Joseph Rowntree at Leicester 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 an extract from a longer letter by Rowntree, published by the Leicester Chronicle in May 1867, describing the Leicester Union workhouse.

On my calling at the Leicester Union, I was obligingly shown over this well-conducted establishment by the master, who has held his appointment prior to the erection of the present workhouse. The number of inmates on the day of my visit was 504, or only half the number that has occasionally been lodged within the walls. I will here briefly allude to the treatment of casuals. They are examined by the police, and those found destitute are furnished with a pass to the casual ward at the union. They receive food night and morning. The men lie on boards, a rug is supplied, and in return for the accommodation and rations they pick 1lb. of oakum, and generally leave the union by 9.30 a.m. This allows men desirous of obtaining work to do so. No attention is given to this class by the paid minister of the Church or by volunteers — not even on Sabbath-day, as is done in some parts of England and Scotland. The medical officer endeavours to perform his duty, in admitting urgent cases into the union hospital. Most of the foregoing contrasts very favourably with the discreditable, and illegal proceedings I found in full operation against the “casual poor,” who are obliged to seek admission at Derby Union. I trust the representations I have made of the irregular proceedings in the Midland Counties may cause the Poor-law Board to instruct their paid inspectors generally to bestow much more effective supervision, and forward far more extensive reports, not only of this class, which I admit are of far less interest than most of the departments. As alluded to before, harsh treatment by guardians, master, porter, or doctor, in any union, drives more casuals unfairly to those unions that act reasonably towards them. I do not sympathise with the real vagrant and idle class who will not work for their own and family's maintenance.

I have sought to convince Boards of Guardians that all destitute persons who lodge in the Union on Saturday night, ought to be allowed to remain until Monday morning, and receive rations, as is the case in Scotland, whilst in England and Wales the system pursued is to turn them out even in winter, and extensively without having allowed them any food night or morning. This continues the case in many workhouses within the district where incendiary fires extensively prevailed in the year 1865. These weary wayfarers ought to hear the Holy Scriptures read by the paid minister when such is engaged, or by volunteer visitors, especially on the Sabbath day. In some large towns the various dissenting ministers and Scripture-readers visit the inmates of the “casual” wards nightly to read the Bible and distribute tracts, &c. The worst may be influenced by Christian kindness and counsel, whilst some youths may be rescued from pursuing an idle course and bad company; they require the vigilance of a kind friend to aid them to escape from a life called liberty, but tending to the gaol. Would not such an improved system, if adopted, also give a greater security to property generally, whilst the destitute would be assured that some men care for their souls?

We ought to remember that discharged prisoners and others, often experience great difficulty in obtaining work, their ragged and dirty clothing is often a preventative to their finding employment. Guardians would act wisely in occasionally giving old clothes and shoes to destitute strangers. A refuge for discharged male and female prisoners is much needed. When in a degree reformed, partly from their sufferings, and we may also hope scriptural instruction imparted and derived from their perusal of the Bible, whilst in prison, they ought not to be abandoned as many now are. We all ought to feel an interest in preventing re-committals to prison — hence the importance of finding such persons, of either sex, work, and seeking to rescue the fallen by the inculcation of sound Christian principles and total abstinence from intoxicating drinks.

The most rigid economist might support these views, as they doubtless tend to diminish pauperism and crime.


I will now address myself more immediately to a consideration of the system of management adopted and acted upon within the workhouses of the three kingdoms. I will first direct attention to


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 are frequently superior to the allowance made to the respectable poor. In Scotland, one general, uniform, poor-house dietary is enforced by the Board of Supervision as a minimum. In Ireland and Wales it is more varied. I consider each is 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 boards of guardians allow one-fourth as much more as others for some dinners, and the quality varies still more. The broth and soup often in use are very ordinary: this poor fare is extensively sent into the hospital wards, and generally the pigs consume considerable quantities of that which the old, the imbecile, infirm, and others, cannot eat. The guardians fail to make themselves conversa

I consider the whole of the bread that is consumed in workhouses, or dispensed as out-relief, ought as far as practicable to be manufactured at the workhouse. This might, if well managed, occasionally effect a saving of 10 per cent., whilst the poor would be supplied with genuine wheaten bread, and at the same time the boys would have an additional industrial occupation opened out to them. When a fire-brick oven is set up, there can be no difficulty in allowing the inmates to have roast meat, &c., twice a week. The Leicester guardians have for many years made and baked the whole of the bread they require, and find it the best system: they bake at present 25 sacks of flour weekly. I hope they may extend the use of the oven for dinners occasionally.

