Joseph Rowntree at Cardiff Workhouse, 1864

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 part of a much longer letter by Rowntree, published by the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian over two issues in December 1864, describing the Cardiff Union workhouse and industrial schools.


The Union contained a population of 58,235 individuals at the last census. On visiting the workhouse to-day, I was kindly shown over the establishment by the Master, on the male side of the house, and by the Matron, on the female side. I found the house, and the adjoining Refuge, which is an appendage to the house, and under the charge of the Board Guardians, and its officers contained 266 inmates, viz., 73 men, 114 women, 25 boys, 26 girls, and 28 infants. Included in this number are several of the lunatic and imbecile class of persons. The workhouse proper and the Refuge were in a clean condition, attention is paid to having the whole whitewashed and thoroughly cleaned. I saw here, as elsewhere, that the accumulation of sundry books, tins, food, and articles on the few shelves which are found in unions, renders the rooms in a less cleanly state than otherwise would be the case.

I will, in the first place, direct attention to the Refuge, which contained, on my visit, about sixty of the above number of inmates, from various countries, but principally from Ireland and Wales, with a few American, &c. There are also a number of destitute men lodged each night. These are allowed supper and breakfast the same as the more permanent inmates; they are allowed to dry their clothes at the dayroom fire, and take their food in the same room. All able-bodied men ought to be subjected to a portion of labour in the morning for their food and lodging. The Refuge was erected many years ago, when the cholera ravaged the town of Cardiff, hence the building, erected for an emergency, and mainly of wood, has become a permanent refuge for the destitute, and the officials use it very extensively for several classes with various infectious disorders, such as the small-pox, cutaneous complaints, &c., consequently this building should be a suitable one, and at least the outer walls ought to be of brick or stone, and not of wood. The rooms as a whole are very cold, and the quantity of bedding allowed greatly under what is essential to the health and reasonable comfort of the inmates, very many of whom are immediately under the responsible charge of the medical officer, who might be expected to know that the whole of his patients of each sex were duly supplied with sufficient blankets; whereas I found, on examination of the empty beds for each sex that generally only one short old blanket was supplied for each bed, with two cotton rugs and a sheet. Several men and women said that they were very much starved during the night. I named this fact to the matron, who stated that she would endeavour to render the refuge inmates an additional supply, and that the guardians would sanction this being done, and also for many other bedrooms within the workhouse proper, which are in the same condition.

My object in describing the internal condition of each of the workhouses I visit, is to bring before the Guardians and rate-payers the real state of their own establishments. I wish especially to claim their attention in reference to the attendance and administration of medical relief by the workhouse surgeon, and I fear that Cardiff stands very low in comparison with many unions I have visited in this respect. I will state a case to explain more fully my meaning. I saw in the refuge Zacariah John, aged 24 years, a tailor; he has been in the refuge for a considerable time — he not being in a state of health to follow his occupation, he was whitewashing the walls and fell from the ladder and injured his shoulder; he went to the residence of the union surgeon the same day; without finding him at home; he repeated his application next morning when the surgeon examined him, and ordered John to foment his shoulder with hot water. Next day, the doctor saw him in the refuge, he did not on that occasion examine his patient; seven days after this time, John complained to him that his arm was worse, and very painful; he again examined it, and John stated that the surgeon said his shoulder was out, and that he then, ten days after the accident, bound up his arm, but did not adopt the usual mode of treating a dislocated shoulder. From this fact I conclude the surgeon had misgivings in the case, and the bandaging proving painful, John, after some time, took it off — hence, on my visit, he was in a suffering and helpless state, evidently requiring skilful surgical assistance. The nurse in charge of the refuge and the surgeon's patients unanimously confirmed each other in their statement, that the doctor had only visited the refuge twice during last week, his last visit being on Thursday. There are many patients of each sex confined to their beds, and others requiring the surgeon's frequent and skilful attention. I saw the surgeon leave the workhouse proper on going to the union on Monday, and I learn that he not unfrequently visits this house, without going to the refuge, which is on the adjoining ground.

I have not named all the complaints I heard. One more I will state — that of a sailor who came into the refuge some weeks ago, with sprained and swollen ankles, from falling into the ship's hold he is confined to his bed. He said the doctor had only ordered him to foment his ankles, but nothing had been done by him beyond this; it may be that be has as little faith in medical skill as many of us have. At the same time will any experienced druggist in Cardiff state that he has no specific that will alleviate the man's helpless condition? The Guardians, in my view, ought to inquire frequently into the practice pursued in the union refuge and workhouse hospital and wards. The porter's book ought to record more accurately not only the time the surgeon spends in the workhouse proper, but invariably record the time he gives to the very many patients weekly in the refuge. I have dwelt longer on this subject than my time, which is very closely taxed, can afford; but I consider that the medical officer requires the direction of the Board of Guardians and the Poor Law Board, as to what is imperatively required of him and all union surgeons.

