Joseph Rowntree at Rochdale 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 Rochdale Observer in February 1860, describing the Rochdale Union workhouse.

To the Editor of the Rochdale Observer.

The Rochdale Union, like that of Preston, has several workhouses; all of which are old and inconvenient, and not adapted to the various requirements of a good, economical, house. The one at Spotland is being improved by a new hospital and a considerable addition to the main body of the old house. This house appears to have a master and matron who see well to the inmates. The lunatic and idiotic class are fairly attended to, excepting the want of paid nurses. The additional accommodation provided by rebuilding, and the bath now fitting-up will be very valuable, provided hot water is also introduced. Dr. Coventry is vigilant in seeing after the whole, although the guardians here do not require daily attendance; twice a week is the appointed time for ordinary visits. The bread in this house is very good, it is baked on the premises. The new part will make it the best workhouse in the union. There should be more work done, such as mat-making, tailoring, &c. The Scriptures should be more read voluntarily by visitors, especially lady visitors, which would be of great service to the whole union.

The Marland Workhouse is a very old building; the ventilation is very bad in all the ground floor rooms; some improvement exists in the bed-rooms. A wretched idiotic man is constantly in bed, and the room he occupies and the one it opens into are very obnoxious as he is dirty, and his bed likewise. A woman was under care who had twice attempted to commit suicide; an old man had sat five nights to protect her; she had been an opium-eater, and I believe, under the vigilant skill of Dr. Lawton, she is much improved, and were she in a suitable place, with an efficient woman nurse, hope might be entertained of her recovery. The doctor is evidently a man who aims to do his duty to his pauper charge. The board do not expect his frequent attendance. It is a serious loss to such houses, not to have doctors paid for daily attendance, hence a large union house has much advantage. Large-type Testaments are much wanted. Although a great dearth exists, the Scriptures are read to the inmates. The want of baths is much felt. All paupers should bathe every fourteen days, or oftener. This house has done its day. Cannot the guardians and ratepayers be induced to build a spacious union workhouse for the whole union, now that trade is so very good and the number of paupers consequently small; and with cheap bread, would not this be preparing against a day of calamity, from sickness or epidemic, and panic or depression of trade? In a new house, with hospital, workshops, baths, schools, &c., no reason would found for sending the young boys into the coalpits, to be subject to every degradation. This system must perpetuate pauperism. How can a bad tree, bad system, produce any other than bad fruit?

After visiting Spotland workhouse, where I had an opportunity of making a satisfactory report in the visitors' book, I proceeded to the Wardleworth house. I went first into the dining room, at 2.50 p.m., and found the bread and butter cut in considerable quantities for the next meal. Two persons were smoking — one of them a woman. The room was not large nor clean, very close, and ill-ventilated. The matron accompanied me. She did not express any objection against smoking. The women's sitting-room was very sickly. Two of the women are subject to fits, and no one was there in charge of them.

The sick ward was very close — without ventilation. I saw part only of an old Bible in this room. More large and good type Testaments are much required throughout the house, and glasses for the aged. Two of the men's bed-rooms were clean and airy, but the men's sitting-room was dirty, and not ventilated. The men also were dirty. Crispin Weston, a pipemaker from Oxford, was in the hospital. He is about 40 years of age. He had been in the house nine days, ill of asthma. He had been spitting blood some time, and he stated that he had not seen Dr. Collingwood since he had entered the house. His assistant, Mr. Turner, had seen him a few times, and had on that day ordered him a mustard plaister. It was then about four o'clock, p.m., and he was unattended to. I rarely ever saw a man in such a reduced state out of bed. His cough was almost constant. I asked who was to apply the mustard plaister, and an old man, a pauper, said “he should, when the matron got it ready.” Why was not this man in bed, and suitably cared for before, and on, Wednesday, the day I was there? Why does not Dr. Collingwood personally examine such cases after being in the house nine days?

On leaving the women's inadequate hospital room, the matron, on my asking to look into the next room, said, “We have a girl locked up here.” I expressed a wish to see her. The “old pauper” nurse who had the girl in custody unlocked the door, and the matron, the nurse, and myself entered. I was told that the girl was “not in her right mind,” and that “she would not speak,” and much more. I spoke kindly to her, and inquired her name, and those of her mother, sisters, &c. To each question I obtained perfectly satisfactory answers. She was from Rawtenstall, near Bacup. She is known to Mr. Scott, the Catholic priest. I found this girl had been locked up for twelve or fourteen days and nights. The master has since informed two of the guardians and myself that the doctor's order was to “keep her on bread and water.” This, he stated, “he had not complied with.” I found her seated on a wretched bed in the women's vagrant-room, her hands blue and chilly. No blankets are allowed in this room, and during the whole time — days and nights — this girl had been incarcerated without blankets and without fire. Her name is Judith Ireland, aged 17 or 18 years. She stated that she had not seen the doctor since Wednesday — that day week. The old nurse “thought Thursday.” One made it seven, and the other six days before, whilst the matron stood by, and “hadn't any idea” as to the day.

