Ancestry UK

A Walk Through the Macclesfield Workhouse

In 1888, The Macclesfield Courier and Herald published a series of articles about the various public institutions in the town. Among these was 'A Walk Through the Workhouse', an account of a visit to the Macclesfield Union workhouse.


Entering at the main gateway, we pass the lodge occupied by the porter and taskmaster, the tramps' wards, stores for clothing, and room and offices, through the garden to the principal entrance to the house, being welcomed by a fresh-looking porter with a cheery "Good afternoon," as he hirples to close the wicket behind his visitors; he is evidently not on his best behaviour, for as we learn subsequently he can don the politeness of a courtier on the occasion of concerts, and receives the ladies who attend with all the affability of an old-fashioned country swain. The house itself stands in a nearly quadrangular plot of nine acres, five of which are covered or enclosed with buildings, which comprise porter's and taskmaster's house, tramp wards, stores, clerk's office, board room, stone sheds, piggeries, new hospital, and fever hospital (unoccupied, and used as a tailor's shop, upper storey for spare beds), these being all separate and detached buildings; the main building consists of dining hall with kitchen underneath and stores at back, female wing, imbecile wards, and male wing.


The style of building is of the Tudor architectural character, and there is an appearance of solidity unknown to the jerry builders of to-day. Over the main entrance, a clock tower rears its pinnacle, to the left is the male wing, and beyond the new hospital; to the left rear the stone breaking sheds, and at a convenient distance the piggeries. To the right is the female wing, an exact counterpart of the other, and before entering we note the gardens. With the exception of what is occupied by necessary cartways and walks the vacant ground is placed under cultivation, and there are still imbedded soil crumbling from the effects of a severe but splendid agricultural winter, remains of leeks and onions and garlick, vegetables which brought sad memories to the hearts of the children of Israel as they tramped, homeless, through the deserts of Arabia. Just a thin border has been devoted to flower-plants, along the route to the main entrance. On the lintel of the doorway is the legend, 1843, the year in which Mr. Frost's workmen placed that stone on its bed. A knock on the door brings an aged inmate, quite a curious old man in his way, noted, because he is over 80 years of age, for his active limbs and restless querulousness. Once inside the visitor will be immediately struck with the almost baronial appearance of the interior. A large reception hall, set about with pot shrubs and flowers, tended by inmates in their second childhood. To the left is the master's office, and the call not being expected he is busy at his duties here. With an affability quite refreshing in a public official Mr. Potts says "certainly, you can see every nook and corner of the house now." Well; we shall see every nook and corner.

Stepping into his retiring room he introduces Mr. Needham, chairman of the House Committee, who turns out to be as intimately acquainted with "every nook and corner," and with the personal history of each inmate as the master is. The chairman of this important committee, the master explains, does not confine his visits to the official routine observed by order of the Guardians, but looks in now and again "to see that all is going right and have a chat with some of the old folks, give a word of encouragement to the youngsters, and assist in keeping an eye on the first beginnings of malpractices." "For you must know, sir," adds Mr. Potts, "we have all shades of characters here, and one cannot be too careful in observing the copybook headline: 'Evil communications corrupt good manners.'" So far, the reception of a visitor: the resident? A person having become infirm and unable to work is considered a fit subject for the Workhouse. Able-bodied men, unless past the prime of life, find no resting-place here. As a rule, the fit subjects for residence within these comfortable walls are people whose friends are also struggling — sometimes successfully — to keep the wolf from the door, and who, even; if out-of-door relief were afforded, would be not one whit better off than outcasts.


In answer to the query, "How do people obtain admission?" Mr. Potts explains that a person in destitute circumstances makes his or her wants known to one of the relieving officers, or more frequently to a member of the Board. The officer having visited the applicant and satisfied himself the report is genuine, warns him or her, as the case may be, to attend before the Guardians at their next meeting on Tuesday morning, frequently at the same time granting some temporary assistance. Having considered the facts of the case as reported by the officer, and satisfied themselves from personal inquiry, the Guardians, we will suppose, grant an order for the Workhouse. As a rule, this is the last form of relief a poor person will accept, but it must be submitted to in certain instances. The necessary order having been secured, the holder presents his or herself at the House, and the first ordeal is the bath. In the case of Macclesfield the contents of the bath tub are not "like mutton broth." The capacities of the House boilers and apparatus are such as to afford continuous and ample hot plunge baths during twenty-four hours per day; the town is blessed in having a splendid water supply at all seasons of the year. Next a suit of clothes is provided, and a cot or bed found in a particular department or flat. The new corner's name and age are duly entered in a book kept for that purpose, with date and hour of arrival and admission. Now, he or she is under a well-defined regime, from which, however, there are many, many gentle digressions; the Master and his underlings, acting under the instructions of the Board — instructions founded on long and well-tried experience as we have already seen — being to their faults a little blind.


