Joseph Rowntree at Leeds Workhouse, 1860

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 Leeds Mercury in March 1860, describing his impressions of the Leeds workhouse and Schools of Industry.


I have, on various occasions, had an opportunity of inspecting the old Workhouse, and it is a source of gratification to find that that building will cease to be occupied by the destitute poor the the present year.

I find many persons complain that their various aggravated sore legs &c., are not duly examined by the doctor. His walking through the hospital is not sufficient. His eye and hands are required more frequently. Nor ought he to excuse himself on the plea that the sorely afflicted men and women do not ask his assistance. There are patients who state that for months they have not had the consideration and attention of the doctor — the names of many I hold in my possession, with the time they have been in the house, and the length of time their very fearful wounds and sores have been unexamined by the doctor. Many patients require bed chairs to rest and support their backs.

How does all this comport with the extravagant embellishments of the new chapel, said to cost the ratepayers of this town from two thousand to three thousand pounds? — or how with the lavish architectural decoration of the frontage of the new house, with its brewery attached? — and how are the sick, the maimed from numerous causes, to be cared for in the new houses by the medical staff entrusted with the duty? Where will the next doctor reside? Will he be ever ready (as was required at three o'clock a.m. this morning) to attend at a half hour's notice an ever-recurring cases of life or death, in a large degree depending on his speedy administration of relief? I fear no such prompt attention can be insured from a non-resident officer, however highly qualified, having extensive practice. Will not the wealthy town of Leeds engage a resident surgeon, holding a good diploma, and afford him the needful inducement to devote the whole of his time and his energies at the New Workhouse and the Schools of Industry; and, if needful, prescribe for a few out-patients, of course preparing and administering the whole of his own medicines. How is it to be? Are we to have a splendid palace without the resident surgeon? The interest on the lavish external decoration of the house and chapel, and the cost of the brewery, would have remunerated one of the best qualified surgeons and an additional well-qualified man-nurse. The Town Hal1, recently erected, is a magnificent building, betokening the wealth of the borough.

The old Workhouse “dietary table” is nearly equal to any I have had the opportunity of examining in Lancashire or Yorkshire. Each man is allowed four pints of beer per week, and each woman two and and a half pints per week. I submit that this is injurious.

As the quantity of bread allowed in Leeds per day to each man is 2oz. less than some unions supply, I would recommend than an additional 14 oz. of bread and 4 oz. of cheese per week, or extra tea and sugar, might very suitably be substituted for the beer. I am not aware of any other dietary table in this country or in Ireland where intoxicating drinks are sanctioned, except by the doctor's order to patients.

There are generally a few children in the old house of various ages up to ten, who are detained there for various periods of from a month to six months, entirely without education. “The Guardians of the Poor” ought to visit each ward in the whole house weekly, and serve on the House Committee by rotation, as it is found the best mode of having a thorough knowledge of the internal workings of the whole Workhouse. I have known several Guardians hold their responsible office for years without even walking through each ward and section of the Workhouse.

The election of Guardians is now in the hands of the ratepayers throughout the country. Does it not behove them to know the antecedents of all new Guardians? This ought not to be made a party question; the aim should be “the right men in the right place” — men of high moral principle, and who will not accept the office without resolving to fulfil the weekly or constant duty incurred, by their acceptance, both in regard to the true interest of ratepayers and the hapless poor, without expecting to be paid for the hire of cabs to convey them to the new house and schools. The New Workhouse, with the land attached, will afford an opportunity for the industrial training being carried out. The iron mills to be introduced for grinding corn I believe will prove a financial loss; and without the exercise of much more humanity than some of the Leeds officials have had credit for in their their decisions on applications for relief, may prove more oppressive than that of the tread-mill for convicts. I have every reason to consider the present master and matron both humane and effective officers; nevertheless, the master will have to comply with the orders of the Guardians, who do not sufficiently know the merits of each case subjected to the severe “labour test” of corn grinding. Then it involves the buying and selling of the article. This is very objectionable; and if wheat were ground, it is known to be wasted in the process to a far greater extent than any advantage from grinding. The whole labour in this case would prove worse than thrown away. There are other labour tests for the really able-bodied and idle man very much less objectionable. The land being kept under spade culture, and the mat and matting manufacturing for unfavourable weather, would pay better. This is carried out in some unions successfully. It involves the paid services of a man or porter who possesses mechanical ability, and who would see after any work the men were occupied with. This is attended to by a porter in one union successfully.

