Joseph Rowntree — The Poor and the Poor Law, 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 a letter by Rowntree, published by the Northampton Mercury in May 1862. It is typical of what Rowntree sent to a great many newspapers, either on its own, as in this case, or slightly tailored to mention a local workhouse, or alongside a detailed report of that establishment.

To the Editor of the Northampton Mercury.

Having for several years devoted a considerable portion of my time to the investigation of the practical operation of the Poor Laws in England, Scotland, and Ireland, I have been induced respectfully to offer the following remarks, with the view, in the first place, of directing attention to the defects which exist in the system, and secondly, of suggesting such changes as would tend, if acquiesced in and adopted by the administrators of the law, to reduce the growing evil of pauperism and improve the spiritual and temporal condition of the poor. In the course of my enquiries I have been more immediately led to examine into the workhouse system, and to consider how far these establishments could be better regulated and improved. Allow me, however, to offer a few preliminary remarks upon the treatment of


Throughout England much disparity exists with respect to the treatment of the “casual poor.” The standing orders of the Poor-Law Board in respect to this class of paupers are not complied with in very many unions. The result is, great irregularity, and an undue pressure upon those unions where the law is observed, as the destitute naturally flock to such places where their immediate wants are relieved. In Carlisle, Wigton, Middlesbrough, and other places, the police provide a lodging only for the casual poor. In York they are provided with a night's lodging, in a house set apart for the purpose; but its arrangements are defective, and no food is given unless in cases of extreme necessity. In that city and many towns, the guardians refusing to extend relief has resulted men damaging property to obtain food in the gaol. At Newcastle-on-Tyne, Darlington, Manchester, &c., accommodation and food also is provided the expense of the union in a satisfactory manner; and at Stockton and Blackburn, again (and many unions north and south) lodging only, the legal regulation for giving food not being complied with, unless the case is one of extreme debility. The number of persons out of work in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire renders it expedient that guardians and overseers — or those whom they appoint — ought to carry out the regulation for relieving the destitute casual poor with food and lodging. In Liverpool and some other towns the amount of work required before food is given is frequently unwarrantable. In Preston and Blackburn the persons obtaining relief in and out of the workhouses is about three times the number of those relieved in the corresponding period of last year.

I would further remark that relieving officers should be subjected to more strict supervision by the guardians. Recent occurrences in some of our large towns confirm me in the opinion that far too much discretionary power is awarded to them.


I will now address myself more immediately to a consideration of the system of management adopted and acted upon within the workhouses of the three kingdoms. I will first direct attention to


The general house dietary is under the control of the guardians, subject to the sanction of the Poor-law Board. In one workhouse as compared with another, the amount and quality both vary to an exceeding and unsuitable degree. In Scotland, one general, uniform poorhouse dietary is enforced by the Board of Supervision as a minimum. In Ireland it is more varied. Both are too low. I freely admit the English dietary is the best. I consider the whole of the bread that is consumed in workhouses, or dispensed as out-door relief, ought as far as practicable to be manufactured at the workhouse. This might, if well managed, effect saving of 10 per cent, whilst the poor would be supplied with genuine wheaten bread, and at the same time the boys would have additional industrial occupation opened out to them. The system of giving vouchers for out-door relief, to be accepted by the small shops for goods of various kinds, is often much abused, as the quality supplied is frequently inferior. Why not insure to all the recipients of relief thoroughly good bread, which is the staff of life?


In many workhouses no suitable provision is made for ventilation, and where it is made the officials and inmates frequently neglect to carry it out; hence the dormitories, hospitals, day-rooms, school-rooms, and workshops are often found in a most unhealthy condition. This might be remedied by opening and closing the windows with a key placed in the hands of some responsible person. The sanitary arrangements require extension. Baths are not so freely supplied or resorted to as health and cleanliness require. The workhouses, however, generally are kept clean.


