Joseph Rowntree at Knaresborough and Wetherby Workhouses, 1868

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 slightly abridged version of a letter by Rowntree, published by the Knaresborough Post in January 1868, following his visit to the Knaresborough and Wetherby Union workhouses. The letter largely concerns Knaresborough (spelled 'Knaresbrough' by both Rowntree and the newspaper), hence the item's title, with just a short section relating to Wetherby.

Knaresbrough Union Workhouse.
To the Editor.

On a recent visit to the north of England, I called at the above house, and the master kindly showed me over the premises. I found 91 inmates, viz., 30 men, 35 women, and 26 children. The hospital contained 18 patients, and 30 persons were I understood, entered in the medical officer's book. I observed some of the hospital rooms without fire where patients were confined to their beds. This ought not to be the case in winter. I consider an experienced paid nurse is essential to bestow the hourly attention many patients and infirm old persons require. It is but rarely found that matrons combine the qualifications requisite for good faithful nurses and housekeepers, &c. No bath is provided in the hospital, and only one in the receiving ward for the whole establishment. There is no padded room for the reception of urgent lunacy cases. These rooms are a great safeguard for all parties concerned. It is most undesirable to resort to coercion; and in few houses can hands be provided to take temporary care on the admission of urgent cases.

The medical officer allows most of the hospital patients extra dietary; and he attends at the house daily, and more frequently when required by urgent cases.

The beds in the hospital and the workhouse proper are made of flock, and the bedding of good quality and clean. I suggest the use of woollen rugs, instead of cotton, at least six months of the year; additional warmth is very important in many cases. The new clothing for the men is of good quality. Thick woollen coats are more appropriate for the winter season of the year, especially for old men. I was pleased to observe more woollen now in use in some of the north of England unions. I remarked on the general cleanliness, ventilation, and sanitary measures as satisfactory, provided the appliances were kept in use: but in the absence of a paid nurse I fear it cannot be effected. A Guardian states the two male and female inmates who act as nurses are attentive to the patients; nevertheless, a paid head nurse is required.

The employment of males consists of gardening, cutting firewood, pumping water, &c. None of the inmates are occupied in repairing clothing and shoes. This ought to be mainly carried on by resident poor in the house.

The Dietary.

The general house dietary is under the control of the guardians and the surgeon, 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. The quality and quantity supplied to long-term prisoners in gaol is frequently superior to the allowance made to the respectable poor. In Scotland, one general, uniform, poorhouse dietary is enforced by the Board of Supervision as a minimum. In Ireland and Wales it is more varied. I consider each are too low. The English dietary is the best; at the same time, the tables generally ought to be revised. I have for many years advocated a radical supervision by the Poor-law Board. I now find Dr. E. Smith is taking up the subject. I hope he may advocate more variety and appropriate dinners for the aged, the infirm, and the sick; for he is aware that the hall dinners are very extensively sent into the hospitals. Many guardians allow one-fourth, and some one-third, as much more as others for some dinners, and the quality varies still more.

The Knaresbrough Dietary Tables bear date 1856. They are as a whole fully equal to most unions. Allow me to suggest some important improvements as desirable, viz., a small allowance of bread with the meat dinner, which consists of boiled beef twice a week; a similar quantity of bread and cheese along with the suet pudding twice a week; soup and bread is given twice weekly. The breakfast consists of thin milk porridge and six ounces of bread. The supper of an ingredient called rice milk and six ounces of bread; but certainly the two ingredients rice and milk, are each extremely scarce and diluted. I observe the printed dietary table does not define the constituent proportions to the gallon of either “rice milk,” milk porridge, soup, or the suet per lb. in the pudding; hence the exactness we find in all prison dietary tables, and in many unions also, does not bear on Knaresbrough; nor, I regret to state, on one-half of the tables sanctioned by the Poor-Law Board, the Guardians, and medical officers; and as a consequence immense laxity of rules exist, mostly adverse to the poor.

The Education.

The children are sent to the national school. We found the boys and girls very much more behind hand than the advantages which ought to be derived from the tuition of experienced teachers should ensure. One girl, twelve years of age, stated that the girls in her class were not instructed in the multiplication table. On questioning a few older boys in very easy questions in mental arithmetic, we found them unable to give satisfactory answers. I suggest a female teacher ought to be introduced at Knaresbro'; the children would certainly be much benefitted by the aid of a clever woman to see after them in school and during the recess. At present they have no regular care out of school but from inmates.

The school inspectors and guardians should visit all town and village schools where pauper children are sent, whether from the union workhouses or from their homes. enquiring in Newcastle has shown that out of 300 children whose education is paid for by the guardians, only 40 could read and write. Individual examination by the guardians is essential. at least quarterly; want of a good system by the guardians and officers materially augments pauperism.

The Casual Poor.

