Joseph Rowntree at Ecclesall Union 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 a letter by Rowntree, published by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in March 1860, describing the Ecclesall Bierlow Union workhouse.


Sir,—The Ecclesall workhouse is well situated in a fine neighbourhood, with more advantages than any other workhouse possesses in this district; and being a new building it might be expected that the best regulations would exist; nevertheless I find that the ventilation is imperfectly attended to. The dormitories are clean, and the bedding is good and sufficient. There are no tailors' or shoemakers' shops, the work being sent out of the house, which is very unusual and a financial loss. No industrial training is carried on here, except the cultivation of the land adjoining the house. Mat making, &c., would afford the men opportunity of profitable labour, when no work can be carried forward on the land, &c. There are a number of young men of various classes (including the epileptic and idiotic classes) who are most seriously suffering from the want of employment — several are kept in absolute idleness. Cannot the guardians, the doctor, and the officials devise some improvement? Patients in the lunatic wards I found [in the care of] paid attendants; that of the women by a capable female nurse, E. Knight. Her department throughout was kept in good order, and the inmates were clean and suitably cared for. The men's department was in every way inferior: the wards and the inmates were dirty. There are some excitable lunatics in this workhouse. Having paid a second visit to this part of the house, I wish to express my conviction of the great neglect of judicious arrangement in the men's lunatic wards. There are four young men and two old ones kept in a small room without ventilation and overheated. The doctor, James Walker, was said to be in the house to-day, but I found that he had not visited the men's lunatic ward. There are patients in that ward whose ages vary from 70 down to 14 years. Is J.W. Sykes's case, aged 16 years, a proper one to be retained here? I trust the medical officer will feel himself bound to personally inspect every inmate in these wards on each of his visits.

One case, Wm. Cowell, aged 40 years, confined to his bed. He is in a very frail condition, and this room was very close and unhealthy.

The guardians' frequent inspection and review is very requisite in this part of the house and the hospital, as also throughout the whole of the establishment. The provisions were of good quality and a sufficient quantity supplied to the inmates. The bread should be baked on the premises, or a loss ensues.

The schools I visited, and found the girls in a very backward state in every way. Their appearance was healthy. I cannot understand why such a state of ignorance should exist, when many of the girls have been in the school for years. I wish I could state that the boys had been better cared for than the girls. This is not the case; they are very much behind a many other workhouse schools. I know a many in Ireland, as well in this country, that very far excel them. Take Clonmel, Belfast, or Dublin; here will be found boys fitted by their parish education for merchants' offices and warehouses. It is to be hoped that the present master, J. Wilkinson, who has not had the charge many months, will shortly exhibit the schools to greater advantage. It is probable that one-half of the boys would be much better taught along with the younger girls by an infant schoolmistress, for it is a fact that one-half of the children in this district now in the workhouses don't know one-half that is known in some good infant schools. Is there no remedy for this serious loss to this portion of the rising generation? The boys, with one exception, are under ten years of age; they are sent out of the workhouse to various occupations very young, to the serious detriment of their own true interest, which often deprives them of secular and religious instruction. Now that provisions are moderate and trade revived, the guardians would do well to protect their boys and girls from so early a dismissal. Scotland and Ireland, with all their disadvantages, excel even amongst the same class of poor. Ratepayers ought to know the men who are entrusted with the charge of union workhouses. Do they their duty? A paid chaplain being employed ought to be a guarantee that the welfare of the whole household would be under his special care, from the children to the oldest inmate. What do we find he accomplishes weekly? “What is a chaplain's duty?” is claiming the close consideration of boards of guardians in Lancashire. Should there not exist in the mind of a paid chaplain a heartfelt interest in his charge and sense of his deep responsibility? I apprehend any definition of a chaplain s duty in a workhouse by the poor-law board or guardians will not avail much. How often are the Scriptures read publicly and privately in the various sick, infirm, and lunatic wards, by himself? The Prayer Book should not supersede the Bible.

Dissenters and other visitors I learn very rarely attend. The voluntary system is the best. There is fair supply of good type Bibles and Testaments, which is very satisfactory. There is no paid nurse in this workhouse (except for the lunatic wards). The hospital patients sustain the loss, and the children did not appear so clean as is desirable; an improved classification might be carried out in the sick wards, as also in other rooms, to advantage. I saw one able-bodied Irishman working in the wash-house with the women. This is objectionable. There are some of the idiotic that might suitably assist in mangling, and in the wash-house, &c. There is a want of a competent overlooker, who possesses mechanical and practical knowledge as well as understanding agriculture, to overlook, and train, and instruct the paupers of all classes, who are capable of any kind of labour. For why should not a man be trained in a workhouse as well as in a prison? If he is sentenced in the latter for two months only, he is immediately set to make mats, &c. This organisation is all important for developing this industrial training. It is due especially to the unfortunate class of juvenile paupers, and to a many of the somewhat helpless paupers, and is a duty owing to them and to the ratepayers by the guardians, whose business it is to see to these things, and not thus leave it to stranger to point out.

The causes of pauperism, although numerous, are mostly traceable to intemperate habits. Doubtless our high taxation tends not unfrequently to reduce the ratepayer to the recipient of parochial relief. These remarks have been drawn hastily and very imperfectly. If they tend to a better supervision of the workhouse by the guardians and ratepayers, the writer's labour will not have been lost.

I am, respectfully,


3rd Mo., 9th, 1860.

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