It has often been said with an effrontery begotten of ignorance that a Workhouse is little better than a prison. There are even those who aver the food of a prison is superior to that in the Workhouse, and their reason is, the prisoners receive more pounds weight of solid food than Workhouse inmates. But the reason for this is not far to seek. Prisoners are a strong, able-bodied class of men on the average; paupers in a Workhouse are infirm and weak, to whom great quantities of solid food would prove more injurious than nutritious.


Our cicerone first introduces us to the dining-room up a few steps, and at the further side of the entrance hall from the main door. The wood of these steps and the floor of the spacious apartment are of pitch pine, kept in a pretty fair state of polish, and the woodwork of the walls and open roof, where not "the worse for the wear," have a rich and warm tone. The walls immediately inside the door are decorated with frescoes containing the Decalogue, the ,Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, encircled in floriated borders, the work of a pauper, a native of Macclesfield. On the walls depend framed full size woodcuts and oleographs from the illustrated newspapers, and a few which have been presented by warm-hearted friends of the poor. There are mottoes, "No cross, no crown," &c., displayed at convenient spots, and, astounding as it may appear, these are all the work of old men who, past labouring for their daily bread, have been forced to seek a refuge within these kindly walls, and just as they had-a-mind, pottered away at their life-long occupation, and have left, some of them — for there are a few of these workers still alive — these silent but eloquent memorials of the peace and quiet in which their declining days were spent in the Macclesfield Workhouse. The dining hall, as we shall see in other apartments, is free from that excess of whitewash so prevalent and overpowering in many other institutions of the class. Variety of colour lends a well-intentioned cheerfulness to the surroundings, the windows filled with flowering plants and shrubs, the walls studded with pictures, and the rich graining of the wood combine to produce an apartment much after the style of the servants' hall at some rich man's mansion. Emerging, the first apartment to which our nimble guide directs his steps is on the left of the dining ball.


In this warm room are busy at work a number of infirm women, who do the knitting, darning, and make clothes for the female inmates. Their happy "good afternoon," as the party enter, betokens pleasure in their occupation. Conversation with one elicits that she has not been up stairs of any kind for —s he does not remember the number of years; she is only "79 years past now, she is sure," but she is very stiff in her limbs. At work upon a pair of men's stockings, without spectacles, she is by no means the worst-looking in the company. They don't chatter much, she says, and just work when they are not weary. Not being able to walk, some being past feeding themselves chiefly from paralysis or palzy, they are victualled here, and pauper nurses wait on them with the tenderness of daughters. Between each window has been hung a neatly-framed picture — the subjects are promiscuous and various — which relieves the monotony of the dead walls.


Next we visit the children's day-room — where bright little cherubs, dressed with faultless cleanliness, are disporting themselves with toys, or playing at games. The day, though dry without, is cold, so nurse thinks it better to keep her twenty-seven little charges indoors. They are bright and healthy-looking—from muling and puking babes to romping girls of four or five years; even these little tots bid the visitor "Good afternoon," and have learned to reply "Quite well, I thank you, sir." Their cots, are, of course, railed in, and we are shown the very interesting process of preparing their food, according to the most approved maternity hospital rules and data. Then we see the nursing room where the children sleep, the girls' dormitory, and a playroom where they can have . games, and amuse themselves when the weather is wet. Girls who have come to such ages as twelve and thirteen are put to useful kinds of employment.


As in the room for infirm women, we see another apartment used as a school in which young maids are taught the "three R's" as well as knitting, darning, mending women's garments, or making articles of textile natures for use in the House. Older women are washing, the operation being carried on in the old-fashioned style, but the modern wringer turned by a small engine has displaced the severe twisting powers of dames of forty years ago. There are smoothing irons, Italian irons, and other irons in use, and the laundry work keeps some eighteen to twenty women, who cannot be put to other occupations, employed doing a pretty steady turn each lawful.


