Joseph Rowntree at Liverpool Workhouse, 1859.

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 the full text of a letter by Rowntree, published by the Northern Daily Times on 28 November 1859, describing his impressions of the Liverpool Parish workhouse. This was one of the earliest, if not the first, of the many such letters he wrote to publicise his cause.


Gentlemen,— Having been invited to accompany three Liverpool gentlemen to inspect the Workhouse, in Brownlow-hill — one of these being the chairman of the board — it appears to me a public duty to make known some facts to the ratepayers. The general good management and thorough cleanliness of this large establishment, are apparent. We first went into the mill, and examined the wheat, and found it a mixed lot of very inferior kinds, the condition bad and musty. The meal from this wheat was musty and unwholesome. No first-class miller would buy such for flour; most of it only fit for sizing. The wheat supplied last February was still worse, as I saw it, along with a Liverpool gentleman, in the mill hoppers. What knowledge the storekeeper possesses, or has put in practice for years past, may be determined by the ratepayers. A sample of wheat was shown to us by the chairman then being delivered; the storekeeper maintained that it was good and sweet, whereas we all pronounced it not sweet, but musty, and I learn that they resolved to refuse that lot. It is satisfactory to learn that another contractor stepped in for one quarter this year, and did supply an honest, sweet, good article in wheat and meal. It should be known that the officers do not eat bread from this musty meal; they live on the finest of wheat, or rather flour, supplied to suit the consumers — quantity and quality in every way extra to that of the paupers. A more genuine sympathy is desirable between the officials and the poor persons under their care. Lady visitors promote sympathy to the best of their power, which is very limited: their visits are invaluable.

The waste in grinding in coffee-mills is very great, as the bran clearly proved, from its mealy character. It is re-sold to the public, and is in great request. It is a very heavy loss per annum to buy wheat instead of good fresh flour and meal: the motive for doing so is to give employment — first, to a number of women in the house; second, to a number of women out of the house. I will first take a woman, A. B., in the house. She has been admitted a few weeks for the first time, and is respectable and well-behaved, as the governor admitted; she: is constantly sent to grind, and has the task of 90lbs. of tough wheat, which she may grind in eight or nine hours; she has no change of work during the week. The second class of women are those who require a portion of relief, but receive nothing from the workhouse or any out-door relief. This class is very numerous; they earn 6d., 9d., and a few anxious and able 12d., according to the work done. Some work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and can only make 6d., that is, for 60lbs. of wheat. They will work for many weeks or months at this pittance. Is not this in favour of their character, bad as no doubt some may be? They work in long narrow passages, the handles only of the mills being in the place, so that no fraud can exist. The passages are walled up on each side and at the far end, and are very badly ventilated — even in winter the breathing space is very insufficient; during the summer and warmer weather, it is an outrage on humanity to see the perspiration running down the poor women who are kept grinding at once the tough bad wheat and their own lives — the work is destructive to the lungs and chest; for the laws of Providence cannot be disregarded without health yielding a prey to disease. Is not this like grinding the face of the poor in and out of the workhouse? I appeal to Liverpool ratepayers and to the medical men of high standing to determine as to whether these are to continue “the rights of women” in your town, which is rapidly advancing in reform of every character, as see your public baths and wash-houses, your drainage and cottages for the poor, your schools and reformatories, your free public library and museum, your infirmaries and hospitals, your invaluable drinking fountains, established 1856, by the liberality of Charles P. Melly, many of them at the small cost of £10 each, &c. The tread-wheel for grinding is far more effective and less oppressive. Is there no other work to be found? If you cannot trust the millers apply steam power to millstones. No doubt a small steam engine would be of great value on the workhouse premises. I recommend mat and matting manufacturing as far more likely to prove a permanent good, by training to a trade capable to be followed out at their poor homes. This wants organisation. Some infirm men and women would work to profit, and, as they are fixtures for life, teach new hands. The cost of good material for matsis about 3d. per lb.; the maker in Liverpool receives only 4d. per lb. These are re-sold to the public at about 6½d. per lb.; hence the range for workhouse profit is large. The matting is retailed at 1s. 10d, per yard. I understand the Liverpool prison price for good mats is 6d. to 7d. per lb. A boy, of twelve or fourteen years of age, I saw to-day, who made a 10lb. mat in one day, and no better is manufactured in the town. Facts abound to show that a more profitable and humane labour can be found for women and men. The present iron mills waste the corn, probably at a loss of 15 per cent. To successfully apply the labour would save 10 per cent. more, making probably 25 per cent. Even the millers grind wheat, dress, and deliver it for 6d, per 70lbs., whilst the workhouse pays 6d. for 60lbs., wasted in degree, and not dressed. A set of men attend to dress the meal. The steel mills near the gate might be worked by vagrants in grinding some other materials; the mills cost £60 in repairs. The lunatic wards we saw; I think more classification is needed. The idiotic and those who are subject to occasional epileptic fits, and who are quite sane, are obliged to spend all their time with the idiots. This depresses the mind of many a respectable man and woman. The shower bath-box is very objectionable and alarming, and, without great care, might cause very serious effects on mind and body. The public twopenny baths in Liverpool, warm and shower combined, are very superior. The baths in the Workhouse want extending and using. These remarks are made to invite the ratepayers to inspect the Workhouse. I do not consider that there is any wish to have the whole scrutinised, although a willingness is assumed. Much objection is shown to any question being put to the poor, as though they were convicted felons. The governor is quite adverse to any change from the iron-mill grinding system, and appeared to me to magnify and anticipate difficulties, in trying to introduce work in mat and matting manufacturing, which the governors of prisons make to pay so well, and to work a reformation on the hands employed without interfering with the market. In a workhouse, containing 2,000 inmates, and large “schools of industry” belonging to the workhouse, two miles distant, some hands might work at mat making. Is it not worth while for a descendant of the honoured philanthropist and skilful deviser for the poor and outcast, James Cropper, to use his influence to substitute, for the present oppression and loss, a progressive training to all profitable labour, and its attendant virtues, in his responsible station as chairman of the board? Resolution will be requisite in the board to reform any grievances that may be oppressive to the poor.

I am an entire stranger to all contractors and officials, and it is alone on the score of humanity and justice, as a Christian man, I now press on, your serious attention the foregoing comments, and thank the public press for bringing to the light of day a system of long-standing oppression. — Yours, truly, &c.,


Post-office, Liverpool, 11th month 26, 1859.

The chairman of the board was in fact the Rev. A.M. Campbell.

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