Joseph Rowntree at Carlisle 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 Carlisle Union's workhouses and children's industrial schools.


I have visited the Carlisle workhouse, near the Castle, this week. The house is crowded with the present number of inmates, which about 85, consisting mainly of the aged, the infirm, and the sick, and the lunatic and imbecile class of each sex. The house is very clean, the dormitories are supplied with straw beds and pillows, clean bedding, blankets, &c. The diet is of good quality. I would suggest some improvements and changes in the general house dietary, more especially for the sick, some of whom are not able to take the usual diet at all times. The surgeon in charge of the workhouse might be expected to turn his attention to the infectious ward, the condition of the bedding, and to the inmates in every way, and supply medicines the same as in public hospitals.

The lunatic and imbecile class should be taken to walk outside the walls for change of air and scene, as the yards are very contracted and quite inadequate for the patients. There is no paid nurse appointed in this workhouse, either for attending to the hospital patients, or lunatic and imbecile class, which amount to seventeen. This is an important omission, the only paid officers being the master and matron, who evince much interest in their charge.

The ministers of various denominations attend and render their gratuitous services to the inmates whilst a scripture reader attends and reads the Bible in the hospital; but the inmates would derive additional benefit from a committee of ladies from various denominations being organised. The voluntary effort is, to my mind, the most satisfactory and scriptural, whilst this plan relieves the rates considerably. Many unions have to pay a considerable stipend to a chaplain, hence the liberality of the guardians might be extended to advantage in other directions.

The manufacture of mat and matting is not going forward, which a financial loss. The men are employed in oakum picking, which is not profitable; a few are also engaged in stone breaking. From the former occupation, a number the men being weavers, no obstacle can exist to prevent some of the best hands being set weaving matting, &c. From the depression of trade, especially amongst the weavers, there are more able-bodied men out of work and dependent on the parish for assistance than has been the case for many years, and it is of importance to the ratepayers that all labour should be as profitable as possible. The 3 acres of ground adjoining the Workhouse School at Harraby Hill requires better cultivation and preparing for the next crops. From my own observation of the work that is going forward, and the speed applied by the out-door labourers, I submit for the consideration of the Guardians that some of the able-bodied men should be sent to cultivate the land.

The land contiguous to the workhouse at Coal Fell Hill might also be again worked over with profit, this opinion I believe would be fully endorsed by most market gardeners. With the poor rates on the advance, each guardian should feel his responsibility in carrying out to good effect the industrial occupation of all who require relief and are able to work. The last-named workhouse is appropriated to women under 50 years of age, and young children under five years, in all 86. This house, dormitories, and bedding are clean; the food is wholesome, although not in all instances so suitable as is usually supplied, more especially to the lunatic class. There are also eight lunatic women, some of whom I think should in a different situation. It is impossible for me to speak with any satisfaction of the small ward or day room appropriated to these eight women and their unpaid nurse. Having visited lunatic asylums for many years I contrast the circumstances of them with what I know to exist in good pauper asylums. I grant that several of them are harmless and imbecile (I believe the whole are not so), — but certainly much more attention might be paid to their washing, bathing, combing, and hair cutting, with comfortable chairs and suitable clean dresses, and with objects of interest, and a few books for any who can use them; whilst the person in charge should have the women frequently walked out, for they have no yards at all suitable. Their dormitory is the attic. Is all this in accordance with the surgeon's views of propriety? Then as to the Itch small ward, and the three inmates old and young. Is the medical officer in charge fully satisfied with their present state? I may here remark that the three establishments belonging to the Carlisle Board of Guardians for the time they hold office, are each placed under the charge of different Union surgeons; whilst each of these medical men have infectious wards appropriated for the cases now in the itch — and some are wretched cases. The Coal Fell Hill inmates receive visits once a week from Wesleyan lay members, and one visit in two weeks from the appointed minister of the same body. Why the other denominations do not attend as at the old workhouse in their turn I could not learn. There is great need that all the assistance should given as at the other workhouses, both from ministers and scripture readers, and lay visitors. I saw many women who are not able to read. An efficient ladies' committee could be formed from all denominations of Bible Christians who would organize and visit the two workhouses and the two schools. The sanitary arrangements are not satisfactory, a large foul ash pit is contiguous to the infectious and lunatic wards, which in summer might promote fever and other diseases.

The Harraby Hill schools are unsatisfactory. The premises, clothing, bedding, &c., and some of the inmates are in a very unsatisfactory state, and the quantity of blankets in use is quite inadequate. The itch wards for each sex are occupied. The two schools are under the charge of a paid master and mistress. The latter lives on the premises, and apparently has her whole mind occupied with her 40 girls. There is much room for improvement in the girls' circumstances, training, and education, whilst several of them answered few easy questions satisfactorily. Lady visitors who would arrange for assisting the teachers occasionally in the week and on Sabbath days (independently of their visiting the general house) would confer a boon on all interested in the more efficient training and education, secular and scriptural, of the girls now under the entire charge of a respectable, elderly woman. The ladies might see after their own sex whilst at school, and aid them in obtaining good situations, if possible.