Careful inquiry respecting sleeping accommodation has convinced me that the straw beds and blankets, in many workhouses, are very defective and insufficient for warmth and comfort. This remark extends to hospitals. The great importance of warm clothing and bedding is not sufficiently kept in view. I am sustained in this opinion by the “Commissioners in Lunacy,” who are generally medical men of large experience; they invariably recommend good beds and warm blankets, &c.


The most profitable, and, at the same time, most convenient mode of employing the inmates of our poorhouses, is a question surrounded with many difficulties. More attention has of late been given to it, but a greater variety of employments might very suitably be introduced in most unions. Hair teasing and oakum picking might be more generally superseded by the far more profitable and healthful occupation of mat, matting, sheeting, and quilt manufacture, whilst joiners, tailors, shoemakers, and others should, as far as practicable, be employed in their own avocation.

I have found the hand-loom profitably employed in Glasgow and Paisley, Scotland; and also in Lancashire. In Liverpool Union, applicants for relief are occasionally tested by being compelled to grind corn in iron mills, which has had a considerable effect in deterring them. This occupation is unprofitable, as the bran retains a quantity of flour. The labor here is excessively severe, and women even are compelled to undergo the test. On two occasions I have seen them so employed. In the warmest season of the year the punishment is much more severe than the unproductive crank, by which our notorious criminals expiate their offence; and Carlisle prison is, I believe, the only one in the kingdom where women are compelled to work even at this. The practice is so barbarous in its nature that it is a disgrace to the Liverpool Parochial Board.

It is desirable for boards of guardians to know what is a fair quantity of oakum for a pauper to pick per day. A comparison between the task of a prisoner who has broken the laws of his country, and that of a pauper, is frequently in favour of the prisoner, often accompanied with better diet. In Coldbath-fields, at Holloway, and other jails, the prisoners are expected to produce 3lbs. of oakum per day from good rope. The healthiest and best kind of work is culture of the soil for those who are capable of performing it.


The hospitals are almost invariably unprovided with a dayroom for the convalescent; hence their restoration is retarded, whilst the sick wards are not relieved. Many workhouses are without a paid nurse; whilst the sick are deprived of needful attention. Books and papers, both of a serious and entertaining kind, to engage the weary hours and afford consoling thoughts, should be generally supplied. The frequent presence of sympathising fellow creatures in the hospital and wards is much wanted, especially that of ladies, whose influence would extend to the nurse and matron, with great benefit to the inmates generally.

I have remarked a want of the proper classification of the sick. The invalid children are frequently in the same room as the adults. Patients who cannot recover would find material relief in being removed, when practicable, to a separate room, where they might be allowed to receive suitable presents from benevolent visitors or extras from guardians. And the general comfort of the sick would be further consulted by increasing the space between the beds, by providing easy-chairs, bed-chairs, and a shelf for books, &c. Their dietary, too, requires, in many instances, considerable improvement.

The imbecile and lunatic wards of the workhouses requires more attention and better classification. On the score of economy, lunatics are occasionally detained who should be in “asylums.” The space appropriated to this class is very circumscribed, there frequently being only one separate dayroom for each sex, and the airing yards are quite inadequate in extent and accommodation. The children, too, require objects of interest, change of scene, and more frequent exercise out of the establishment; the occupation of gardening is found to be very suitable for this class of persons. Those who are subject epileptic fits, but whose mental faculties are continued, should not be kept among the idiotic class; neither ought the blind to be consigned to these wards. Much more is due to the younger class, more especially of blind persons, than is generally bestowed in workhouses. The attendants are frequently not well trained to their duty. Much more might be expressed on this subject. Suffice it to remark, that the medical men in charge frequently indicate lamentable want of ordinary skill and perception in allowing this class of patients to continue so unsuitably provided for.

