Joseph Rowntree at North Shields Workhouse, 1862

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.

In March 1862, Rowntree submitted a long letter to the Shields Daily Gazette, describing his impressions of the North Shields Union workhouse. The newspaper felt unable to publish his notes in full, but instead decided to 'extract or condense all the material parts of them.'

Mr Rowntree visited the North Shields Workhouse in company with a guardian. He remarks that the house is well situated, in a healthy locality; and that the hospital, recently erected, is a detached building — which he considers an advantage. The chief defect he saw in the hospital was that it contained no baths. He also considers it desirable that there should be a trained and intelligent nurse in charge of the hospital. The whole establishment is kept very clean, but the use of baths for the inmates might be more frequent. Some provision has been made for ventilation, but it is not, in all the wards and day-rooms, effectually carried out. The men and boys are, to some extent, engaged in agricultural employment under the charge of the master. Many of the more infirm men are engaged in oakum-picking — at which their earnings are very small; the more profitable manufacture of mats and matting is not engaged in. Very few persons are employed as joiners, tailors, or shoemakers — in one or other of whose trades, our correspondent thinks, the boys of the Workhouse might be profitably employed. Our correspondent suggests that a considerable saving and practicable improvement would be made if the bread for the Workhouse were made on the premises. He considers the hospital arrangements capable of some improvement. The beds, as throughout the Workhouse, are straw. No day-rooms, which would be, in many respects, of use, have been provided. The classification is not very good. No separate room is provided for patients who are not likely to recover, to whom better beds and some extra attention might be extended. The matron, of whom Mr Rowntree speaks with commendation, has to take charge of the hospital. Our correspondent thinks the lunatic and imbecile wards and the gardens appropriated to them too contracted. There is only one day-room for such patients of each sex, and of course classification is out of the question. These patients might be more occupied in the garden and grounds, and kept more the open air. The general dietary the institution is not equal to that of the more liberal class of workhouses. An additional meat dinner in the week and more varied fare would be improvements. The hospital diet, our correspondent adds, is less favourable than is usual. The children in the schools he found backward in their learning, but the present teacher, who has recently come, is expected to make an improvement. The guardians lately showed their interest in the education of the children by offering a liberal salary when advertising for a teacher. He thinks that the boys and girls ought to be taken frequently beyond the boundary walls of the Workhouse.

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