Joseph Rowntree at Nottingham Workhouse, 1865

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 a letter by Rowntree, published (and possibly abridged) by the Nottingham Journal in May 1865, describing the Nottingham Union workhouse.


To the Editor,—The house is generally clean, and the beds and bedding satisfactory The ventilation is defective, and requires extensive alteration, and the sanitary measures more seen after. Lavatories and baths are not sufficient for the household, and the latter ought to be mote resorted to weekly. These arrangements should claim more attention in many workhouses. The beds in the hospital are much too near each other, and the space awarded is too circumscribed. No shelves are provided for the patients to lay sundry articles and books on, nor day-room for the hospital; this is a great loss to the patients in each ward, and doubtless retards their more speedy recovery, or precludes the alleviation that might be obtained at vary little coat. A few bed screens are required for the worst cases, both on account of the patients themselves, and on account of those who witness their sufferings without having the power to relieve their fellow-creatures. An incurable ward for each sex would prove beneficial, where extras might be administered, and presents of tea, sugar, tea, received from visitors. Some of the patients ought to be got into the garden occasionally, who are now constantly in their wards, and several in their beds, and additional paid nurses are required for efficient administration in the infirmary.

A number of the patients in the hospital were on the house dietary for dinner. There is very great disparity in medical men's views, who have the charge of the pauper hospitals, in administering suitable extra nutriment. The recent inquiries instituted and proven against St. Giles's Workhouse and that of Holborn. sustain this view.

I saw a girl aged 14 or 15 years subject to epileptic fits, and not strong in mind, but a nice girl; she has not been taught the alphabet, and she wishes to learn to read. The nurse stated that she had made considerable improvement since her admission two or three years ago, in employing herself, &c. Cannot she be educated and suitably instructed to work! The guardians may have to support her for the next 50 years. A girl about 14 years had been sent from the school into the lunatic ward in consequence of her taking epileptic fits; she stated that she had been four or five yean in the school, and could read and write well. I think these ought to claim the prompt attention of the board. I consider the last case is a very serious one, With what propriety can a sensible girl be consigned to the imbecile and lunatic wards, where she must come in daily contact with the imbecile class, which is calculated to uselessly depress her mind! I hold it to be unchristian and financially impolitic. I learnt from the chairman that the guardians had not been consulted prior to her removal to the lunatic ward. These cases require attention. The doctor can only consign patients to these wards, the master or matron have no right to do so. A part of the lunatic class ought be taken outside for walking exercise, and change of air and scene, much more frequently, This is resorted in Manchester, London, &c.

The reformatory dark cells ere without a seat; they are very objectionable on various grounds, and cannot expected to reform the offender. The master defended their present condition, and said no seat was needed, and he preferred dark to light cells, &c. Very few masters or matrons are suitable to act the part of judge and jury, hence all committals ought to be open to investigation on the following “board-day,” and the punishment book examined, otherwise the officers in any union may become despotic. I believe the committals at Nottingham are not numerous. I have known a change of master and matron in London reduce the committals to these miserable dark cells from 300 a-year to 30, and sustain the discipline much better.

On my naming to the Nottingham Workhouse master, that what I suggested was in accordance with prison governors' views of large experience, he treated the opinion with haughty contempt, I think he has yet learn to know himself.

One or two ladies kindly visit the girls' school and one the female wards, but their engagements an so numerous that they have not found time for visiting the inmates of the male and female wards of the hospital department, or the lunatic wards. It is of great importance that a committee of Christian women be organised for this object, to read the Bible, &c., to the inmates, and visit the sick on the score of humanity, Christianity, and financial economy — the latter prospectively, but not far distant. I consider the paid minister ought to devote close attention to all the hospital and lunatic wards, supplying interesting instruction, reading to the whole household, adults and children, and the library being furnished at the expense of the ratepayers or kind volunteers. Large type New Testaments and Psalms are required, along with supply of spectacles for the aged.—Yours respectfully,

Leeds, 5th month, 13th, 1865.    J. ROWNTREE.

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