All poorhouses have a medical officer engaged either wholly or in part to visit the sick. The amount of attention he gives to his poorhouse duties is in no small measure dependent, I find, on the extent of his private practice. And this irregularity is further increased by the fact that, in many instances, no record of his visits is furnished by the porter's book for the information of the guardians. But it is due to medical men who do honestly and efficiently discharge their poorhouse duties, frankly to admit that to these remarks (too true in the main) there are many honorable exceptions. I consider that all boards of guardians ought to retain at least one medical officer, whose practise should be confined to the pauper class in and out of the poor-house. All large workhouses should have a resident surgeon, who ought to dispense and administer his medicines, and attend much more to the dressing of the wounds of his patients instead of leaving them often to unqualified nurses. The medicines should be supplied by the guardians. This arrangement would materially check the common practice of prescribing alcoholic liquors, to save the expense of medicines, which would often be more suitable to patients. The present system is greatly abused, and at times, it is to be feared, it extends to various officials freely using the wine, &c., provided.

With respect to the appointment of union surgeons, boards of guardians are frequently placed in a difficult and painful position. However urgent the case may be, they are prohibited from appointing a resident house surgeon so long as the surgeon in charge may live. Hence the claims of the poor are made subservient to the place of an officer. I know of a surgeon being appointed within three years for the workhouse of one the largest towns in England, who continues to reside at a distance of one and a-half miles, — the result being that sometimes he has not been in attendance when several persons required his aid during the night, these cases being left in the hands of a young apothecary without a diploma. The gentleman above referred to has a liberal salary from the guardians, while his private practice is extensive. When a medical man is engaged for a union he might visit the whole of the out-door patients and paupers occasionally.


I attach great importance to the proper education of the young — to rescuing the pauper child from the contaminations which may have surrounded it from its birth, and placing it under the guidance of those who will attend to its scriptural, secular, and industrial training. Near to many of our large towns there are industrial schools separate from the poorhouse, where the children are well trained, whilst their education is held as of first importance. At the age of 14 they are in request as servants or apprentices. It is usual in England for several unions to unite in sustaining one such industrial school, where a variety of occupations are taught; the girls dividing their time between domestic work and school instruction. To each of these institutions some acres of land are usually attached — for no industrial school can be said to be in a satisfactory condition that does not possess ground sufficient for the healthful occupation of the boys. It is more valuable when accompanied with instructions in kitchen gardening, &c., from a practical gardener, as all men in charge should be. There is too little practical example set to boys. The Scriptural instruction should be extended by the teachers — more especially by volunteers on the Sabbath day. The deficiency in Sabbath teaching in union schools is very extensive.

The union schools, on the other hand, are frequently contiguous the workhouse, which has a very injurious tendency on the advancement of the children. The education and training at these schools are generally very defective, retarding the success of the young people in future life, and ultimately tending to perpetuate pauperism. I consider those institutions where girls more or less associate with the women of all classes, the worst description of schools supported by the parish rates; it is found that, to some extent, the girls, from their defective training, on their being sent out to service, return again as water finds its own level, where their association is still worse than before, as at the age of 16 they must be entirely with the adult class. Is it wise, then, to perpetuate these establishments which are contiguous to the workhouse? It is found almost impossible to obtain qualified teachers for these schools, but the same difficulty does not exist with respect to the union district schools. In Scotland, the children are to a large extent boarded and reared in families and sent to district schools. The ultimate disposal of boys and girls is deserving of the best consideration of all boards of guardians; their inspection, whilst in situations, should be far more seen after by the guardians and their officers. The parish apprentice has long been proverbial as being subjected to obloquy.

Allow me further to remark on this important branch pauperism, that Louisa Twining, who is the honorary secretary of the Ladies' Visiting Committee in London, gave her evidence, last year, before the Parliamentary Committee (which I had an opportunity of hearing), in favour of unions being allowed to support an institution which she and a few ladies have successfully opened in London for the reception of respectable young women, who, on being out of situations, are homeless and frequently destitute. The workhouse then becomes their legal home, where they must associate with the worst class of their own sex to their dire misfortune. The above asylum is an admirable institution. Were such institutions opened and well managed in the country, hundreds of respectable young women might be protected in their need, and retained until situations could be found for them. As the law now stands, the Poor Law Board considers that boards of guardians are not at liberty to render support to any destitute young women otherwise than in the workhouse, though eighteen unions have ventured to do so. Is not the whole subject worthy of the consideration of boards of guardians?