To whom is Dr. Collingwood accountable? Where does he find his authority to order bread and water to subdue, &c.? No fire and no blankets, and the depth of winter!! Or where does he find his authority even to order this young woman, who is represented as insane (Mr. Stewart, Mr. Taylor, and myself, were convinced her very depressed state of mind), be kept in the ward, with any vagrant woman who might be placed there? We did not near that she was a worthless character. Why did not the doctor see her for six or seven days if her mind was wrong? During the time I remained, through my entreaty, she was washed and allowed to go into the women's hospital room, and, for the first time for fortnight, allowed to warm herself at a fire. She had only been allowed to go into the yard from need. Fresh air or exercise was not allowed. On one occasion, she was so unwilling to go back to the inhospitable room that she remained out some time. The old nurse, with pauper for assistance, tried to bring her in; and, during the struggle, the pauper pulled her by the head, and struck her with a stick, which the girl wrested from her and used in retaliation. I mention this because much has been made of it to attempt to prove how desperate the girl has been. She had run out of the house on the 12th of January, and was brought back on the following day. Now, whether good or bad, insane or otherwise, doubtless an account will have to be given to the Poor-law Board and the guardians, for such conduct.

Dr. Collingwood, it appears, had seen the girl within a week. Why had he not seen Crispin Weston at the same time? Does he not go through the house when he visits it? I have been thus minute because I was refused the opportunity of entering my observations in visitors' book, by the matron on Wednesday, and Friday by the haughty master of the Wardleworth Workhouse; although on this occasion I gave him a note from one of the guardians (Mr. Dania), requesting him to allow it. In consequence of this I waited on the ex-mayor, Mr. Stewart, who is also vice-chairman of the Board, and suggested that he should give me a note for the purpose, upon which he kindly proposed visiting and examining the whole establishment with me.

On our arrival, we at once went the vagrant word, and examined the bed which bad been occupied by Judith Ireland, another guardian joining us at the moment. They found my statement fully corroborated, the bed being very inferior to what the matron had represented to the Board the day before. A dirty sheet and old coverlet were the only protection she had from the cold. Two other beds in the same room were in precisely the same dirty and neglected state. The nurse and matron informed us that two vagrants had also occupied the room on Thursday night.

We next examined the beds in the mens vagrant room, and found them still worse. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Taylor inquired when the linen was changed. Neither matron nor attendant could state distinctly, but the matron stated that “once month was the oftenest.” There appeared to be no fixed time for changing the general linen of the house, as various days were named. The two guardians found things in much worse condition than they had anticipated, both regards cleanliness and ventilation, and fully confirmed my statement. Mr. Stewart ordered the young woman to be immediately placed in the women's room, and have a bed in the same, &c.

On going into the office, Mr. Stewart requested the master allow me to enter my observations in the visitor's book, which, however, he peremptorily refused. The relieving officer from the room adjoining at this juncture, was requested to witness the following. I stated that I would not read a word in the visitors' book —that I only wanted a blank page, requesting them to stand by whilst I wrote, to see that I did not abuse the privilege. Mr, Stewart then repeated his request to the master, and was again determinedly refused. Mr. Taylor, a guardian, witnessed this closing scene of dignified authority on the part of the master towards the vice-chairman and ex-mayor of Rochdale. I never refused to give my name in any workhouse. I have very frequently entered in the visitors' book that I am no official.

At Hollingworth, I visited on Thursday, the old women's room, which appeared comfortable; but there is a great want of large-type Bibles, Testaments, &c., and of glasses to enable the inmates to read them. The dining and sitting-rooms for the old men and idiots were not ventilated. The number of imbecile and epileptic cases was numerous. There are no paid attendants who have special charge over them. Dr. Lister attends the house twice a week, and oftener if sent for. It is so old and unsuitable that no proper classification of the inmates can be made. The house is clean. and the master and matron appear attentive to their charge. The farm is a valuable appendage to the establishment, and many, more or less capable, work upon it, to profit; but their is no industrial occupation for in-door labour.

2 Mo. 1st, 1860.    J. ROWNTREE, Leeds.

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