The Knaresbro' male casual wards are of recent erection and consist of three distinct wards suitably ventilated, with access to a yard, &c. A fire is allowed for the occupants, which at this time of the year are numerous. The accommodation for them consists of raised boards and one extra for the head, no straw pillows or mattress is introduced, and generally one old cotton rug is supplied to each man, although on the night of my visit in company with the master, the 30 men exceeded that of the rugs, and I understood some of the men had not space on the boards to lay down, A youth occupied part room in one ward who was prostrated from illness and lameness, his name is Orlando Amory Pratt, age 14 years, a native of London; he walked from Otley on Friday, the 27th ult., although done up, he gained admission to the Knaresbro' casual word same night. Next morning he was very lame from contraction of the muscles in the feet and legs, and unable to travel. The doctor visited him on Saturday, and ordered hot water and mustard for his feet and legs; he saw him again in this vagrant ward on Sabbath Day and ordered the renewal of appliances, and further attention to be bestowed on Pratt, who was manifestly very ill. The Doctor in my view did not act with the full authority he possesses, inasmuch as he failed to order this extremely debilitated boy to be promptly removed into the Hospital where he would of course have been undressed and bathed, put in a bed, with warm blankets and rug, and instead of this being done, he was to my knowledge kept in his own dirty clothing laid on boards for three nights and days, each night surrounded by ten or a dozen wayfarers on tramp in search of work. Some of these night casuals indicated more kind consideration to this boy than he received in their absence from the paid officers. They assisted during the night to remove him from the boards to the fire and back again, with other aid within their power. On our conversation with Pratt on Sabbath night, he stated that he had not been able that night to take any part of the milk and water and bread brought to him for supper, (the same as the casuals received) although he admitted on the master's inquiry that he had taken a little of the soup and bread brought him for dinner. He very sensibly and civilly pleaded his cause with the master declaring “He could not rest at all on the boards," and specially with naught but a board for his pillow, whilst the thin old cotton rug he was partly wrapped in was in holes and thoroughly inadequate for his necessitous condition. I regret I am bound to state that he pleaded in vain, and that our united entreaty of the Master and Matron for an additional warm rug were unavailing; none were given on Sabbath night, and in consequence he had a very harassing and bad night. The relieving officer came into the ward whilst we were present; he evinced an appropriate interest in some other cases, ordering a pair of old clogs to be given to one man out of many others whose feet were bruised and their shoes worn out, hence daily reducing them to the necessity of laying up at some workhouse with swollen and ulcerated feet. I learn most Union officials refuse old shoes or clothing of any kind, no matter however urgent. As a consequence, many of the wayfarers have not the chance of obtaining employment, hence the number of tramps is constantly on the increase during the winter months; some are known to tear up their filthy garments, and go to prison when food and clothes are peremptorily refused. The relieving officer requested the matron to make Pratt “a cup of tea.” To this order she literally complied; but withheld the constant accompaniment of a slice of bread and butter; none was given. She might consider the bread he had received an hour before was in the tramp ward; but as the lad was ill and unable to take the milk and water or dry bread, he had disposed of it to some of the dozen hungry men around him. The matron in my opinion was especially bound to visit this boy during each day when under medical treatment, without waiting for the order of the doctor or relieving officer, and enquire fully into the physical requirements of all patients, but she entirely failed to do this, even after the real state of the boy was represented to her on Sabbath day; but with blankets and rugs in stock she withheld the straw pillow and extra rug I pleaded for, the master being also accessory; the leading idea of the latter was that Pratt would soon be able to go forward from the place even with such miserable treatment. On learning on Monday that any suggestions as to an additional rug and pillow had not been accepted or supplied, and that the matron neglected to send a slice of bread and butter with the relieving officer's order for tea, and that she did not provide the sickly boy with tea to his breakfast on Monday morning, I resolved to represent Pratt's case to the Poor Law Board. I believe I did so faithfully, and the result will be known ere long. I afterwards heard the doctor had ordered the boy's removal on Monday into the Hospital, but why was there so much delay in allowing the worn-down boy a bed, &c.?

I regret I have to chronicle another case which has since come under my notice. viz., a man of the name of Preston, 67 years of age, a native of Yorkshire, and a respectable man known in the district; but homeless and pennyless, finding himself out of health, he made application to the doctor and relieving officer on Tuesday, Dec. 31st, for an order to the workhouse, which be received from the officer. I take this opportunity of stating that in any remarks I have made, 1 do not infer that the relieving officer is remiss in the exercise of his onerous duties.