Passing from the main building into the imbecile wards, one not informed of the fact would scarcely guess that these elderly dames, cleanly clad, but evidently doing nothing, were bereft of reason or practically headless so far as will or energy are concerned. This is a part of the House which is practically shut off from all others, having an airing yard, in which a few flowers even at this early day are budding and blooming to delight the eyes and impaired senses of those who may care to wander out. One is pointed out as the "oldest inhabitant." She came from the original workhouse in Waters-green. How long she had been an inmate there no one knows, and she has never left the precincts of the ward or airing yard since her removal hither. The nurse puts her age at 84, as her own nearest guess, but it is evidently inaccurate. There are others of the same class, but this subject is particularly attractive from the fresh colour of her face and the nattiness of her attire.


Close by this ward is a padded room, which though its existence is enjoined by the Lunacy Commissioners, is happily never required for use. In this building is a children's sick ward and a ward for sick imbeciles.


We have now walked through the female aide of the House : the male half is its exact counterpart. Following our guide through its various rooms we find less to interest than in the female division. One man in the department for bedridden men is pointed out as a wonderful fellow. He is 93 years of age and was a silk weaver. Annually, in summer time, he tramped off to Scotland selling the product of his looms at farmhouses on the way. When hid silk wares had been disposed of, he retraced his steps, and for over 60 years this went on with the regularity of the sun in his annual course. But there came a day when our old friend could not undertake the homeward journey; he broke down on the road, and reached Macclesfield only through assistance. He has many racy tales to tell of helps he received by the way, of stirring events on which he was an outside onlooker, but his speech is broken and his articulation difficult, and only his nurse and the master can appreciate the full humour of his jokes. Four years ego, after having been several years bedfast, he resolved to make one last effort to see Scotland again. He applied to be discharged from the House, and his discharge was prepared and handed to him. The spirit was willing but the flesh is weak, and he is still in Macclesfield Workhouse laying plans far his next summer's journey.


In the old men's day-room, which is next in order, there are several talkative patriarchs of over 88 to 94, moving about like animated mummies some of them, whose weazened faces betoken their having spent a hard life. Yet they play draughts, backgammon, and other easy games, and have plenty of newspapers to read between the intervals of telling their old world stories. Among them there still moves about old Norbury, once of Sutton, who was"90 four years ago," and he is anxious to buttonhole his visitors because he does not find appreciative listeners "among such old folks as these, little dreaming that he is the oldest, and might easily take the cake for garrulity. The boys are at school, except some few who are sick when we walk through their day-room.


So the school claims next attention. In an airy, clean apartment 41 boys are busy at their lessons. The curriculum begins with divine worship in the morning and then the " three R's." At certain periods of the day those who are old enough are drafted off to the tailors' shop, there to learn the trade which contests with gardening the honour of being the first practised by the hands of man, aye, or of woman either.


The Workhouse schools for many years were, and still are, most efficiently conducted, though nowadays the same parental interest does not appear to be displayed in the future well-being of lads and lasses passing out of the care of those who stand to them in loco parentis. Usually the best of the boys and girls, besides their school education, receive a careful industrial training, which prepares them for domestic and other services. Mr. May, during his incumbency, usually took charge of such of the orphan children as were industrious, of good behaviour, and well brought up, and many of these were well placed out in the world, and became successful in their avocations. They corresponded regularly with their benefactor, and the history and career of some of the best examples are very interesting and instructive. The instance is recalled of one lad who, placed in the Overseers' office, developed an aptitude for calculations, and in three years was placed in a minor post in the audit office of one of the great railways of the kingdom. By perseverance and exemplary conduct he rose to the second position in that great concern, and on his annual visits to Macclesfield, during his holidays, no one would have thought the well dressed, gentlemanly person with whom he was conversing had once been a Workhouse orphan. Another lad, who had special smartness in gardening after a careful training in the Public Park by Mr. Middlebrooke, was taught the rudiments of Latin, and, through Mr. May's influence with the Marchioness of Westminster, he was appointed to a junior post in Kew Gardens by Sir William Hooker. After four years' successful training in that vast horticultural and botanical preserve, passing periodical examinations and gaining prizes, he applied for an appointment as gardener to a nobleman in the north. When in Macclesfield, consulting his friends whether or no he should accept, a telegram came from Sir William Hooker offering him a splendid opening on Mr. Lawrence Oliphant's mission to Japan, and advising him to accept the post. He did so. After being in that country for some years he died of fever, and so highly was he who had been a Workhouse lad respected that the English community and members of the Embassy erected a handsome monument to his memory. Mr. Edward Clarke, of Park Cottage, happened to be in the country at that time, and took a personal interest in his welfare. As a rule, girls who are orphans, after attaining to a certain proficiency in domestic duties, were found situations in the households of professional men or country gentlemen. Such as were so placed were regularly visited, and the interest and kindly consideration of their employers enlisted on their behalf. One girl, who succeeded in obtaining a situation in the Liverpool Telegraph Office, married very well, her husband being a professional gentleman, and settled down very comfortably in that busy city.


