Joseph Rowntree at the Montgomery & Welshpool 'House of Industry', 1864

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 part of a much longer letter by Rowntree, published by the North Wales Chronicle in November 1864. It describes the Montgomery & Pool Incorporation 'House of Industry' — a term often applied to the workhouses set up by Local Act Incorporations such as Montgomery & Pool. Although the Welsh town of Pool was renamed Welshpool in 1835, the Incorporation retained its original name and continued in operation until 1870 when it was replaced by the Forden Poor Law Union.


On visiting this establishment, I found 101 inmates — 47 men, 23 boys, 22 women, and 9 girls, including 11 idiotic males and 9 females, and 4 blind men and 2 women. The officers consist of the master, matron, schoolmistress, paid nurse, two women servants, and one man who works with the men and boys, and has charge of the garden, &c., and, in addition, fills the post of a constable! A paid chaplain and surgeon are engaged. The addition of a man officer with a knowledge of mechanics as an attendant to the imbecile and blind would prove an advantage — this section of the inmates deserve more attention and out-door exercises. This officer might also attend the medical man on his visit to the male hospital wards, and also assist the paid nurse, who is advanced in years. I would recommend the directors to secure the services of a competent Christian man to instruct the boys, and otherwise train them when out of school.

The house is kept clean, and was recently repaired and painted. The ventilation is not sufficient if the house were full. The bedding is pretty good, though too many mattresses are made of straw. Baths and a supply of hot and cold water for the inmates is much needed on both sides of the house and lavatories, the accommodation hitherto is but an apology. The old fashioned stove must prove very comfortless in winter, sending the heat tip the chimney! The same quantity of coals, with very little attention, might do much more service!

The dietary provided is more liberal than I have yet witnessed in Vales. The bread is baked in the house, and is very good. I believe the sick and hospital patients are suitably cared for in this respect. The medicine ought to be provided by the dietary.

Gardening operations are well sustained, but it would be well to introduce various indoor employments for wet and frosty weather. There is no tailor, joiner, or shoemaker now employed. A young man of 20, whom I noticed to be deformed, being young, might be instructed so as to become the house tailor.

A better supply of large type Testaments and Psalms and spectacles for the aged is wanted. The isolated situation of this house makes it necessary that Christian women should visit and assist, independent of any sect or denomination, who may calculate on free access.

The townships of Montgomery and Welshpool are subdivided into many sections, which act independently. In Pool there are three divisions, who have their own poor to relieve within or without the house of industry, the same rule applies to the vagrants and casual poor. An overseer in the middle division informed me as to the relief extended to this class when absolutely destitute, that the vestry board had resolved, some time back, not to relieve any poor person, or tramp, or traveller, and in consequence of that order, he was excluded from rendering any relief, and even refused any such an order for a bed which costs 3d.! I am informed that the justices of the peace had prohibited the police to examine applicants for night's lodging, and when they found the party destitute, give them an order for a 2d. bed! Surely justices of the peace and others in authority should have sympathy for the poor, and render them every assistance, through the police, of obtaining the address of the overseer, so as not be tempted to commit the fearful crimes which are often effected by tramps, &c. How often we find thefts committed, windows broken, &c., in order to obtain bread and lodgings. I find some of the overseers more liberal and ready to extend aid to the poor, but the “select vestry” prevent their doing so. I am no advocate for the encouragement of vagrants, but it often happens that destitute wayfarers in search of work, or otherwise, are ill-treated, having but a miserable place to lay down on straw, and no food or fire provided even in winter. No exact work of them seems desirable, but it is cruel to deprive them of simple food and lodging for a night.

Through the courtesy of the master, I saw the whole house and school. The school instruction is very defective. Many of the older children who had attended school several years, and, probably, will leave early next year, were unable to give correct answers to the simplest questions in mental arithmetic! This was witnessed by the master of the house and the schoolmistress. I do not think that what is now imparted either by the paid chaplain or the schoolmistress, is at all adequate to the wants of the children.

The objection existing in the minds of some highly favoured members of the Church of England in Wales to co-operate in good works with the Dissenters is much felt, and very detrimental in this district, and prevents many good services which might be rendered by unpaid but humble Christian men among the Dissenters.

There is also danger of paid men and women engaged assuming too much authority over the inmates. They evidently fall short of true sympathy to the inmates, and in some cases to the imbecile and weak. I am confirmed in these views by some of the directors. I do not refer to the aged paid nurse in these remarks.

In consideration of the immense disparity in the various branches of relief, I find to exist in Wales, and frequently in the same neighbourhood, as to general allowance, education, quality, quantity of food, in the treatment of the “casual poor,” &c., I am fully satisfied that there exists serious omissions of public duty on the part of well paid inspectors from the Poor Law Board, in their not protesting against such wrongs to the guardians, and report fully to their board in London. Here we find Montgomery and Welshpool neglecting to relieve the really destitute with food and I fear with a bed.

At Brecon, I learn from official returns, that 830 persons were duly relieved in 12 months with food and lodging, after they had passed the supervision of the police assist[ant] relieving officers, whereas at the next union in the town of Hay, which is a greater thoroughfare, only 60 persons were allowed a lodging in the same time last year, and food was extremely seldom given without the medical officer ordered it.

The Hay Board of Guardians, and their two relieving. officers, stands prominent in Wales for their neglect of the wayfarers. I have last week gone fully into individual cases at Hay, and I will maintain the accuracy of this low and dishonourable course of action — it is evidently unfair to Brecon and Hereford.

I am, sir, your, &c.,

J. ROWNTREE, Of Leeds.

Hay, 11th month, 10th day, 1864.

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