Joseph Rowntree at Glasgow City Parish Poorhouse, 1861

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 letter by Rowntree, published by the Glasgow Saturday Post in March 1861, describing his impressions of the Glasgow City Parish Poorhouse.

To the Editor of the Glasgow Saturday Post.

I have visited the Glasgow City Parish Poorhouse in Parliamentary Road. I found this large establishment in a thoroughly clean condition, and the dormitories and beds were comfortable. This cannot accomplished without a good system being carried out by the governor and the matron. The new and old premises now accommodate upwards of one thousand inmates, independent of the lunatic ward, containing 140 patients. Many of these are of the imbecile and epileptic class. These wards and dayrooms I found crowded, and the ventilation imperfect, whilst the airing ground is far too limited. Some of the patients should be taken more frequently outside the premises for walking exercise. The paid attendants would also derive benefit from the change of air and scene. There might be more occupation found for a portion of this class of men in the garden, or other work that might be familiar to them from their former habits. This is adopted with success in many similar establishments. The mind and body having so near an affinity to each other, the employment of men and women who are capable is very important. A paid chaplain might find in these wards many deserving of his sympathy and attention. The epileptic patients — and some others not devoid of mind — feel keenly being consigned to the “idiotic Wards.” These lunatic wards are under the charge of the house surgeon, who is a resident in the establishment. The poorhouse premises, the ratepayers are aware, comprise a new house and the old Lunatic Asylum — hence the provision for good ventilation varies considerably, the older part being the worst, and requiring better appliances. Many of the wards and the hospital department were very short of pure and sufficient air. This deficiency extends to many wards and nurseries, and to some of the work-shops, day rooms, and schoolrooms. I was much disappointed in finding the boys and girls so far behind many I have visited, especially in large towns. Even some boys, who had been this school from “three to six years,” were unable to answer very simple questions from the tables or mental arithmetic: some of this class read very imperfectly. There were a few who evinced better knowledge of these questions, and who read much better. The boys and girls evinced the ordinary intelligence of such poor children. Tho Guardians can solve the cause of their serious want of knowledge, which, when imparted on sound Christian principles, most men admit is one great means of enabling them to throw off the thraldom of pauperism on their own part and of their posterity. Could not some of the boys become suitably employed as gardeners, carpenters, &c., rather than so many kept on the tailors' board and at the shoemakers' last, valuable as these branches are? If most of the pauper children are to follow these occupations with the increased facility for cheap and expeditious sewing, with machines, &c., will not the result be that excessive competition will follow and poverty ensue, which all “poor law guardians” should aim at checking? Intemperance more frequently gains the ascendancy amongst men who are deprived of the advantages of pure air (as these two trades almost invariably are from habit), and whose occupation is of a sedentary character. I would suggest that the industrial training of the men might be improved by the manufacture of mats and matting. This pays much better than the oakum and hair teasing. I observed much that ought yet to be done by the officers in this extensive institution. The doctor's whole time is engaged for the house inmates and those in the lunatic wards. I observed a want of a better classification of sick persons; and the space between the beds in the hospital rooms is far too limited. A need exists of having those who cannot recover removed to a smaller room, when it can be accomplished. This would prove a relief to the patient, and to the many inmates in a large room. Could not improved dietary in many instances be ordered, without adding much additional cost to the poor-rates; for I am no advocate for the system, with some Union surgeons, of ordering much wine, spirits, &c., for their patients — the disposal of which is often abused. Many aged persons not said to be ill may require an improvement on the ordinary diet. This is not omitted in the City Poorhouse. Would not more variety in the house dietary prove generally advantageous, with little extra cost? I am quite sure that the Board of Supervision regulate the general dietary. These gentlemen, like the Poor-law Board in London and Dublin, are doubtless open to the consideration of suitable changes in the way of improvements. If it is correct, as has been stated, that “the army have suffered from the effects of so little change in their diet, and the men being subjected to badly ventilated day and night rooms when in the barracks and the hospitals,” all officials, who have the welfare of their own departments at heart, should attend to what is likely promote the health of the people; and such responsibility rests with union or poorhouse surgeons, as they are expected to inspect the whole establishment, and the inmates frequently, and advise the guardians of the poor on needful changes.

I am, respectfully,


Glasgow 20th, 3d month, 1861.

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