Mr. H. Philips, J.P., one of the ex-officio Guardians, is taking up this phase of Workhouse life very earnestly, and several of the Guardians who can devote the necessary time to visiting their foster children are also acting in concert with him. One named Gee, who rose to be task-master in the House, was appointed to be master of the first Industrial School in Gloucestershire, by the late Mr. Baker, and many other instances of like success in life were narrated.


The boys' dayroom is the last we visit before walking over to the new hospital, which was built in 1870, and in which, on the occasion of our visit, there were 50 patients, under the charge of a staff at whose head is a very careful and painstaking nurse. For the most part the inmates of these two wards are old people, who, as might be expected, are as easily upset or laid on one side as the merest infant. Above the clean white coverlet some little old faces peep, and but for the motion of the eyelids the visitor would believe he was looking on rows of corpses laid out for burial. Some are in one week and out the next, they come and go as the weather affects their spirits or special ailments, and their idiosyncrasies must be attended to, for who so querulous as an ailing old man or woman. Our attention is drawn to one patient from Poynton, 83 years of age whose wife, the companion of his joys and sorrows , for nearly sixty years, died four years ago, and in mercy — it may be mistaken tenderness — the event has never been communicated to him. She had for number of years been in receipt of outdoor relief, and could not come to see him ere she passed away. He lives on happy in the thought he shall meet his first love hereafter; he has no hope of ever leaving the Hospital to embrace her on this side the grave. It gives rise to various reflections on the changes which time and circumstances effect, to be told as we emerge from the hospital, that seven years ago this comfortable building was only a shed, and that since its completion as an hospital it has never been either empty or completely filled.


As we leave the hospital a gang of strong-looking men of ages apparently ranging from forty-five years to fifty-five or sixty pass. They are engaged in occupations connected with the internal economy of the house. Many of them have been silk weavers, and temporary distress has driven them to this haven. Stone-breaking is the employment usually allocated to the ordinary inmate who is under 60 years, and those who cannot be set to this are told off for oakum picking. Our weaver has no such manual labour awarded him. Some Guardians, whose hearts are as tender as their judgment is inaccurate, believe if a silk weaver is put to stone-breaking, he is for ever after rendered incompetent for his own trade. Carrying out this belief, other kinds of works are found for such as have been silk hands, such as potato peeling, washing up, and other necessary occupations in and around the house.


Having completed a full tour of the main building, the party step over to the stone shed where the able-bodied are at work. Many of these do not sojourn in the house; work is found them by the Guardians, and what they earn they are paid, some making as much as 9s and 10s a week. In consequence of their being unskilled, — even stone-breaking requires a certain amount of technical education — their- wages do not reach more. Stone-breakers in the employment of the Highway Board, Mr. Needham says, make from 19s to 22s a week, at a price very little above that paid by the Guardians. The cause of this striking difference is that the labour is new to them, and the toil, if not hard, is painful. Half a ton of stone is not, ordinarily, a good day's work, some of the men say; one breaks easily 15 to 16 cwt., and is paid proportionately high. Stone-breaking is in no sense a "test," for a man out of his usual occupation is simply set to this work — the only remunerative employment they can give him — by the authorities. What he earns he is paid, and he may dispose of his wages as pleases himself best. Usually, only men with families are set on to this work, the single-minded tramp has his supper of gruel, is housed for the night, gets a"hunk" of bread and gruel in the morning, and having broken as many stones as pay for the eatables, he is passed on his way, generally murmuring.


When these matters have been noted and explained by Mr. Potts, six o'clock arrives, and an adjournment is made to the parlour whence we started. A cup of refreshing tea invigorates after this panoramic walk, and while indulging the innocent liquor, the Master imparts the information that the routine of the House for those who are well and able to be about is-6 45 a.m., out of bed; 7.30 to 8 o'clock breakfast; dinner, 12 to 1, noon; and six o'clock, when all labour ceases, supper. After which repose, and at 9 p.m. bed. Reckoning up the people seen on our walk, it will be found there are 79 old women and 90 old men; 21 washers, 22 sewers and knitters, 12 scrubbers, 12 assisting women, 4 in the kitchen, 4 in the nursery, 4 stocking darners. The girls are taught sewing, knitting, plain cooking, washing and ordinary laundry work; so that they may, if they choose, and opportunity offers, accept situations as domestic servants, or take themselves off to other occupations where their abilities in these branches of domestic economy are valuable. There is necessarily a greater diversity of occupation among the males. Two are joiners, 1 slater, 1 upholsterer, 1 blacksmith, 3 assist the porter with the tramps, 6 men attend the boilers, 3 attend the stoneshed nice, 4 whitewashers, 1 attend the pigs, 2 look after sanitary matters, 1 regulates the coal supply, 18 are potato peelers, 1 messenger, 26 ward men and 2 doorkeepers, and 12 boys are at work in the tailor's shop.