The refuge is frequently visited by the master of the workhouse, and occasionally by the matron; the visits of the guardians to the whole of the wards are but seldom. The latter, in my view, from many cases I saw, ought to commence and periodically sustain a full enquiry into the whole number of cases which from time to time occupy, not the walls, but the boards, of this cold winter dwelling. I could define many cases I saw and conversed with who ought undoubtedly to be in the workhouse proper, whilst others may require removal elsewhere. I recommend a Vigilance Committee being appointed by the Board of Guardians, to see promptly after the the doctors's practice on their premises and the whole establishment, and also ascertain to what extent he is performing his duty in his out union district.

The dietary in use is the same as is supplied in the Union, which is more liberal than most I have met with in Wales. There is, however, occasion for the doctor to satisfy his mind that many of his patients and infirm and aged persons can take the various soups, broth, porridge, &c., such as are allowed to hale persons for breakfast, dinner, and supper.

I am compelled to remark that I consider the surgeon and others ought much more fully to master the details of this and the Union hospital departments. The paid nurse in charge of the refuge accompanied me to each ward. I saw in one room twelve young women, many of whom can read and write. They had one copy of the New Testament, which I specially commended to their perusal. Two young girls from Worcester and Birmingham, who had been Sunday-school scholars, and others, felt keenly their present position, and they said they had no home to go to on their leaving this place. There is great need for Christian women to form themselves into a committee, and weekly visit the Refuge and Union, often opening the Bible and reading religious tracts, and leaving them for their perusal in many of the male and female wards, and, of course, acting for the best under the circumstances that present in each individual case. One or two ladies have occasionally visited this ward, but none regularly. This is a great loss, whilst the refuge is near the town. There are a few pious men visit the Refuge on Sabbath days and read the Bible to the inmates, and the paid minister visits them once during the week, and adds to his more important duties a package of tea, which was most thankfully spoken of by the young women, who stated he was very kind to them. I hope he uses means for their rescue. Were this the case, some of them might, through his influence, be restored to respectable situation.

On my visit to the Workhouse proper I found that the school children, about 160, are at the Industrial School at Ely, two miles out of the town. This arrangement is very much better than having them adjoining the workhouse. I have not yet had an opportunity to visit them. There are a considerable number in the workhouse younger, and some older, who require the further consideration of the guardians. None under sixteen ought to associate with the adults. I saw boys and girls who might suitably be sent to the district schools. One or two girls, who have been in situations, especially, who are only thirteen, and cannot read the Bible, but who have been respected in their situations, are eligible and entitled to a few months or one year at the school; it would be money well spent. The younger children ought to be in an infant school. The matron stated she hoped to have a school for this class next year. I wish to remark that I am satisfied that the classification is not so well sustained as is essential or in full accordance with the instructions of the Poor-law Board, in reference to the juveniles. I also saw that the door from the washhouse to the yard, where several men go to pump the water, was open during the dinner hour, and one man was in conversation in the wash-house.

The wash-house is much better adapted for its object than most I have seen in Wales. The steam can escape freely from the roof, the tubs are fixed, and are supplied with hot and cold water through pipes; a wringing and washing machine are provided. I suggested to the matron, in addition, a pressing machine, which answers for mangling and ironing most kind of clothes. There is great need of wood grating tor the women to stand on when washing, in order to keep their feet dry. The copper being without a cover will probably require full one-fourth more coal to keep up the heat.

The ventilation of the various wards, and especially of several of the small ground floor day and night rooms, I consider very deficient. I need not repeat my view of the short supply of blankets or woollen rugs. At the Pembroke union last week I saw three blankets on most of the beds. The iron bedsteads ought to have cocoa-nut matting, as at Pembroke, to cover them, especially when, as at Cardiff, the bed and pillow are only made of cut straw, which extends to the hospital. This is unusual in sick and infirm wards in England, and very objectionable. Woollen flock is much better for each. The personal clothing of the men I regret to find is very far short of what it ought to be for warmth and health in winter. For instance, far-worn moleskin trousers, without warm drawers, is manifestly insufficient. The master and matron ought to see better after the personal clothing of each sex.

