Joseph Rowntree at Haltwhistle 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 Haltwhistle Union workhouse.

The Haltwhistle Union Workhouse recently visited, and reported on to a guardian and other ratepayers. The house is kept clean, and the food of good quality. There are many improvements relating to the temporal and spiritual state of the inmates requiring frequent attention from the guardians of the poor. The dissenting Ministers and lay visitors of each sex are much needed, and a supply of large type Testaments and Psalms and spectacles. The children are sent to the village school, where I fear they fare the usual lot of pauper children. They are very much in arrears in their education, which should not be allowed to continue. The imbecile or lunatic class, and the hospital patients should have every consideration from the surgeon in charge, who can improve their diet, beds, &c., increase their comforts, and also suggest important improvements in the workhouse, affecting the physical condition of the inmates. The master and matron are persons of ability, experience, and kindness.

The same newspaper subsequently published a frosty riposte from the Haltwhistle Union Clerk, Mr R. Pickering:

A letter appeared the columns of your valuable Journal on the 4th inst., signed Jos. Rowntree, of Leeds, commenting at considerable length on the state of different Workhouses, with his opinions of the same, amongst which, permit me to call your attention and that of your readers to the alleged defects of the Haltwhistle Union Workhouse. Mr. R. states, a supply large type Testaments, Psalms, and spectacles is much needed. This is far from being correct, having at present a surplus stock of spectacles, with ample supply of Psalms and Testaments of sufficiently large type. It is also stated that the children are sent village school and fare the usual lot of pauper children. Should they fare the lot of pauper children they also fare equally well with the children of many respectable ratepayers of that Union, who send their children to the same school; and with reference to the various children that have been instructed at that school belonging to the Union Workhouse it is remarkable to assert that, after leaving the workhouse there has not one returned or become a pauper, but in many cases they have married respectably and done well. Another part of this report states that the surgeon might suggest important improvements in the Workhouse — increase the comforts of the imbecile or lunatic class. It would seem a difficult task, to increase the comforts of a lunatic class that are not be found that establishment, The imbecile have the attention, along with other inmates, of a medical gentleman fully qualified according to the regulations of the Poor-law Board, and considered well able discharge the duties of his office, and any suggestions he has made the Guardians have been ready carry into effect, including the erection of shower baths, providing warm clothing, and supplying all extra necessaries of diet, &c.

The Workhouse is in excellent condition and in charge of a superior Master and Matron, and does not require the attention or uncalled-for groundless remarks of persons who are not ratepayers, or without authority. But had the object of the visits of this gentleman been proved to be a strictly and purely philanthropic one, the Guardians of this Union would not have seen it necessary at their meeting held on Thursday, the 18th inst., to pass a resolution prohibiting the further interference of the said Jos. Rowntree, of Leeds.

There was also a reply from the Master of the Haltwhistle workhouse, James Halliday:

My attention has been drawn to your journal of the 4th instant, in which a report from Mr. Joseph Rowntree... says that a supply of large type Testaments, Psalms, and spectacles is much needed in Haltwhistle Workhouse. There must have been a mistake on the part of Mr. Rowntree with regard to the spectacles, as we have a few pairs store for those who may hereafter come and require them. I am anxious to put this right, as I was questioned about it by the Guardians, and they are aware now that there is, and has been, sufficient quantity for the inmates requiring their use. There is one old man who says he cannot get a pair to suit his sight out of many boxes we have got for him to try from, and another, a hypochondriac, who will not read if he can (which I question), as he is all right with prayer only. Had I thought Mr. Rowntree was going to print his observations, I would have shown him plenty of large type prayer-books, prayer-tracts, &c., so that he would have been satisfied; they would have been sufficient, in the meantime, for all the wants of the aged.

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