Preston, on going to the workhouse, remained in the porter's lodge till the doctor came about 11 a.m., who examined him in the lodge, and pronounced his complaint “the dry itch.” The doctor ordered the porter to take him into the vagrant ward, soon after which a pauper brought a box of ointment, with instructions to rub Preston freely with it, and for the rubbing to be repeated same night, which Preston effected himself. A fire was supplied, but only one rug and boards to lay down on; consequently he was obliged to wear his own clothes. On Wednesday and Thursday the doctor visited Preston in the vagrant ward, and saw that no provision in the shape of bedding was provided, or any woollen nightdress. He requested his patient to persevere in using the ointment. On Friday the doctor found the man's face swollen and his teeth loose, which alarmed Preston; the doctor then ordered the ointment, which doubtless contained mercury, to be discontinued, and spoke of finding Preston a bed in the hospital on that or next day. Preston, feeling put out, thought he should leave soon, and next morning he came out of the tramp ward, along with the wayfarers for the night, who, shame to say, had been in the same ward that night. I met Preston casually in the town on the same morning, and tried to persuade him by all means to return immediately to the workhouse, and respectfully request the doctor to place him in a bed in the hospital. He was, no doubt, to some extent salivated, or his teeth would not have been loosened by the application and his face swollen. He had no home or lodgings to go to, and expressed a wish for a little tobacco. The money was given him on condition that he would return to the union, which I find he did. What was my surprise on Monday morning to be informed that Preston was still under medical treatment in the casual ward, and he received medicine from the doctor on Sunday night — his patient of 67 years of age not being allowed a bed or bedding, but boards and one rug only. I appeal to the Guardians and the Poor-Law Board to define to the doctor and the master and matron what their individual duty is in all such cases, for I am now convinced that the tramp wards are used for patients under medical treatment, not only at Knaresbro' but other unions.

Since writing the above, I have information respecting the treatment of Preston up to Wednesday morning, from Hunt, formerly a soldier, a man in search of work, who occupied the same tramp ward as Preston on the previous night, in company with seven wayfarers. Preston still continued in the ward. Hunt stated that nine men had only five or six old rugs. The supper and breakfast was as before described; whilst he thought the bread in the evening did not weigh four ounces, and the morning portion was “under two ounces.” I enquired if Preston received only the same quantity. Hunt said he did not observe any difference. How do these confirmatory statements tally with the master's assurance that the whole of the males in the workhouse and casual wards have six ounces of bread to supper and breakfast, according to the printed dietary table? Preston's present condition demands prompt inquiry by the authorities. It is above a week since he obtained an order for the house. He has not had a bed to rest on, but continues to lay on boards, in his own clothes and one rug. From his own statement and appearance he has been salivated, it may be injured for life. If his case was, as first intimated by the doctor, “the dry itch,” — he ought to have been judiciously treated (and here, assuredly, the doctor is accountable) with appropriate remedial appliances and these not left in the hands of ignorant inmates to “apply freely.” I find Preston doubts his ever having had the complaint, and he said he thought the doctor questioned his own decision. As proof of this, during the first two or three days one of the tramp wards was kept exclusively for him. Subsequently, eight or nine men, clean or otherwise, have each night occupied the same ward. I fear the guardians have omitted to examine strictly into the bad practices now published.

Probably no place in the kingdom is worse than the adjoining union of Wetherby. I yesterday was an eye-witness to the doings within the dolorous walls of Wetherby workhouse casual wards. A man was placed in that wretched place who is severely affected with ague, and otherwise out of health. He was admitted some days before the doctor visited him; he saw him last Saturday and examined him without ordering any medicine or removing him to the hospital. During each night this poor fellow was obliged to lay with his own clothes on, along with two others on tramp, on a straw mattress and two rugs for three men — whilst the doctor's patient was trembling with ague and unable to sleep or rest. Another man was also under the doctor's care, who had to sleep with two others in the same plight. This is still carried on, although a man was lately treated in the same way, and kept by the doctor and the master in the tramp ward seven days whilst very ill — and reliable report states the officials were only roused out of their slumber as the shadows of death spread around the pauper patient, and to save themselves probably from grief, this poor soul and body was removed into the hospital; but, mark, he died on the same day. The only man in charge is about ninety years of age — a Waterloo soldier — he was threatened the loss of half-a-pint of beer for allowing a man to ring the bell, to appeal to the master to allow the sick men to sleep two in a bed, instead of three, which was declined.

Since the preceding allusion to Wetherby casual wards has been in type, I have information from the man. A somewhat singular coincidence occurred. I spoke to three men on the highway. One of them informed me he had come from Wetherby and had been laid up in the casual ward some days with the ague and liver complaint. On further inquiry, I found he was the man who had been reported to me by Laycock (whose case I have published). His name is Doyle, formerly a soldier, but incapacitated for duty. He had a very small allowance for a few months, now expired. He is subject to periodical severe attacks of ague. He fully confirmed what is published on his case. Doyle affirms that he was not allowed half sufficient food; while part of this pittance was of inferior quality. The wayfarers from Wetherby all concur that scant rations, &c., are given. Doyle was examined by the doctor some days after his admission. He gave him no medicine, nor instructions for his removal into the house or hospital. Doyle, from the nature of his complaint, was tremulous, and the doctor used words to this effect: “Don't be alarmed — they will use you well.” Words of suavity are assuring, but it is their practical carrying out that is honourable to men. The assurance failed on his part, and mainly on that of the master. The latter compelled him to lay (not to sleep) on a straw mattress, along with two men on tramp. The two old rugs would not wrap round them, and when the bell was rung (as in prison), the master's response was a surly negative. The doctor's two patients laid three in a bed; and unable to undress. Hence, they quitted Wetherby union, doubtless as desired.

