Joseph Rowntree at Preston Workhouses, 1860

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 an extract from a much longer letter by Rowntree, published by the Preston Chronicle in January 1860, describing the Preston Union workhouse.


RESPECTED FRIEND,—I have had an opportunity of inspecting the various workhouses and schools belonging to the Preston Union. The ventilation in the old house in the town was very poorly attended to. The rooms are low, and much crowded with the sick and infirm. The house and various wards were dirty, with the exception of the dining hall and the new buildings. The hospital arrangements are very inadequate for the due restoration of the inmates; hence, the present accommodation is not good economy; and the state of the women's crowded wards and hospital is deplorable. This is applicable to the women and children's rooms on the ground floor, the whole being close and unhealthy from breathing day and night a vitiated atmosphere. I think the nurse is a suitable woman for her post. She requires better assistance, many sick persons being under her care, The school-mistress is a superior person, and deserves a much better room for teaching the children, some of whom had a sickly appearance. I do not know that I have seen a school-room, so defective in Lancashire. The only remedy is a new workhouse, combining all the needful appendages, such as hospital, workshops, school-rooms of a suitable area, a bakehouse for the supply of bread for the whole of the paupers, in and out-door class, as well as the industrial schools belonging to the union. It cannot be desirable to perpetuate the present mode of buying bread. The industrial training in shoe and clog making, tailoring, baking, joinering, and mat manufacturing, combined with half time at school for boys, and at the age of 14 years for situations, is most likely to fit them for making their own livelihood, and thus relieve the next generation from a large amount of pauperism. There is a want of more an large-type Testaments for the aged and sick, and of glasses. Scripture readers are much required; and as no paid chaplain is employed, and “no minister attends at the old house, except when sent for to a dying or sick Protestant,” might not the Dissenting ministers and others undertake this arduous Christian duty of reading the Bible, &c.? “Freely ye have received, freely give.”. On the same ground, how is it that Preston ladies do not form a committee for weekly visiting the various workhouses and schools belonging to Preston? The need of their interference is great. Let them reflect on the variety of classes of of women within the workhouse walls. The ladies' influence on the nurses, officials, &c., is valuable. The lunatic and idiotic women in this house would be benefited by their visits. This class needs far more classification in almost every workhouse. Several of the infirm men in this house could earn their bread with mat making, &c. The House of Recovery is a very valuable establishment. The number of paupers sent there is very small, as the cost is 7s. per week. This prevents the great portion of sick women and men being so privileged. In this House of Recovery, nature has a chance of rallying her enfeebled powers. From a supply food and pure air the doctor's skill is not rendered useless here, and through the blessing of a kind Providence, which ever co-operates with wise means, the patients are speedily restored. This might be the case in a well constructed new workhouse. Preston will shortly be behind Blackburn, as the latter Board of Guardians have commenced building an extensive new workhouse, combining the most improved arrangements.

The Ribchester Workhouse is near ten miles from Preston, and belongs to the same Board of Guardians. The able-bodied men are employed on the farm. There is a considerable number which are not of this class. Many of them might be profitably taught the mat making by a man in the house who is only 30 years old, and who has made mats before. This man, and others, who are likely to continue in this house, should be placed upon the most profitable employment suitable for a workhouse and mat making is one branch. The men lunatics and imbecile classes are numerous; some of these are only subject to epileptic fits. No classification exists. No paid attendant is employed. The man in charge is an old soldier, with a pension of 5s. 3d. a week. Out of this he pays the guardians 3s. 6dd. for his board &c., and is being considered by the Board and the doctors a fit and suitable person to have charge of many men; he has a pauper helper. I must be allowed to give judgment in this case entirely adverse to the written report of two doctors and the guardians, that the men lunatics, imbecile and epileptic patients, are under good and suitable care. I saw a man in fits twice during my stay of two hours; all the attendance rendered was from a poor man who was subject to fits himself. I saw a young man who is occasionally subject to epileptic fits, but who is in every way sane. He is kept among the worst class. Some that are older are also thus subject. The young man could make mats, &c. I saw another young man not subject to fits, and probably much improved. He is there as a lunatic. These cases of young men want the special attention of the doctor and guardians, for to perpetuate young persons living amongst idiots, &c., is undesirable. What skill is brought to bear towards the restoration of these men? More might be said on the lunatic class, but I forbear, and appeal to the parties responsible.

The master and matron are vary suitable persons for having this house under their care. The house is very clean, &c. No baths are provided for lunatics and other inmates A better system of profitable labour might be extended. The want of blankets is very great. Large-type Testaments are needed; and if Dissenters were invited, they would probably give their weekly attendance to read the scriptures to the poor and ignorant, &c.

The Penwortham girls' school appeared to be well attended to.

The Bamber Bridge school for boys (including those belonging to the Preston Union), I think, is not what it ought to be. The old buildings let in the rain. The boys' day room is below the level of the yard, and is uncomfortable. The dormitories are airy and probably healthy. There is no bath on the premises. The matron is a kind woman, desirous of doing her duty. The school room is a good new building. Some of the boys read well; and are progressing in various branches, much attention being given to arithmetic. I am bound to state that the regular system of resorting to corporal punishment is objectionable. Not only older boys, who may be obstinate or careless, but younger boys as well, are severely struck on their hands and back very many blows. Two boys, about nine years old, I named to the master as having been so subjected. One had only been a few months in the school, and those that I heard of were struck on account of their not working their question. I was an eyewitness to the effect on one boy. This subject wants the close attention of the guardians, for the school is isolated from Preston, and may, not have the advantage of the frequent visits of the guardians. I am inclined to think that the master has some good properties,'and ought to receive the definite orders of the guardians of these poor young children not to continue any corporal punishment. No trades are taught on the premises, except that there is a couple of boys to assist the tailor when they have one. Visitors and guardians should use their kind influence. It is now acknowledged in large and small schools that the cane is not required to reform and influence the reason, &c.

There is no remedy for a many of the foregoing disadvantages without a new workhouse to centralise the duties of guardians, inspectors, &c. The want of paid attendants in the Preston union is very apparent. Pauper nurses, &c., will not carry out the required attention needed. The porter at Bamber Bridge is not paid; he is a young man, writes an excellent hand, and keeps good accounts.

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