Joseph Rowntree at Govan Poorhouse, Glasgow, 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 Govan Parish Poorhouse.

To the Editor of the Glasgow Saturday Post.

There is very considerable attention bestowed on the cleaning of the establishment, and the beds are satisfactory. Much deficiency exists in regard to the ventilation; and some improvement in sanitary measures is desirable. In the hospital sick or infirm wards, nurseries, day-rooms, workshops, and in other parts of this establishment — all tending to lessen the healthiness of the inmates. That portion of the house, more especially under the surgeon's charge, should be attended to by himself. If a large public infirmary can be kept in a thoroughly good state of ventilation and sanitary condition, I do not think any pretext is valid for the hospital wards, in a well regulated poorhouse. I recently went through the Glasgow Infirmary with the matron — who is admirably suited for her post — she possessing ability, and a thoroughly kind heart — and found all in good order, and due attention given to ventilation, and good sanitary measures. I am aware that poorhouses in Scotland generally lack the assistance of efficient and paid nurses. No large poorhouse is complete without, at least, one capable well paid nurse to assist in carrying out the surgeon's general instructions, and to oversee all the sick persons; whilst it is his duty to give frequent orders, and see them to be attended throughout the whole house. Of course, the house is under the direction of the governor and matron. The latter should see vigilantly to all pauper nurses. The industrial training is worthy of the consideration of the ratepayers, who, in fact, are tho owners of the premises, and have to bear the cost of the whole household and staff of officials. All the inmates who are capable of occupation ought to have it found for them. I submit that this department is capable of much improvement by introducing various employments, which I need not now dwell upon or repeat. It is a great loss not to have more land attached for the occupation of the men and boys. I thought some of the girls evinced industrial intelligence, and the mistress ability to impart instruction. The boys I found very much behind hand in the few questions I had the opportunity to ask. The Irish poorhouse boys excel them in knowledge of important branches of school learning. I have known many Irish boys prepared in these schools for taking situations in merchants' warehouses or counting-houses. This is very rarely the case with poorhouse boys in Scotland; hence their opportunity to rise is checked. The association of boys and girls with adult paupers is very undesirable. The lunatic wards I considered suitable, and the patients fairly attended to by paid attendants. The airing ground I consider too much limited. Some of the patients might be suitably attended far more frequently beyond the boundary walls, and a few occupied. Some of this class pump the water for the household. Having been director for some years to one of the best and oldest asylums in Yorkshire, I take special interest in the treatment of this class of persons, especially in those who retain a portion of mental perception. 1 wish medical men who are in charge of these wards generally knew more of of the occupation of the mind and body in objects of interest for both men and women patients. The blind persons I very frequently find in poorhouses always interest me. Their condition requires special consideration from all who have the charge of them, whether they have lost their sight late in life or in childhood. I saw a blind boy in this house who, I think, ought to he sent an asylum to be suitably instructed in his education, and be taught a remunerative occupation. The governor's plea, which I read at the office of the Board of Supervision, does not in any way alter my opinion of the intelligent boy's case. He would be much better instructed under the Blind Asylum teachers than he possibly could be in the poorhouse, and his associates would be more likely to benefit him, and he might ultimately be able to provide for his own maintenance by working at a trade taught in the asylum. A boy of his age might no doubt have been admitted before the present time, and have done better in the asylum. Are the guardians of the poor to retain blind boys or girls in the poorhouse who evince intelligence until they are at an age when the usual time for education must cease in a year or two? I wrote one line in the visitors' book, recommending voluntary lady visitors or Scripture readers, who can doubtless carry out in their own position of society as much good as gentlemen can accomplish, and frequently with far more effect in the hospital, and in various sections of the poorhouse, and prisons, &c. This single line, inviting their assistance, was met with the strongest protest by the governor. I have only met with one instance besides this at Govan where lady visitors were spoken of by the governor as calculated to much more harm than good. It is evident from what I have seen and heard from the Governor of Govan Poorhouse that his opinion of lady visitors is very low, whilst that of his own ability in every department is very high. I infer from his own remarks that the poorhouse under his charge is as nearly perfect as it can be.

I am, respectfully,


Glasgow 20th, 3d month, 1861.

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