Ancestry UK

Joseph Rowntree at Bury 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.

Below is an extract from a much longer letter by Rowntree, published by the Bury Times in January 1860, describing the Bury Union workhouse.

To the Editor of the Bury Times.

The Bury Workhouse is new building, in a very healthy situation, with a master at the head who understands his business, and endeavours to carry out the instructions of the guardians. This house is without a bakehouse or industrial training shop. No mat making is carried on, whilst hands are unemployed to some extent. There are no shower or plunge baths, but the warm baths and washing basins, &c., are very good. There have been some improvements carried out during the past year in the lunatic wards. No restraint is now resorted to. There is no “padded” room, now an essential appendage to all idiotic and lunatic wards. There are a few excitable cases amongst the women. Suitable paid nurses are essential in all these wards. One is engaged here. The man-assistant in the hospital, &c., is very respectable and skilful; still, I do not think any doctor should be exempt from daily visiting a union workhouse, as this doctor appears to be by the board. He attends only on Sunday and Wednesday, unless sent for, or having very special cases. The hospital and lunatic patients are left often five days in the week to nurse and attendants. I do not question the doctor being efficient in his investigations. There are some young boys and girls, very serious cases, requiring not only his care, but that of the guardians. There is no school at this house: the children are sent to Swinton. There are frequently several boys and girls here for a short time, who might be taught by Adolphus Hill, an old but competent schoolmaster; but the instructions of the Poor-law Board not to allow paupers to teach is so rigid as to even, in this house, without master or mistress, keep the children in utter ignorance. One girl, fourteen years old, a cripple, named Mary Howett, is quite capable of learning: she is a good, intelligent girl, but has not been taught to spell her own name or that of her native town. She is very anxious to learn; and other neglected cases exist. The Poor-law Board and guardians should grant that “no law is without exception.” No lady visitors attend this house, and I fear it is too much the plan to allow the Prayer Book to supersede the Bible. The former only is used night and morning in the majority of workhouses. Is not the protestant religion based upon the Bible? and are we not living under the new dispensation of the New Testament doctrine? A paid chaplain is employed at Bury; the house is clean; and might be well ventilated.

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