Joseph Rowntree at Bedwellty Workhouse, 1860

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.

In January 1865, the Monmouthshire Merlin published an article which included “a few passage” by Rowntree on the Bedwellty Union workhouse. His remarks were prefaced by the newspaper's charge that he was inclined to “to meddle needlessly and officiously with the private arrangements of workhouse officials.”


Mr. J. Rowntree, of Leeds, who seems to have assumed the functions of an Inspector of Workhouses, and in that character to travel from town to town with the view of examining into the minutest details of workhouse management, has sent us a long letter on the establishment named at the head of this paragraph. Many of the writer's remarks appear to us to indicate a disposition to meddle needlessly and officiously with the private arrangements of workhouse officials; and others relate to matters too puerile to deserve the publicity he seeks for them. We give Mr. Rowntree credit for good intentions, hut we doubt if the course he pursues will effect improvement where it may be needed: We append a few passages from the letter sent us which are not liable to the objections we have named:—

The Union contained at the last census a population of 47,565 individuals. The number of inmates in the workhouse on the day of my visit, amounted to 77, viz.: 23 men, 23 women, 9 boys, 18 girls, and 4 infants. Included in this number are four blind men and women. The weekly cost per head is three shillings, and one penny for food and clothing, which is above the average cost of the Welsh Unions. The industrial department of the workhouse requires more attention and skilful direction. The men are mainly employed on the land, which consist of about two acres, the produce of which is consumed by the inmates. I suggested to the master, who was formerly a warder in a prison, the importance of introducing mat and matting manufacture, which, when once commenced, there is not much difficulty in sustaining its efficiency. I suggest that in addition to the mat making mentioned, some of them might be instructed in the making and baking of bread. I think a carpenter's shop, and a few tools also to be necessary on all workhouse premises, as all young persons should be taught or trained to various occupations by practical teachers; and educated Christian men, who have a knowledge of mechanics, are the most likely for that purpose, and to take charge of Union Workhouses.

I must here make a short digression in reference to what I consider a very important matter, which is the want of sympathy shown towards the poor in the non-attendance of Christian women at this and other Union Workhouses. I have been in Wales ten weeks, and as I pay my own expenses, I alone responsible for my own observations. One of the most important parts of my mission has been to endeavour to interest Christian women, irrespective of any religious creed, to visit the Unions in which they reside, for the purpose of reading the Bible to the sick and the inmates in the house, and to try to influence tie matrons and schoolmistresses more especially, on behalf of their own sex. This course has been adopted in England with the most beneficial results, as it has tended to ameliorate the condition of the poor in the workhouses, and was instrumental in procuring for young women and girls good situations out of doors, and rescuing the fallen in many instances. The influence of pious women is needed in every Union Workhouse in the kingdom, for where they have been found engaged in the work they have materially lessened the poors'-rate by their judicious assistance. At Bedwellty Union, I was informed, that no Christian women or ladies, visit the inmates. I commend these observations to the consideration of the Board of Guardians and ex-officio guardians, as the well being of the poor ought to claim more attention than that which is customarily bestowed upon it.

Destitute wayfarers are lodged for one night in this Union-house. They are admitted by tickets, which they receive from the overseer, and are better treated than they are in many Unions, as a fire is allowed them for drying their clothes, &c. They have 8 ozs. of bread for supper, and gruel and bread for breakfast, but the able-bodied have to work for their breakfast, or go without, which is quite right. I may here remark that the master said, in answer to my inquiry, that no damage had arisen from there being a fire allowed them, which confirms me in my opinion, that when men are decently treated, they are less likely to abuse their privileges than when treated like dogs, as I have often found to be the case in Wales.

The Guardians of Bedwellty have been at the coat of fitting up a good fire brick oven some years ago, but to my surprise the bakehouse is never used. If any guardian doubts this being the fact, let him inspect the bakehouse, where he may find, as I did on my visit, a number of very fine large rabbits in cages. Were the guardians again to determine to make the bread for 80 individuals, a considerable saving would be effected, and the people would probably have genuine wheaten bread.

On visiting the girls' school, about 10.30 a.m., which is under the care of a female teacher, who has the charge of the boys as well as the girls, we did not find, her at her post. We remained some time in the school, and asked the girls and the three boys present a few easy questions in mental arithmetic. The first was the number of ounces in a pound, which was very incorrectly replied to by several girls, and the same remark will apply to the inquiry as to what was the fourth part of 3s and 3s 4d, or what was the value of a quarter of a pound of tea at these prices. It was deplorable to see clear, tidy, healthy looking girls and boys so lamentably unprepared to go to a shop to buy a few articles or goods.

The paid chaplain visits the house, and the sick, once during the week, and addresses the inmates on the Sabbath day: I observed considerable deficiency in the supply of large typed Testaments and Psalms, and also of spectacles, for to many of the poor the books supplied are useless when no glasses are to be obtained. I submit to the guardians the propriety of giving to each boy and girl on their leaving the Union school for situations a tenpenny copy of the Bible.

I may remark, in conclusion, that the clothing supplied to the men is warm and substantial, and that the number of casual poor relieved during the last 12 months was 980 of the sick, the old, and infirm.

I am, respectfully, &c.   J ROWNTREE.

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