If the plans I advocate were thoroughly carried out, I believe we should see grow up from amidst the pauper class an industrious, virtuous, and happy people. If such should rise up from the dregs of our population, the tone of society would be improved, and the nation benefitted in a Christian as well as in financial point of view.

May I be allowed to suggest that the government inspectors of workhouse schools should simplify their questions and render their examination of the most practical character, ascertaining whether the boys and girls are receiving the instruction best calculated to prepare them for their future situation in life. I find the children educated in these schools are generally very deficient in a knowledge of the arithmetical tables, and also in an acquaintance with very simple questions in mental arithmetic. This is a very serious defect, which I have frequently found to exist where the inspector for schools has written a satisfactory report of the progress of the children's education in the visitor's book. It is of great importance to be accurate, not only on account of the boys and girls themselves, but more especially on that of the teachers, they being by such favorable statements let frequently to assume, although very erroneously, that they are bringing their pupils forward efficiently and satisfactorily to the detriment of those under their care. The inspectors should visit all town and village schools where pauper children are sent, whether from the union workhouses or from their homes; — recent enquiry in Newcastle has shewn that out of 300 children whose education is paid for by guardians, only 40 could read and write. Individual examination is essential.


Another important consideration is to learn how far the spiritual claims of the poor are attended to. In some parts they are assiduously met by the voluntary efforts of ministers, town missionaries, laymen, and ladies, who are anxious to impart, through the reading of the Bible, sound Christian instruction and consolation. There is often considerable deficiency in the supply of large type Testaments and Psalms and of spectacles for the aged. There are poorhouses where the paid chaplains fulfil their responsibility endeavouring perform their duty daily in the “hall service,” as in some parts of Scotland, and visiting frequently the bedsides of the inmates of the hospital, infirm and lunatic wards, which are attached to some poorhouses; although, to a large extent, this is not sustained even when the stipend is ample. But many guardians, chaplains, and officers, frequently oppose all voluntary efforts, and prevent ladies' visiting committees being formed. The influence of Christian-minded women, I hold, is indispensable in reaching the young and wayward, and in the girls' school renders valuable service.

Paid chaplains, as the law stands, must be ministers of the Church of England, residing within the union. A Dissenter, though in every way suitable, cannot be appointed, even if nine-tenths of the guardians be of the judgment that he is the most likely devote his time to the work, and afford consolation and counsel to all the inmates. In some towns, as in Sunderland, where most of the Dissenting ministers and the town missionaries volunteer to attend to the claims of the workhouse regularly without any pecuniary remuneration (the Church of England ministers alone absenting themselves), the Poor-law Board have pressed their own views for the appointment a paid chaplain, happily without result. It is important to add the fact that the duties of the paid ministers are not well-defined by the standing orders; hence, in some unions, they oppose the guardians' request for sufficient time and attention being bestowed in the hospitals and other parts of the workhouse. In some cases in Scotland the office of teacher and chaplain are combined — an arrangement which appears to work more satisfactorily than engaging a chaplain specially. In that country the chaplain is not necessarily a licentiate of the Established Church.

I would suggest the appointment of a committee of ladies of various denominations, who accept the Bible as their standard book, part of whom should visit the workhouse and the two schools weekly, and extend their Christian sympathy and interest to the whole of the inmates. This committee would have the opportunity of giving valuable suggestions to the teacher, matron, and nurses, conducive to the well-being of the different establishments. The ladies would also prove most useful in providing situations for the young women and girls, who might be inmates of the poorhouse or attending the industrial schools.