I therefore do not assume that Knaresbro' officials are less human or attentive than their neighbours. My object is to promote discussion on these doings in my own native county; and, if possible, expose the internal working of every small and large workhouse, in my appeals to the Poor Law Board, the Boards of Guardians, the Ratepayers, and especially to the Government paid Inspectors, who are responsible to a large degree.

Before I leave the casual wards I think it expedient to notice that the Guardians of Knaresbro' union have sanctioned a more liberal scale of food to destitute wayfarers than is the case in many workhouses. They evidently wish to comply with the spirit of the act of Parliament, as shown above. The master stated the casuals are allowed the same supper and breakfast as the regular inmates received, whilst those who are able pump water or do any work they are set to. The dietary tables specify that men in the house shall have six ounces of bread and porridge to breakfast, and six ounces of bread and rice milk to supper. I saw the supper supplied on the night of my visit to the casuals; & I am fully satisfied although I did not see it weighed, that in no instance was six ounces of bread given with the rice milk, whilst the latter ingredient was apparently mainly milk and water — none of the men I spoke to found any rice in their tins. I am assured that this is the usual article supplied, and for which they are very thankful to the ratepayers; as also for the breakfast, which is universally stated to be much less quantity of bread, viz., they believe that the few pieces broken into the thin porridge never exceeds two ounce, instead of six.

It is not my business, but that of “the Guardians of the poor,” to investigate these discrepancies, for if the master's own statement is correct, the amount of bread, quality of the porridge and rice milk, is the same to the regular inmates as I saw supplied to the destitute wayfarers in search of work.

Speaking generally, the Guardians ought to know that every meal supplied to the poor in the workhouse and casual wards is fully up to the printed dietary tables. Do they attend at the dinner hour frequently, not only in the hall, but in the hospital, and see for themselves what is received and consumed by each inmate? Some are unable to take the kind of meat provided; have they any change, and in what way is the overplus accounted for? The examination and weighing of articles in stock, previous to the visiting Guardians signing their names (to the generally assumed assertion) that the various quantities in stock are correct, is I apprehend, very generally in England, fiction. The well-devised cheques provided in the standing orders of the Poor-Law Board for preventing carelessness and what has frequently been proven, north and south, to be fraud, by interested officials and culpable tradesmen, the audit by the Guardians quarterly not having been duly effected, has left the persons in charge far too great latitude, frequently injurious, we fear, to the ratepayers and to the humble and often honourable recipients of relief throughout the length and breadth of the land. Cannot the well paid inspectors from the Poor-Law Bused ascertain the internal working at every workhouse in their district as efficiently as the less paid factory inspectors grapple with almost every evasion of the factory Act of Parliament. I do not doubt that the Inspector, Mr. Farnall, when he repeats his visits to the North. will, from his great experience in these matters. investigate many of the cases which I have now, and on former occasions, alluded to, in my general and more definite remarks on various unions; and I think the present practice in many unions holds out a premium on neglect of the destitute.

The wash-house at Knaresbrough Union Workhouse is a detached good building. I suggest it requires better ventilation in accordance with the appliances in maltkilns. With other improvements, the laundry might be improved by concentrating the heat so as to only consume one-half of the present quantity of coal, with advantage to the women who do the work; whilst other minor improvements which I named to the master are required. It was satisfactory to learn that the refractory cell is not often resorted to. It is a cold place without a seat for the occupant, and the glass window is within reach. The weak-minded class and those who are subject to epileptic fits, on no plea ought to be allowed to be incarcerated in any refractory cell; end I trust in future the Guardians will direct its discontinuance. I have known persons attempt suicide in the cells of workhouses. In conclusion it is satisfactory to notice that this house is not without one or two Christian lady visitors to the occupants of the hospital wards; although tho number requires to be augmented, and some attention bestowed on the young women who cannot read, as is the case in prisons, and on the children on Sabbath and other days. Their assistance in finding situations is also valuable. A few Non-conformists and one Church Minister attend and address the people weekly. Some copies of the bible, and large testaments and psalms, with spectacles, would prove timely and appropriate. The Guardians mostly supply these invaluable gifts. I have drawn up this report very rapidly and imperfectly.

I am respectfully,


Leeds, 1st month, 6th, 1868.

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