, all told, nearly 600. It was a meat-dinner day, and I was allowed to see and taste the huge legs of boiled beef that were being rapidly cut up in thick slices, weighed, and distributed to the company, who were ranged, as if for a lecture, at long narrow tables facing the kitchen. It was certainly the coarsest meat I have ever come across. Potatoes and liquor from the meat were served with it, and bread was supplied to each person. A large tin mug of water to drink out of, and a small bowl of salt, did common duty at each table. The kitchens, bakehouse, and pantry were then visited. The bread, admittedly unsatisfactory till a few months ago, is now considered very good. Black beetles are still a difficulty, but they are being much reduced by traps, and do not find their way into the bread and other victuals anything like so frequently as they used! The "butter," which appears on the dietary for the aged and sick, is in reality margarine, and, made up into little half-ounce pats, is a good imitation. The subject of the paupers' diet is so important and so large that I shall reserve general criticism for separate letter.

Our next visit was to the lunatic wards. There is accommodation here for 27 of each sex, but the present number are greatly in excess of this, and about 30 lunatics have to sleep the main building. Their recreation consists in the use of a bagatelle board, and a few books, and walking exercise in a dreary asphalted yard; no other occupation, and music, to break the dull monotony of their daily existence. Once a year only, at Christmastide, are they enlivened with some entertainment.

We had now arrived at the Hospital block, where 180 patients are under treatment, and have the advantages of the enlivening influences of the bright faces and dresses of the nurses, the doctor's daily visit, and some little decoration of the wards. There are four day nurses and two night nurses, so that each day nurse has about 45 patients under her charge, distributed, in some cases, in many as five different wards. When it is remembered that a large portion of her time is occupied keeping in order the patients' clothing and bed linen, it is obvious that the nurse has little time to devote to the nursing of her numerous charge. Wardswomen, from among the female inmates, assist the nurses, and in return get a meat dinner every day. One pauper woman, sixty years of age, has entire charge of six chronic cases, who require more than usual attention. I was told she liked the work, and did it extremely well. If so, she surely deserves to be treated no longer as a pauper. One wonders, however, and shudders to fancy what was the state of the wards, of the patients, of their bed linen and clothing, previous to the introduction of trained nursing only two years ago! No wonder if the death-rate then was markedly higher than it is at present.

Passing next through the dismal-looking chapel, we arrived the quarters of the old married couples. The arrangement by which chronic infirm inmates have a separate apartment for husband and wife is more than 15 years old. At present ten such apartments are occupied. "You will find them very happy and contented," my guide foretold, and I was quite prepared to do so. The first couple we visited were not very communicative, and I was disappointed at finding nothing so very different from the general aspect of things in the workhouse. One tiny room serves the old people for all purposes. They fetch their meals from the kitchen, but have the privilege of brewing their own tea. The ordinary workhouse garb stamps their fate, though they may have been respectable ratepayers in the parish as long as their strength held out. We went to the next room, that of a couple nearly 70 years of age, who had been there many years. "Well," my guide asked them, "are you comfortable? Have you anything to complain of?" A short pause, and then the man replied, "That's a hard question to answer."

My guide showed evident pleasure in turning from forlorn age to hopeful youth, and he soon brought me to the school, where 32 boys and a similar number of girls are brought up under the care of a schoolmaster and schoolmistress, assisted by a staff of pauper inmates! The boys were at their lessons, and I counted 33 in the room, and, on inquiring, found that four imbecile boys are brought in to follow the scholastic course with them! At my guide's request, the schoolmaster kindly broke off his lesson to set them to sing. I could not but be saddened as I felt the depressing effect presented to the eye by the general lack of child-like and intelligent brightness in the aspect of the poor lads, clothed their corduroy uniforms, as they sang, accompanied by the harmonium, the sweet music and words, "Beautiful stream, so pure and free, flow on." Six of the girls were going out to tea, by a lady's kind invitation, and we met them, dressed in a by no means unbecoming uniform of blue serge, with straw hats. Asked to let us hear their voices, they pathetically sang, "Feed this young and tender plant." I had no difficulty in believing my guide's testimony to their good behaviour; the only doubt I felt was as to whether children brought up in the midst of such surroundings, and circumstanced they must know they are, can evince spirit enough to behave badly.