The visits of the Poor-law Board inspectors ought to be much more frequent; and more time should be devoted to the thorough scrutiny of every department, and the condition of the inmates, in order that it may be ascertained how each paid officer is discharging his or her individual duty. The inspectors require a medical education to fully qualify them to ascertain how far the union surgeons are performing their deeply responsible duties. Their remarks in the visitors' book should, in view, be much more definite and specific. In some populous unions I have found that more than twelve months have elapsed without a visit from the inspector having been recorded; and, occasionally, a call only has been made, which merely assumes the form of an inspection. Under such circumstances it is not to be wondered at that irregularities should creep into the management. In other districts that I have visited the inspections have been made more frequently and more regularly.

Enquiries instituted and carried out by inspectors have also occasionally been conducted very hurriedly, and, consequently, very unsatisfactorily. Early in 1860 some disgraceful proceedings were exposed in connection with the Rochdale Union. The charges respecting the Workhouse in the town of Rochdale were investigated and found to be too true. Why then were the proceedings stayed in respect the Hollingworth Workhouse, in which acts of great cruelty and oppression had been committed?

The questions provided by the Poor-law Board in the visitors' book, to be answered by the guardians on each visit, in reference to the workhouse, (the visits of the latter vary usually from weekly to quarterly, to the serious detriment of the whole household) are so important that it might have been expected that no official inspector representing that Board would have felt himself warranted in omitting to ascertain that the various requirements were really carried out. Had such been the case, how could the inmates in the Alston Workhouse, in Cumberland, have remained for years sleeping on chaff beds, without one blanket to the greater number of the inmates, whilst the elderly persons have only single one to each bed, with insufficient rugs? I have also found that in Bristol and Blackburn and many other unions a great deficiency of blankets exists.


The influence of the Poor-law Board, in the management of workhouses, I have invariably found to be advantageous, though requiring, I think, considerable modification. The powers of the Poor-law Board are likely to come under revision in the present or forthcoming session of Parliament, when, it is hoped, liberty will accorded to the guardians of dismissing such workhouse or other officials as are manifestly inefficient. Every board of guardians, and the ratepayers generally, should qualify themselves to petition intelligently for such reforms as are plainly called for in the existing law. Now is the time to do so.

I have been forcibly struck with the fact, during my extensive visits to the metropolitan workhouses, that the condition of some would be much improved if more under the direction of the board. As it is, serious abuses frequently exist. For instance, I have found the refractory cells, which are often badly ventilated and lighted, and very damp, used the master or matron in manner that the law does not authorise. They are frequently not supplied with a seat. I have known a female placed in one, when unable to perform the work required of her; and another for not attending the service in the hall, and, as an additional punishment, more of the prisoner's food was withheld than was lawful. The “women's punishment workrooms” are also very unsatisfactory, and their long detention is frequently unjust, whilst their dietary is often scant and of bad quality. Men are also occasionally punished, who do not perform the amount of task-work required, with deprivations of diet beyond what is legal. These remarks bear especially on Holborn; and also on Marylebone, Lambeth, and many other workhouses.

In thus giving publicity to my investigations, I may remark that they have been undertaken voluntarily and gratuitously, and with a view of aiding the cause of humanity and religion. My attention was first turned to the inspection of workhouses during the time of the Irish famine, on which occasion I visited for sixteen weeks some of the worst workhouses in that land, and reported to the Poor-law Board in Dublin at their request, the results of my daily visits. I do not represent any organised body; I am, therefore, alone responsible for the opinions now submitted to the ratepayers generally. I tender my obligations to the press for their advocacy of the cause of this isolated portion of the human family, many of whom have known better days; though, undoubtedly, intemperate habits have brought many, directly or indirectly, to a state of pauperism, which is entailed on their families. It is an admitted fact that the use of intoxicating drinks augments crime, disease, insanity, and pauperism, and it is desirable that some means, further than those already used, should be taken to check their consumption.

I am, respectfully,


London, 5th Month 22nd, 1862.

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