Joseph Rowntree at Liff & Benvie Poorhouse, Lochee, Dundee, 1861

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 Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser in February 1861, describing his impressions of the Liff & Benvie parish “Lodging House” (or poorhouse), at Lochee, to the west of Dundee. Because the parish's population was less than 5,000, the establishment was not subject to regulation and inspection by the Scottish Board of Supervision.


I have inspected this house thoroughly, and find it very far short of what a house owned by so influential a body ought to be. The rooms are very small and low, so much so that the matron said there was not room for a table to allow the men to take their dinner from. This room contained several beds, and some men were confined to their beds and requiring much more attention and improved diet than they now receive. There is no dayroom or dining-hall. The bedding is to some extent old and far worn. The whole house, including the walls and windows, wants a thorough cleaning, and the ceiling and walls whitewashing. I see no difficulty in some of the men attending to the latter twice a year, and daily attending through the whole premises to the better sanitary state of all the rooms occupied by the men. The women's rooms, where there are several in bed constantly, are in the same condition as those of the men. These poor women and their rooms should be similarly and constantly attended to by the female inmates or a hired servant, and a more liberal and suitable diet afforded to some of them. It is very evident that many improvements might be made, as there is ground for building belonging to the Board. A town missionary kindly attends. I am unable to learn on what Christian ground the various ministers and ladies and gentlemen of the district do not feel a call to visit this isolated home for their destitute “neighbours.” A few additional large type Bibles and Testaments would be of service, with spectacles also, some religious tracts, &c. The few children in the house have been ill, but are now fast recovering. The matron informed me that a portion of them are to be sent to school this week. They took their broth (made without meat) and bread to dinner, in the cooking kitchen standing. The clothing of the inmates is on the same system the other departments. The board of managers meet monthly at the house, probably in very small numbers, for I find it is too common for a neglected and ill adapted poor-house to receive far less attention from the ratepayers and officials than new houses mostly obtain, consequently the matron and the paid doctor have the full charge of the house under the direction of the Parochial Board. All paid medical officers are responsible to a serious extent for the internal condition of the poorhouses. Improved ventilation and better sanitary measures in many ways come within their sphere; on their performing their duty in frequently inspecting the whole household; and, lastly, they can, from their knowledge and education, enter their protest — in their own book, which is read by the Board — against any house under their supervision being below the ordinary standard of poor-houses in Scotland. I take this opportunity of stating that the Lochee old poor-house, the old poor-house in Canongate, Edinburgh, and the present old poor-house in Perth are far the worst conditioned houses I have inspected in Scotland.

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