Joseph Rowntree at Rotherham Union Workhouse, 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 a letter by Rowntree, published by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in March 1860, describing the Rotherham Union workhouse.


The Rotherham workhouse I visited, and found the number of inmates small, about 120; consequently no reasonable excuse does exist for this establishment not being in a satisfactory state. But I consider that the ventilation is very imperfectly carried out, and is very deficient even in the hospital. The house itself is generally clean, but the persons of the inmates have not proper attention in that respect, and the great want of baths for the whole of the inmates was very apparent. The bedding is generally defective. Next, as to the educational part of this workhouse, there is general want of proper regulation. Although the number of children is small, there is both schoolmaster and mistress. I found the latter occupied with twelve children, whilst in an adjoining room some six or seven younger girls were left in a state of idleness, under various pretexts, and I learnt from herself this had existed through the winter. These younger children seemed to me quite neglected as to training of any kind, and I cannot see that a paid schoolmistress was justified in thus leaving those children without care or attention. Some of the girls read pretty well, and answered a few little questions satisfactorily, whilst others evinced ignorance in these matters.

The schoolmaster appears a competent person. The number of boys under his care is small. The reading of several was good, and a few questions in other branches of knowledge were satisfactorily answered, but more attention to mental arithmetic is desirable.

As to industrial training, there is none in the house (either for adults or juveniles), and no limit is placed the guardians as to the time that a boy shall remain under the protection and training of the workhouse system. I heard of one boy who had been sent from this house under the age of ten to work in the coal pits, where we well know that anything like religious care and moral training generally ceases; surely this was no act of true guardianship to the poor friendless boy. And I believe other boys have left this house and other workhouses in this district at too early an age before they were at all fitted to judge what was best to do or what they ought to avoid.

I saw the master on entering the house, and asked his permission to go round, with which he complied, and he requested the schoolmaster to accompany me, which he did very effectually. The old women's rooms we found clean and comfortable, but cold, being on the ground floor; this also applies to the lunatic wards, and ought to be altered before another winter, — will not some benevolent ratepayer see to this? The hospitals are cared for by a respectable nurse, who has both the men and women to attend to. As far as I learned, the doctor was regular in his attendance. We visited the refractory, cells, which, as usual, were kept looked up, and consequently are dark, damp, and unhealthy, being on the ground floor, unboarded, and without any seat, in order to make the punishment more severe. The power of the master as to this imprisonment is very great, as the standing orders allow him to lock up a disobedient inmate for twelve hours at a time, on short diet. I may remark on passing, that in my opinion the poor-law board should make some alteration in this respect. Guardians should be careful to prevent the abuse of this power, for the master acts as judge in his own case frequently. These remarks are not intended to apply specially to what I have seen in this district. I remark that although there is a brick oven and bakehouse in this house, yet the bread is purchased, which I consider bad economy, especially as the quality is seldom if ever equal to home-made; though I notice no defect in the provisions generally, and the quantity supplied is reasonable.

Before leaving this workhouse I inquired of the schoolmaster who accompanied me to the office, if I might note a minute of my observations, this he unhesitatingly accorded with, and handed me the visitors' book. He knew that I was only an ordinary visitor, but, doubtless, had the sagacity to see that any candid observations from a stranger might be of service in affording the guardians and master the opportunity of considering the propriety of carrying out improvements I might suggest. I commenced to write on the want of ventilation, &c., when the master of the house entered in considerable agitation, and prevented me adding a line; the ratepayers may answer whether this mode of conveying remarks was not legitimate and might tend to the benefit of themselves and the poor within the walls of their house. Ratepayers should avail themselves of their undoubted right and privilege to visit and inspect, and not leave the onerous duty to mere strangers. I should have liked to have seen the punishment book which the schoolmaster had proposed, but this the master of the house would not comply with, consequently the amount and frequency of the punishment, whether in the dreary cell, on short allowance of food and otherwise, is unknown as to the extent. My time prevented me speaking to more than one guardian, who was leaving the railway station, whose name I do not know; from his mode of speaking to me, I did not wish to meet a second of his stamp, for he was haughty and did not appreciate my motive for inspecting workhouses. I forbear further comments on his behaviour, but it tended to prevent my seeking interviews with other guardians, lest judgment and remarks on the workhouses should be biased. I have no acquaintance with any of the medical officers, guardians, or officials in the district.

I am, respectfully,


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