Joseph Rowntree at Alston with Garrigill Workhouse, 1862

Between about 1859 and 1868, Joseph Rowntree, a Quaker from Leeds (not to be confused with his illustrious, chocolate-making namesake, Joseph Rowntree of York), conducted a vigorous one-man crusade to improve the running of workhouses and the conditions they provided for their inmates.

Below is an extract from a much longer letter by Rowntree, published by the Carlisle Journal in March 1862, describing his impressions of the Alston with Garrigill Union workhouse.

In a recent visit to Alston Workhouse, I found the house thoroughly clean. The food I saw supplied for dinner was excellent, whilst some additional improvement to the aged and sick is desirable. I must only make few passing remarks. I consider the surgeon has the power to recommend many needful changes. I regret to state that the straw beds were not generally supplied with blankets. The old women were the exception; they were only allowed one old thin one. The cotton coverlets and sheets are quite inadequate for the requirements of the inmates, especially during the winter. They have no paid chaplain, hence the Dissenting Ministers should be allowed and invited to visit the workhouse regularly, and lady visitors also. They should not be objected to by the Guardians or those in charge of the place, whose unwillingness to have the aid of Dissenters was apparent.

I do not now allude to those cases where the inmates of any workhouse wish to see their usual minister, the law is definite on this being granted. How do the Guardians omit, through their two officers in charge, supplying the casual poor or vagrants who ask for lodging the “half-pound of bread” for supper and breakfast, as this is the regulation by law? This, I was informed by the matron and master, is not their practice at Alston with a few exceptions. Then as regards the time that any workhouse master or matron can subject an inmate to be locked in the refractory cells (which are generally damp, &c.,) after giving warning to the parties and they persist in disorderly conduct, the time is 12 hours. No officer has a right to exceed this time or repeat it the next day for the same offence. The claim to “shut them up again next morning,” as was named by the matron before consulting the Guardians, was, to my mind, irregular. I recommend the Boards of Guardians give their officers definite instructions not to exceed the law on any occasion. I do not think it is often done in Cumberland, but such erroneous ideas should be checked. A supply of large-print Testaments and books is much required.

The education of the boys and girls at Alston is provided for by the guardians sending them to the Free School in the town. I asked them a few exceedingly easy questions, which they could not answer. There was only one exception. I will further remark that I was accompanied round the workhouse by a guardian and the master and matron, who heard the simple questions put to the boys and girls. Will not this system of training prove costly to the next generation? The guardians endorse tacitly or otherwise some of the opinions and regulations before named, and which the young master and his mother carry out, as we must presume that the board know the system pursued.

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