Joseph Rowntree at Huddersfield Workhouses, 1863

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 Huddersfield Chronicle in December 1863, relating to the Huddersfield Union's workhouses. It is a reply to criticisms of him made at a meeting of the Huddersfield guardians, following his visits to the union's workhouses and his reports of their defects subsequently made to some of the board.


Respected Friend,— Having on various occasions visited the four Workhouses and the Wards for the reception of the casual poor within the Union of Huddersfield and reported to Guardians (only), I consider the attack made against me by some of the Guardians and officials, and published in the weekly papers, demands from me, for the sake of the cause I advocate, a brief reply. On returning from the North of England to Leeds, I ascertained that the Huddersfield Guardians had issued a minute condemnatory of my proceedings at the Birkby Workhouse, and respecting it I shall feel obliged if you will allow me to remark that I was furnished with an introductory note from the Clerk to the Union, at the request of the Chairman, J. Wrigley, at whose office I called, not only before my visit, but subsequent thereto — for I wished to report the result. However, I did not find him in, and leaving the town as I did the same day, I never had any communication with him. Had it been otherwise, I am satisfied that my information would have caused him to refuse his assent to the entirely ex parte report given by interested persons, who object, for reasons best known to themselves to my investigations. On my former visit to the Workhouse and school in the Huddersfield Union, I was kindly furnished with a letter of introduction by E. Clayton, the then chairman of the Board, and he cannot have forgotten that I reported to him the result of my observations; that he took notes of the various deficiencies, &c., I pointed out as existing in each of the establishments. Allusion was made to the defective sanitary provisions, especially at Deanhouse arising chiefly from the neglect of officials. The industrial arrangements in the old and new Workhouses were pointed out as not satisfactory, and E. Clayton agreed with me that more remunerative occupations ought to be found for those capable of work, and especially at the new Workhouse at Deanhouse. The cultivation of land at Birkby was creditable. I commented on the pauperising system of placing boys and girls under the care of an uneducated woman above seventy years of age, when they are not at the village school, whilst two boys were above sixteen years of age. Some of the other girls on each of my visits I found deprived of the opportunity of attending either a day or a Sabbath school, and this, too, I told to E. Clayton, and yet I find him bringing forward and supporting a one-sided report made by persons interested, containing charges both unfairly put and in the main untrue. Still he knows my labours are unpaid, and that I work solely for the amelioration of the condition of the poor and the diminution of pauperism. Let me tell you and the public that I have seen on a former visit at the hospital in the Birkby Workhouse water running down the walls close to the beds of the patients, and no bathroom or gas is provided, and yet the former medical officer, or the one now in charge, and the visiting Guardians have sanctioned the continued use of this badly ventilated place, and also a system of very defective dietary, compared with other pauper hospitals in England. Birkby stands unenviably pre-eminent from withholding from the indigent invalid what are generally considered the ordinary requirements of life — and as an instance I may state that butter is not allowed to be used — not even by the sick and aged; the hospital patients are mainly kept on tho ordinary Workhouse diet. Some of the dinners — many of them, I believe, are unable to eat. The nurse has often gone to the relief of the poor creatures under her care, and given them tea from her own small allowance.

It is well known that a Union Surgeon has full power to order what regimen be chooses to invalids, and the Guardians, or their servants dare not but give what he directs; and I cannot but therefore say that much of the blame rests with the medical officer. The dietary of the convict who has outraged the laws is better than that of the pauper, and much superior to that — shall I call it enjoyed? —at Birkby Workhouse. None of the Workhouses in the Union use the same dietary scale, and this is a matter which requires attention, for at Deanhouse the usual allowance of butter is given, and a better dietary as a whole. E. Clayton says, in referring to my visit, “he so tormented a poor boy, who was nearly dead with consumption, by his questions, that the boy was put in a state of excitement which made him much worse, and the medical officer told him that had he been there at the time he certainly would have taken summary measures for ejecting him.” Allow me to say that I spoke kindly to the boy — never “tormented” him — and wished to ascertain whether his immediate wants were attended to. The matron accompanied me through the hospital, and I certainly thought the poor boy seemed afraid to speak his mind in her presence lest he might not please her. She informed me that she supplied him with arrowroot and port wine, &.c, but I could not help contrasting in my own mind the want of comforts and conveniences of the wards with those of other Workhouse hospitals I have visited. E. Clayton charges me with saying that the old people ought to have “this, that, and the other kind of dietary,” in the presence of the nurse and matron. I certainly said in the hearing of several, and believe I did no wrong by doing so, that it was usual to allow butter, and I advised them to make their complaint to the visiting Guardians — “Guardians of the poor” — and the doctor; especially those confined to their beds and who had the porridge and the broth dinner.

The last charge E. Clayton makes against me is exaggerated equally with the others. He says, “The Guardians were in the habit of distributing pamphlets to the inmates; these were exchanged every week, one section getting one class of books one week and another the next. J. Rowntree, however, took a whole bundle of these pamphlets and distributed them in the hospital, from which place they had actually been taken only a day or two before.” These tracts were those of the Religious Tract Society. I found them in the old women's room, and I used them, as I have used thousands before, to easily and appropriately introduce myself to the poor, and no harm resulted, nor did the matron or anyone object. I appeal to E. Clayton and the rest of the Board to furnish a cheap library of books for the use of the inmates, for at present, throughout the whole Union, none exists worthy the name. The surgeon was on the premises while I was at Birkby, and 1 ask would it not have shown more true valour on his part if he had come forward to speak and remonstrate with me if he saw necessity, than in boasting of ejecting me? I advise him as I have advised other union surgeons, conscientiously to devote himself to the discharge of his duties, to look upon the imbecile and pauper inmates as his brethren, and suggest various ameliorative measures, including the more frequent walk outside, and then I think be will welcome the errand of one who comes, not capriciously to find fault, but to see that the poor are properly cared for and do good temporarily and spiritually.

I remarked that the Birkby and Deanhouse Workhouses were in a clean condition on my last visit. A word about the Huddersfield vagrant wards in the centre of the town. On various occasions when I have visited this place, the sexes of all ages associated in the same day room, a proceeding which tends to corrupt the more respectable, and bring them to the level of the vicious and idle. The rate- payers ought to visit this place. No food is allowed to any, not even the more respectable who are seeking work, and this in open defiance or the law. W. G. Lumley, assistant-secretary of the Poor Law Board, says:—

“By the law of England it is provided that every poor person in a state of destitution shall receive relief from a public fund, in food, in clothing, in lodging, or in medical or surgical assistance, according to the necessity of such person. No question is raised as to the country, sex, age, character, or conduct of the destitute person. The only enquiry is as to the actual destitution. It is administered by local functionaries and their officers, elected or appointed for the district. The origin of this provision of the law is a statute passed at the close of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the year 1601. Tho relieving-officers are empowered to deal with urgent or sudden cases of distress without waiting for the direction of the Board of Guardians.”

The ratepayers can afford to be more liberal, as they are exempt from the cost of a paid chaplain. As a Non-conformist, I greatly prefer the volunteer Christian effort, which is not omitted. Nevertheless, a Ladies' Committee is greatly needed for the whole Union, and extended religious care at the four Workhouses. — I am, respectfully, JOSEPH ROWNTREE.

Leeds, 12th month, 21st, 1863.

[Top of Page] [Huddersfield Union] [Rowntree Reports] [Home Page]

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *

300x250 Free trial