We had to see the largest department of the institution, the infirm block, that is, the part where inmates over 60 years of age pass their existence. They are divided into two classes, the "middle-aged," between 60 and 70, and the "old," between 70 and 103, which last was stated to be the age of one cheery old man, who took advantage of his years, and insisted in wandering about the grounds, and enjoying, in a modified way, the sweets of liberty. May the hand of authority continue to deal leniently with his whims, and press but lightly on his fast declining days. The dormitories for these old people seemed to me much too crowded. Their day-rooms are also crowded and very dull. In the day-room for those under 70 there is no open fireplace, and there are only forms to sit on. One luxury they do get, and it is highly appreciated. Every man over 60 years of age is allowed an ounce of tobacco per week. What strikes one most sadly, in passing through their day-rooms, is the helpless condition of inactivity which pervades the inmates. We found among them one poor fellow only 38 years of age, nearly blind, and with no occupation whereby to pass the live-long days.

True to his promises, my indefatigable guide now took me back the casual wards, the Master of the Workhouse accompanying us. The poor cripple was found to have got through scarcely half his task of oakum picking (a tedious and by means easy job), but after explaining his case to the Master, and being put through cross-questioning, he was allowed to leave. The assisting inmate was then interceded for, and he ultimately received a promise of a weekly allowance tobacco. This seemed a fitting opportunity to investigate one of the cases to which I had referred in my original letter, "the man whose eye is permanently blinded by the flying chips of stone." I mentioned the case to the Master, and he did everything possible to assist me in getting to the bottom of it, but, though the entry was found in the casual-book, the discrepancies between the record and statements of the officers, and the account given by the injured man, made it impossible for me to arrive at certain conclusion as to how and where the accident happened.

I now took leave of the Guardian who had so kindly shown me over the whole institution, of the Master, and of the Clerk to the Board of Guardians, who courteously gave me some valuable statistical information, and I went home, to experience a sleep-disturbed night, in which the familiar moan of Alexander Selkirk seemed to shape itself to the occasion—

O Workhouses, where are the charms
  That Guardians have found your faces?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
  Than be kept in these horrible places!

I must not close this letter without gratefully acknowledging the courtesy and assistance received from the chairman and other members of the Board of Guardians, and from the various officers, in my investigations, nor without testifying to the vast improvements which have evidently been recently made in many parts of the institution, and to the awakening to present shortcomings which is evidenced by the numerous schemes now on hand. Within the last two years a revolution has been effected by the introduction of trained nursing and all that it has brought in its wake, and by the replacement of nearly all the old baths, middens, etc., by sanitary appliances of modern type. At present, I understand that a new meat and milk storehouse is about to he erected, that a new hospital, costing about £10,000, is to be built, as well as a new maternity ward and a new reception-house for children; that a nurses' home, with exercise grounds, has been purchased, and that a library for the inmates is to be formed.

I should like to suggest to the Guardians that the following points are also worthy of their consideration. An annual statement statistics and accounts should be published, as is done by the Guardians of the Sheffield Union. The diet is capable of vast improvement, without extravagance. At present, the children's lunch of milk and bread or plain cake is, perhaps, the only thoroughly satisfactory meal on the dietary. The dress is ugly and repulsive, excepting the outdoor dress of the children, and need not be so entirely uniform. The lack of occupation for those who cannot do hard work is very deplorable. Could not gardening form a practicable outdoor employment for many? And could not some light in-door industry be devised for winter and wet weather? A few newspapers, especially illustrated ones, even if out of date, would surely be most acceptable in the day-rooms. Pictures on the walls; flowers on the tables, and music in the evening would be priceless boons, especially in the lunatic wards. The only musical instrument I saw in the whole place was the harmonium in the school. The appointment of a Visiting Committee of ladies would probably conduce greatly to many such and other improvements. A cricket field for the boys is a desideratum, but nothing short of removing the children entirely from workhouse influences can be considered satisfactory for them. More liberty might be allowed, both in using the ornamental parts of the grounds and in temporary absence from the premises. The night dresses of the casuals ought to be washed after each wearer's use. The eye-screens for should be more efficient. The outworkers should be better paid. In a hospital accommodating 180 patients, the presence of a resident medical officer is, I venture to think, imperatively demanded. A dispenser ought also to be provided. The staff of trained nurses is utterly inadequate for the amount of work which would fall to their share if pauper help were abolished. The extensive use made of pauper help in positions of responsibility and authority is, I think, the most open to objection of all the arrangements in the institution. It is liable to lead to the worst evils of officialism, bullying, and injustice. It is impossible that by it the best under-officers can, as rule, be obtained, and where, in exceptional cases, they are so obtained it is grossly unfair to those individuals to take advantage of their pauperism to defraud them of their just wages.

Finally, let me repeat, as cannot, I think, be done too often, that if all those who are responsible for the working of our poor-law system in any of its branches would endeavour honestly to put themselves in imagination in the place of the destitute poor, and do as they would be done by, all difficulties would be overcome, all problems solved, and the crying wrongs of the poor be speedily redressed.—I am, yours truly,


Mr Pye-Smith also visited Sheffield's Fir Vale workhouse.

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