The guardians might suitably reconsider their practice at the unions. The system of giving vouchers for outdoor relief to be accepted by the small shops for goods of various kinds is often much-abused, as quality supplied is frequently inferior. Why not insure to all the recipients of relief thoroughly good bread, which is at present the cheapest article of diet?


In many workhouses no suitable provision is made for ventilation, and where it is made the officials and inmates frequently neglect to carry it out; hence the dormitories, hospitals, day-rooms, school-rooms, and workshops are often found in a most unhealthy condition. This might be remedied by opening and closing the windows with a key placed in the hands of some responsible person, and by adopting suitable appliances at moderate cost. The sanitary arrangements and drainage require extension. Lavatories, towels, and baths are not so freely supplied and resorted to as health and cleanliness require. The workhouses, however, are generally kept clean. Baths with a supply of hot and cold water through pipes are much needed in the poor-houses for the use of the inmates generally. The whole of the inmates ought to have baths more frequently, and Leicester is no exception. The wash-houses are frequently in a very neglected state, and lack the most simple but essential arrangements for the convenience of the poor women — for instance, wringing and washing machinery for even the hospital dirty linen; and very many boilers are not supplied with water through pipes, nor is the boiling water drawn off through taps, hence the labour is oppressive. The women frequently are not supplied with wood gratings to stand on to keep their feet dry, whilst some laundries are without a mangle, and it is quite the exception to find an economic and appropriate drying-room, &c. I consider most unions require great improvements in these departments.

At the time of the erection of Leicester Union much attention was bestowed on the ventilation, and when the various appliances are duly carried out the wards generally are well ventilated; additional lavatories of a more appropriate kind are required, similar to those in use in the hospital.

A careful inquiry respecting sleeping accommodation has convinced me that the straw beds and blankets in many workhouses are defective and insufficient for warmth and comfort. The great importance of warm clothing and bedding is not sufficiently kept in view. I am sustained in this opinion by the Commissioners in Lunacy, who are generally medical men of large experience; they invariably recommend good beds and warm blankets, along with superior diet for the lunatic and imbecile class. I have found in some Unions in Wales, and elsewhere, that straw beds with only one blanket and cotton rug are allowed for the inmates and the hospital patients. Why do not the Union surgeons report to the Guardians that further additions and better beds are requisite, for the aged and sick more especially?

Allow me to commend the last paragraph to the further consideration of the Leicester Board of Guardians and the medical officer. The beds and bedding are clean, but cut straw or chaff only is in use for the house and the hospital beds and pillows.


The most profitable, and, at the same time, most convenient, mode of employing the the inmates of our poor-houses is a question surrounded with many difficulties. More attention has of late been given to it, but a greater variety of employments might very suitably be introduced in most unions. Hair teasing and oakum picking ought to be more generally superseded by the far more profitable and healthful occupation of sack and mat making, sheeting and quilt manufacture, whilst joiners, tailors, shoemakers, gardeners, and others should, as far as practicable, be employed in their own avocation. Splitting firewood, and tying it up in bundles for fuel, for home use and for sale in the town, is found profitable in many unions. Oakum picking work is kept up in many unions during eight and ten hours daily, frequently in wretched and unhealthy sheds or rooms, where old men are consigned until sickness sends them into the hospital to die. I know of few more miserable and monotonous places in a workhouse than the old and infirm men's oakum-room (see London, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Swansea, &c.) Do the surgeon, the guardians, and the inspector from the Poor-law Board ever inspect these wards, and the women's oakum punishment forms, and the cell?

I have found the hand-loom profitably employed in Paisley, and also in Lancashire. In Liverpool Union applicants for relief and the casual poor are occasionally tested by being compelled to grind corn in iron mills, which has had a considerable effect in deterring, most unfairly, needy persons from making application. This occupation is unprofitable in various respects, and the bran retains a quantity of flour. The Poor-law Board have raised their protest against it for women, and to some extent lessened the grinding system. At Leicester Union I found the industrial occupation mainly well carried out by those who are capable.

I am respectfully,

Joseph Rowntree.

Leeds, 6th month, 22nd, 1867.

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