Ancestry UK

Joseph Rowntree at Bradford Workhouse Casual Ward, 1866

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 Bradford Observer in March 1866, describing the casual ward at the Bradford Union workhouse.

To the Editor of the Bradford Observer.

Wm. Dixon, aged 58 years, sought admission to the night ward last Saturday night. He had walked from Rochdale the same day, and he states he had not received any food during Saturday. He asked for bread at the Bradford Workhouse, and was refused, along with six or seven men, three women, and a boy. W. Dixon is in a bad state of health, and he wished to see the doctor but was obliged to leave the workhouse on the Sabbath day morning, 36 hours after he had tasted food; — and he was not allowed to stand in the street. Dixon, by advice, called on a Bradford Workhouse surgeon, and was very promptly repulsed, without any examination of his complaint, or the briefest inquiry as to what he ailed. The doctor, Dixon stated, merely said “Go to the workhouse,” and slammed the door to. Ann Spencer, aged 49 years, with her boy, 11 years, was standing near, and seeing the medical officer's treatment to Dixon, she did not press her own case, although very lame and foot-swollen, so much so that she had to go barefoot and in pain. This woman and boy were also at the workhouse on Sabbath day morning, and the police saw the men and women off the premises at 7 o'clock, a.m. Dixon and Spencer were each refused permission to remain over the Sabbath and to see the doctor. The latter spoke to the woman in care of the female ward, but she said it would not be allowed. Dixon did not offer to return to the workhouse on the Sabbath, on the rough harsh words of the doctor, without note; hence he and a few others were sent to lodging-houses, and bread and coffee supplied. The relieving-officers refuse to give such applicants tickets but excuse themselves and tell them to go to the police for tickets and then see the doctor. But I submit that the doctor was not to be seen on Saturday night or Sabbath morning, and I have reason to believe that the doctor did not go the workhouse and examine one or more casuals who were waiting during that day. Hence the system pursued is discreditable to the guardians, inasmuch as they ought to direct any officer and know that he does his duty, and not allow sick or lame wayfarers to be turned out. Attached to the wall as persons enter the workhouse is printed document in a frame, “Notice to Vagrants. All male persons will be required to perform a portion of work in return for the accommodation afforded.” &c. There is no reference made to food. I will briefly state the treatment and accommodation bestowed on male and female destitute persons, many of whom I found yesterday and to-day to be of a superior class, really in search of work. The doors are opened at six o'clock p.m., admission by the police. Hence persons passing the Workhouse are compelled to go to the Police Office for a pass. No bath is provided, nor any convenience for washing; although a tap is accessible, and a bucket and two tins are allowed for drinking water. A good fire and gaslight are allowed, and a rug for each man. Some of the rugs are torn and far worn. The men lie on boards: but when the number is large, some sit on forms all night. I am informed by an eye-witness that the men in the night ward have not access to the back yard or water-closet. The ward door is reported to be locked nightly by the porter. Is this a fact? And further, what convenience is provided within the ward? I suggest the ventilation appliances require great alteration, and that 20 or 24 men occupying the ward is unsuitable. No paid or unpaid minister, or volunteer Christian layman, approaches these wards — no, not on the Sabbath day — to read the Bible and hand a tract. Here are men equal to ourselves, or the ratepayers of Bradford — the intelligent English and Scotchman, and many others, who have never before sought night's refuge — who declared to me this morning that they did not break their fast on the Sabbath: and I believe it. No bread or food of any kind is given to destitute men or women in Bradford night wards. This was practically carried out, on good information by an eye-witness, last Tuesday night, when 23 or 24 men were lodged; and on Saturday and Sabbath night. Men were questioned by ratepayers in Bradford, and the police officer who went to see the people away confirmed this notorious fact. I wish to remark that the porter in charge of the casual wards has not for a long time given the men the opportunity of rendering work for food night or morning, with the knowledge of the Guardians, and, I believe, their order: indeed, this morning 11 men had to leave the ward, under order of police officer, at 6.45, before the porter was fully dressed or out of his sleeping-room. The men stated that they asked the porter for food, and named their long fasting without result. When food is administered to men in health, a portion of work can suitably and legally claimed. Eight months in the year this ought to be after supper, as the most respectable of the men wish to seek work early in the morning: and it is true policy in the Guardians to liberate the wayfarers as early after breakfast as possible.

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