There is not an adequate supply of the large type Bibles and Testaments, although a few additional copies have been obtained since the present master took the charge of the house. The aged require spectacles. There are a few lady visitors attend a part of the inmates. Their sympathy and influence are very valuable. One or two men attend occasionally to visit the sick and infirm. A chaplain is paid £200 per annum for his services at the Workhouse and Schools of industry. A paid chaplain being employed, ought to be a guarantee that the welfare of the whole household would be under his special care, from the children to the oldest inmate. I do not wish to infer that the Leeds chaplain is remiss, whilst more Scripture reading is desirable for all classes.

The Schools of Industry, I believe, are well managed by the officials in charge of the various departments. The head schoolmaster appears very capable of conducting his own department, and of training the pupil teachers. The boys evince the care bestowed upon their education. Many of the older boys work half-time at industrial occupations, as shoemakers, tailors, and gardeners — none, at present, are bakers, &c. They are in request as apprentices. They are allowed to remain until they are fourteen years old. None are sent into the coal-pits as apprentices, which reflects credit on the Guardians, — all coal-pit hands ought to be free agents. The Bradford Board of Guardians are reflecting on the obloquy that their predecessors have cast upon the town, from their apprenticing young boys to the slavery of the coal-pits, for a long term, within the parish of Leeds and elsewhere. 0f course these boys gain a settlement; and their being consigned to working colliers to lodge, and board, almost inevitably tends to their degradation, and ultimately perpetuates pauperism — as “a bad tree produces bad fruit.” The energies of a friendless pauper boy ought to be made the best of; and he should be much more protected from abuse during his term of apprenticeship, than the superficial scrutiny given by relieving officers allows of. The Guardians ought to review these boys twice a year. The boys at the Schools of Industry are regularly trained to learn martial music, &c. I hope the Liverpool system will not be followed, either of sending young boys from the Schools of Industry into the army, or in their objectionable practice of placing women to grind corn — to the dishonour of the Select Vestry Board (who are the Guardians) of that wealthy town. Now that poor rates are light, and provisions moderate, the poor children should receive a much more enlightened guardianship.

The girls are thoroughly well trained to housework of all kinds, with half of their time in school — the matron informed me that they did more work than the boys; and that they were in great request for servants, at the age of fourteen years. The schoolmistress doubtless possesses ability, but patience and forbearance are also requisite in a union school. The girls, I believe, make fair progress in their learning.

I would hope that the use of “the strap, or cat,” is now abandoned, which was in use some years ago. It is entirely contrary to the standing orders of the Poor-law Beard, viz. “No female shall undergo any corporal punishment.” Much more attention is required in Holbeck and Hunslet. A great want of education exists there; lady and gentlemen visitors are required.

The entire absence and want of a lunatic ward was strikingly apparent on my visit to the Leeds Old Workhouse, on Tuesday last., I saw a man lunatic in the men's hospital ward, at three o'clock p.m.; he was bound in a “straight jacket” (that relic of the last century); — ha was deprived of the use of his bands and was sitting quietly. The woman attendant and nurse informed me that “the man was very excitable, especially during the night,” They have no bed-room for such probationary patients; — they occupy the hospital dormitories and day-room. For this town to be without a “padded room,” now so banal, and the doctor resorting to the “straight jacket,” as a matter of course, for all his excitable patients, prior to their being sent to Wakefield Lunatic Asylum, is indeed lamentable. How, I ask, do the Guardians and the doctor defend such a system, which is contrary to the standing orders of the Poor-law Board, and the opinions of all medical doctors conversant with insanity?

In giving publicity to my investigations, I may observe that they have been undertaken voluntarily and gratuitously, and with a view of aiding the cause of humanity and religion. I am no paid official, although I have inspected many union workhouses, both in England and Ireland (in the latter during the famine, and I did then report for sixteen weeks to the Poor-law board, in Dublin, when my progress was stayed by taking the typhus fever); neither do I represent any organised body. I am, therefore, alone responsible for the views herein expressed. I tender my obligations to the press for their fearless advocacy of the cause of the oppressed.

I am, respectfully,


Leeds, 3rd Mo., 22nd, 1860.

[We have been obliged to abridge the above on account of its great length.]

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