The dietary, as a whole, is liberal, but I find here, as elsewhere, that the oft-repeated soup dinner has to very many, especially women, become a drug, and to-day I was an eye-witness to the feast that six fine pigs were regaled with. On passing the yard, I saw two men carrying large tin buckets of pea-soup, of very good quality, made from two-and-a-half pints of split peas, three-and-a-half ounces of meat, one ounce of flour, etc., to one gallon well cooked, and such as I believe was never tasted in three out of four of the Unions in Wales — certainly Aberystwyth Union's poor inmates, with their barley-bread never saw the like, and I would gladly transfer the weekly surplus from Cardiff to the west coast of Wales, where the poor in some unions lack the needful, in my view, several days a week. The Cardiff men told me they had carried the pigs six buckets full from the overplus of Sunday's dinner. I have discussed this subject, and the great disparity in the dietary, with the law officer of the Poof Law Board, W. Golden Lumley, who has to do with this branch of relief, without convincing him, that a radical remedy was called for in England and Wales. Had he seen the six buckets lull of golden soup conveyed to six fat pigs, possibly his wise and calculating mind would have caught a new idea that it was not desirable to nauseate women and men with so much that they cannot take soup or broth for dinner and supper frequently and not advise a variation in many of the London and country dietaries in England and Wales. Is it right to subject the poorest in the land to feed pigs at liberal Birmingham or Cardiff; or unions that are far otherwise and offer only the poorest quality? The Cardiff workhouse surgeon ought to know that many infirm and old people cannot partake of much of some of the dinners unless a change is allowed; and others who are afflicted with asthma, and otherwise very weakly, although they may be under 60 years of age, ought to be allowed tea, bread and butter to breakfast and supper. This would prove a relief to some inmates, whilst the surgeon has discretionary power in all such cases. I learn that the doctor is a young man holding a M.D. diploma; he has not held his post at the union many months. I think he has not duly appreciated his responsibilities; I advise him to reverse the helm and double his attention. I learn there is no lack of promptitude on securing the extra fees!

The hospital wards for males and females, and various rooms for infirm persons, are not supplied with suitable armchairs, which are now considered needful appendages to every well-arranged hospital and infirm wards. The seats provided at the Cardiff Union are certainly very defective for this class of individuals.

A paid female is engaged as nurse, and has the charge of the hospital both for males and females. Her duties are onerous, if they are faithfully performed. The hospital and various wards in the house are not suitably supplied with copies of the New Testament and Psalms, in large type, in the Welsh and English languages, along with spectacles for the aged. They are essential for every workhouse. One of the sick-rooms, and men's room in the refuge, was without a copy of the Bible, and had been for a long time, and several that were supplied were far worn, small print, and imperfect copies of the holy scriptures. The paid minister, I consider, should attend much more assiduously, during the week, to the hospital, etc., and to see these important omissions being attended to. I am aware that many good copies of the Bible are to be found in the workhouse, but more are required. I did not observe any copies of the “Band of Hope,” the “British Workman,” or library books; these ought to be exchanged by the minister weekly.

My object in visiting workhouses (and prisons) is to endeavour to lessen pauperism by the circulation of sound practical but liberal, measures. I must be willing to bear the contumely that candid reports generally bring with them from some interested paid officers, and from guardians occasionally.

The visits of Christian-minded women have done much good in the English unions, and the same might be the result in Wales generally, with the permission of the guardians to visit the two establishments weekly. I hope this subject will claim the attention of Christians of all denominations, making it their primary duty to read the Bible to each class.

I visited the Industrial Schools at Ely; the number then n school was 156, viz. —88 boys and 68 girls; also 1 man and 15 women, with servants and officers, viz.,—master, matron, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, nurse, cook, and male industrial trainer on the land, — the latter has no mechanical knowledge. In passing through the schools, I had an opportunity of asking the boys and girls a few easy questions in mental arithmetic; such as,—How many ounces of tea are there in a pound? What is the value of a quarter of a pound of tea at 3s. 4d. or 6s. 4d. per lb.? With one or two exceptions, in each school, they were not correctly answered. The boys employed in the field, and in the tailor's shop, were equally deficient in their replies to similar questions; and several of these boys stated they were in the first class, and that they had been several years in this and the Union School in Cardiff. The present master and mistress have not held their offices long, therefore they are much less accountable for the lamentable deficiencies.

On my inquiry of the schoolmaster what was the routine on the Sabbath-day, he informed me that they went to the Cathedral at eleven o'clock, and in the afternoon, for a short time, he gave the boys the catechism, &c., to repeat. I have not much faith in his practically imparting to the children sound and unmixed Bible truths, nor can I exempt him from very great omission in not imparting to the boys in the first class during the last quarter a knowledge of the arithmetical tables, and an aptness to answer correctly the simplest questions in this most important branch of mental arithmetic; one or two boys only gave correct answers to the afore-named questions of every day use to the poorest persons in the country.

There were a number of children in the hospital with cutaneous disorders. I appeal to the guardians of these children to ascertain from the books and the master of the house the time the surgeon in charge has bestowed, during the last three months on the children at Ely?

The land is cultivated by the boys and a paid man. He ought to be capable of thoroughly instructing them in kitchen garden operations, and he should attend to the drain and repair any ordinary repairs required, &c.

The bedrooms are spacious and well ventilated; the beds and house generally clean. I think additional bedding is required for the winter season. The food is the same as in use at the union, and is of good quality. Some improvement might be made when a revision of the scale takes place The girls and boys were generally looking healthy, and it was apparent to me that the matron was exercising her energies for the good of the whole establishment, whilst the master was discharging his duties efficiently. The lavatories an++++d the washhouse and bath require various improvements, which I suggested to the master, who kindly accompanied me over this valuable Industrial School.

I am, respectfully, JOSEPH ROWNTREE (of Leeds).

Cardiff, 12th month 14th, 1864.

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