The 60 boys are under the charge of one teacher, who holds a certificate. His duties of late have been much increased, from the inefficiency of a former workhouse master. Many of the boys have been several years in the school, and will soon be at an age suitable for their making their own livelihood. It would have been satisfactory to have found them better prepared for the duties of ordinary life than their answers to very simple questions indicated. With few exceptions, they were unable to give so correct answers as some of the younger girls did. The questions I gave them were from the arithmetical tables, as to the number ounces tea of tea in a pound, and the fourth of 3s. 4d., 4s., 5s. 4d., &c. I received very few correct answers. There are one or two more advanced than the others.

In making my comments somewhat freely on the training and teaching of the boys I do not wish to do more than bring the whole subject far under the full consideration of the ratepayers, so that they may closely investigate the whole question. The schoolmaster should be fully provided for within the walls of the establishment, which has not been case. He resides in the town. How is it possible for sixty boys to go satisfactorily on with their education and industrial training whilst the teacher is not living in the place, or expected by the Guardians to be on duty at an early hour each morning? The results of the defective system are now before the public, the time for the election of new Guardians is at hand. Let the ratepayers convene a general meeting for taking into consideration the erection of a new workhouse and the whole business, and also ascertain which of the Guardians have leisure and are willing to visit schools weekly, and enter their remarks in the visitor's book, to direct the master and teachers, &c., instead of once in three months; and the two workhouses also weekly.


I took an opportunity on Sabbath day evening of calling again at the Coal Fell Hill Workhouse, as the inmates were assembling in the dining hall to attend religious worship, which was impressively conducted by a layman. I observed present only 19 women, 2 favoured children, and 2 old men who reside there and have the charge the land, &c . The number of women was only half the number I expected to have seen congregated. The minister arrived at exact time for meeting, 6 o'clock p.m., without allowing time for visiting the large number of absentees. I noticed several being absent that I believe might have been present. Individual attention is very much required. The master and matron are the only paid officers. I believe the latter is an efficient and suitable woman. I think the master has not a correct knowledge of the limited power workhouse masters, by the Poor Law Board regulations, are entrusted with, in reference to placing and detaining paupers in the refractory cells. He stated that “he could keep a woman in this (very damp, cold, and badly ventilated) cell 24 hours, and if the justices were not sitting, for a still longer period.” As I believe this to be adverse to the law, and that no workhouse master or matron can inflict or detain any pauper longer than 12 hours, or reduce their allowance of food in one day more than to substitute 8 oz. of bread in lieu of dinner, I think it right to give publicity to it, as I have heard of abuse in this direction, both in London and the country. I do not expect that at Carlisle or Alston Workhouses the cells are often used, although the subject was named at each.

The Harraby schools and ground are now placed under the charge of an experienced officer and his wife. Their anxiety to thoroughly clean the whole place, and to carry out many improvements, as also washing the bedding, &c., is apparent. The master's knowledge of agricultural pursuits may prove an important advantage to the training of the boys, and the more profitable culture of the three acres of land now requiring prompt attention. The guardians have determined on supplying a nurse “for the present emergency,” who, I submit, should be an efficient and permanent one, and the prospect held out of her services being continued; as 100 children cannot be kept right without an experienced woman to assist and attend to them daily. May I recommend that she should be an educated person. The guardians are also considering some further improvements to the hospital and other parts of the premises, &c. The sanitary condition on the boys' side is very defective. Without weekly inspection by the guardians of the three establishments, with a resolve to apply a speedy remedy to every wrong in the above institution, much permanent benefit, I fear, cannot, calculated upon.

Since the foregoing letter was set type I have made another call at the schools on Saturday evening. It was satisfactory to find that the dirty blankets and rugs in use on my former visit to the boys' infectious ward were exchanged for three clean blankets and rugs, nevertheless the amount of bedding for the three beds and six boys was lamentably deficient. The one blanket and rug for each had been extremely far worn, whilst the small ward and flagged floor render the condition of the boys very unsatisfactory for the winter with snow on the ground. The surgeon should object to their occupying it one night longer, and should attend to the bedding. The master and matron had not blankets to distribute. The Guardians should purchase a few dozens and woollen rugs immediately. Should the master endeavour to bear in mind that his present changed position requires his watchful Christian care, and avoid harsh measures, aiming at gaining his influence by inculcating Christian kindness all around him there will be hope of much good resulting to the children, and ultimately tend to lessen pauperism materially.

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