Joseph Rowntree at Newtown & Llanidloes Workhouse, 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 December 1864, describing the Newtown & Llanidloes Union workhouse at Caersws, Montgomeryshire.


This Union contains a population of 23,730 when the last census was taken; when I visited the workhouse it contained 148 inmates, 24 men, 43 women, 31 boys, 29 girls, and 21 infants, including 13 imbeciles and lunatics, the number of children is unusually large being 81.

Sixty of the boys and girls are under the care of a male and female teacher, who have not held their situations long — may we calculate on their raising the standard of education in the schools as I conclude from the incorrect answers given to a few easy questions in mental arithmetic, that the boys and girls are very deficient and unfit to he sent to service where knowledge is essential to their advancement. Many of the boys have been long in the school, and will ere long be sent out to service; the Guardians ought to examine the elder boys and girls monthly as to their progress in secular and scriptural knowledge.

The education of the children of the poor who receive out-door relief, or of orphans when boarded out, is not paid for by the guardians, and the sum allowed for their maintenance per week is decidedly lower than in similar cases in South Wales. In Swansea and Merthyr Unions the guardians pay for the education of this class to the teachers of British and National schools in every part of the union, hence their attendance is more regular, notwithstanding this extra expenditure. Merthyr Union pays less on the population than most unions in the County of Glamorgan.

The Newtown and Llanidloes Guardians ought to discover that any present saving of school pence, is now, as it has been in years gone by, ultimately a system involving expenditure of as many pounds.

The workhouse was generally clean, and considerable attention is given to ventilation, excepting some wards. I understood the subject was claiming the attention of the guardians.

I believe the supply of water has been short this summer, and much personal labour required to raise it with pumping. Also there exists a great deficiency in lavatories and baths for the use of the inmates, which is not good economy, as the linen and bedding will require more soap and washing; also the free application of water tends to promote health and good habits, especially among the children.

I saw 15 young women nursing their children in one ward! Some of them had been taught in the workhouse school, others had attended a Sabbath school, they were destitute of any reading book; some had been several months in the ward, and had not seen a Bible or even a fourpenny Testament This seems an eligible field for the labours of Christian women, but none visit them regularly. Among this unhappy number several expressed their desire to be rescued from their trammels, none were ready to stretch them an effective helping hand, or to obtain situations for them. How is it that non-conformists and church Christians stand aloof? I waited upon several ministers and others to solicit their attention, &c.

I find a great deficiency in the supply of Bibles and large type Testaments, and Psalms for the aged and spectacles.

The DARK CELLS are occasionally resorted to, they are not calculated to reform the offender; these are situated below the level of the ground, consequently they are very damp and cold without a seat or any appliances for warming, ventilating, or other conveniences. Has the Government Inspector from the Poor Law Board ever inspected these cells? which I venture to say are not to be equalled in the United Kingdom for their adaptation to do harm to the poor men placed in them, whether to suffer punishment in the day time, or lodgings at night for the “casual poor,” with but little straw and an old rug to cover him, who is not allowed a fire to resort to, to dry his wet clothes previous to going in to be locked up till morning. And why has he no food given him in the morning? Is it possible that any two visiting guardians have closed the door of these cells upon themselves, and report to the Board that they consider them suitable for a fellow man to remain in over a night? These dark places are barbarous, and demand the influence of the Press to expose them unto the light of day, as long as Inspectors appointed do not report of such wrong doings. Such cells if placed under the control of a capricious person are often found unwarrantably resorted to, or held up to intimidate the inmates.

It is customary to permit respectable persons to attend chapels on the Sabbath day, and to visit their friends and relations at least once a month, but is not carried out here, reasonable as it may seem to be.

The beds are made of straw, and many require renewing; the general bedding is deficient, and better material should be introduced, especially in the Hospital.

The wash-houses and laundry require various improvements to make them equal to many others I have visited, and pipes for hot and cold water introduced; the wood grating for the women to stand on ought not to be omitted with many other important appendages, and a washing machine which I have defined in my former letters.

Classification ought to be more strictly attended to in this and most of the unions in Wales. No school girl ought to be sent to nurse in the young women's ward as was the case on the day of my visit, this association may prove injurious to the girls.

I consider a union district school for the County in a convenient situation, where the guardians could visit and inspect monthly the progress of the children would be very beneficial — and due time ought to be granted for each boy to be at school, and on being sent to serve, none ought to be bound by indenture for more than 5 years; the guardians' power is extensive as to the disposal of time of apprentices.

The industrial occupations are not well sustained, the men and boys ought to have, especially in winter, suitable employments which I have already adverted to. The old men cannot do much, still various methods for the better and more agreeable disposal of the time might be expected by a practical master, possessing a mechanical turn of mind. The boys ought to be much better trained and educated than they have hitherto been.

The brief amount of work bestowed weekly by the paid Chaplain, who addresses the people on Sabbath day afternoons, ought to have the attention of the guardians. Many paid and unpaid Ministers feel it incumbent on them to carry out practically, weekly visiting the Hospital and other wards. This allows time for reading a chapter from the New Testament at the bedside of many poor individuals who cannot read. I do not state that he entirely omits visiting the Hospital — paid Ministers are aware that many in every union cannot attend the service on the Sabbath day, others are confined to their beds — Ministers of Christ ought to be earnest in endeavouring through prayer and other efforts to raise the fallen and the erring portion of humanity, so far as rendering within their reach the means of Grace and the help of Divine Spirit and to labour superficially, this involves real self-denial, appeal to the Ministers and Guardians. How is the Sabbath day spent in this house, the Guardians rarely look in on this day. I make the same appeal here and in other letters to the Christian men and women to form themselves into a committee and assist, especially the female portion of the inmates, to introduce a better system of nursing after Florence Nightingale's method.

I did not meet with a paid nurse in the house. I think the general comforts of the patients and aged might be considerably advanced were the surgeon more closely to investigate all the cases that occur. He ought to visit the children and infirm people in their wards and not wait for them to be taken to his room. I have frequently found this negligent plan adopted and union surgeons omitting the due inspection of the various orphans and others in the nursery and men with bad legs &c. in the Infirm wards but out of the Hospital.

The general House Dietary is more liberal than many I met with in Wales, nevertheless, considerable advantage would be derived by a careful revision. This table bears date 1856 as being then approved by the Guardians, Surgeon, and Poor Law Board. There is no mention in it, as to the quantity of ingredient, the soup, pudding, porridge, &c., should consist. The master and matron are thus allowed wide range unless the authorities sufficiently ascertain how the food is being prepared. How rarely the Guardians give their presence at meal time, even at dinner to witness the waste, bad cooking, &c., and the stuff on that account not consumed yet charged.

This subject deserves more attention, and I commend it to the attention of Mr. W. G. Lumley, the Law Officer of the Poor Law Board.

I am, respectfully,

J. ROWNTREE, of Leeds.

Carmarthen, 12 month 2nd day, 1864.

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