Setting out with an old domicile capable of sleeping 280, the Board has now a House in which there is room for 500, and the average number of inmates now is about 360. On the night of our visit, 346, exclusive of officers and tramps, went to bed under the Workhouse roofs.


It is now half-past six o'clock, and the tramps are beginning to arrive. On our way out to see these gentry, we deviate to inspect the pigs. Several well-fed porkers are busy guzzling messes prepared from the food unused in the House. Each inmate has a certain allowance for a meal, and with rare exceptions this is ample; in many cases it is occasionally too profuse. With the fragments, which are carefully collected that nothing be lost, the pigs are for the most part fed, and like the inmates of the House they thrive on their supplies. When ready for the butcher, these animals are sold and the cash received placed to the credit of the ratepayers.


Opportunity, it should be mentioned, is given every Tuesday for all who have anything to complain of, to lay their grievances before the House Committee. In ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, the old people are the most frequent grumblers, and as may well be imagined the lazy make up the percentage. The majority of the presentments are of a really frivolous nature, and in default of satisfaction being obtained at the hands of the committee there is always the Local Government Board to fall back upon. As matter of fact, only one case has come up during the past year, and that complaint was by a man who had a glass of medicine given to him to cure slothful and dirty habits.


The tramps as a rule begin to turn up at dusk — from six to eight o'clock is the hour for admission. There are no "qualifications" required of the wayfarer further than to be homeless, penniless, and without other shelter. He is asked his name, age, nationality, trade (if he has any), where he slept last night, and his destination on the morrow. In a book kept by the lodge keeper for that purpose, his answers are recorded. Your tramp is next walked off to the bathroom, where be is well soused in tepid water with plenty of soap in solution, a liquid which, within a very few minutes, assumes the "mutton-broth" hue attributed to it by the "amateur casual." The tramp's clothes are returned to him, and he is next supplied with a pint of gruel and a piece of bread. The gruel is a savoury drink, made not merely from meal and water, but partaking largely of the qualities of soup-stock and oatmeal, a mixture at once strengthening and warming. Next be is handed a rug and conducted to his cell for the night. These "cells'' are boxes partitioned off from one another in the tramp ward. Women and children are not thus secluded from one another, but enjoy the luxury of an open apartment, in the fireplace of which a huge fire blazes. Both wards are heated with hot water besides.


When the reveille bell sounds next day, the men, having been supplied with a repetition of the bill of fare for supper, are marched off to the stone shed, where each must break .5cwt. of stone. This occupies till about 11 a.m., when each is at liberty to go. It were quite beyond the purpose of these articles to attempt to portray scenes or repeat stories about these miserable people, which would bring tears to eyes where their presence is seldom known. Ninety per cent. of these wanderers are professionals who live by the way during the day, sleeping in strawyards and barns when they have money to buy food, and driven only from stress of weather and want to the tramp ward. In a matter of police the tramp record is most valuable, as it enables the authorities readily to hunt down those who, when opportunity offers, pick up "unconsidered trifles" about country houses, farms, and cottages, and leaves traces of others who "bully" unprotected children and women in order to obtain alms.

About 10 per cent. of the tramps are novices, men who, out of work, are moving from place to place "looking for a job." To such indulgence is shown; they are really in distress, and are allowed to depart as soon as breakfast is over and without the stone breaking task. Mr. Potts assures us the professional is easy distinguishable, and on comparing notes of four who have passed in, it certainly is true; three of have come from Stockport and are making for Stoke, the fourth is on his way from Yarmouth to Liverpool. Women are employed in cleaning up and other domestic duties; if they are too numerous a selection is made. Those who have been longest on the road are put to house work, cleaning up, &c.; the "old 'uns" pick oakum. We are at the gates as the affable manager imparts this last information, and bidding him good afternoon, we too pass away grounded in the belief, that on people overtaken by misfortune and helplessness the money of the ratepayers is well spent, and with a due regard for the present and future interests of the poor and needy.

[Top of Page] [Macclesfield Union] [Home Page]

Ancestry UK

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *