Joseph Rowntree at Sheffield 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 Sheffield Union workhouse.


I have had extensive opportunities of inspecting workhouses in Lancashire and many in Yorkshire, and desire to call the attention of your readers, being ratepayers, to some observations which I have to make, after having inspected the workhouses of this district. First, as to the Sheffield workhouse, in Kelham-street. I find it contains from 400 to 500 inmates. Through the courtesy of the master, Samuel Rogers, I was allowed freely to inspect it, and found evidence of a general attention to cleanliness. Some provision is made in most of the rooms for ventilation, but this is frequently frustrated by the paupers and attendants, although, I consider, the paid officials should be held responsible in this matter. There is not an adequate number of baths. A large portion of the inmates have no fixed time for bathing, hence their personal cleanliness is neglected and their general health retarded. Besides, the labour of washing the house linen is much increased by that neglect.

But it is to the subject of industrial training that I wish to draw the attention of the ratepayers. No boys are taught the useful occupations of tailors, shoemakers, or joiners, and not even employed in mat making, (indeed among the adults only three or four are so occupied.) In short, I could not find that any boy within the walls of this extensive workhouse is trained to any industrial pursuit. And, be it remembered, this industrial training would not deprive the boys of half the time of schooling, which the law exacts up to the age of 14. This defect in workhouse management is a very serious one; for an enlightened system of industrial and educational training goes to prepare those young people, after having been kept to a suitable age by the guardians, to rise above the pauper class, instead of remaining in it or near it in their after life. Thus the interests of the ratepayers, as well as humane feeling, suggests that everything should be done that can be, to save these children from the effects of the improvidence or vices of their parents, in which they have had no share. Connected with this is the important subject of the suitable placing of the children when they leave the house, and their being kept under the occasional oversight of the relieving officers or inspectors. This care, which even a poor-law imposes on the guardians, is necessary to check the unfeeling manner in which these apprentices are often treated, and I find reason to doubt whether this duty is attended to here. Boys are in request for many manufacturing employments, and the care of the guardians in selecting remunerating occupations and properly attending to this duty, will relieve the future rates in substantial manner. I find great deficiency as to copies of the Scriptures in your workhouse, and I especially regret to notice that, although a few school Testaments and several portions of the Bible were to be seen, there were not more than two copies of large type Testaments and psalms to be found, not even in the hospitals, the infirm wards, or the old men and women's day-room. For instance, C. Sorby, aged 62 years, had been in the house five months without having a copy of the Bible to read. Also, James Carbridge, aged 54, made similar complaint. I think that the officials and guardians ought to see that the rooms are provided with an adequate supply of large type Testaments, psalms, and Bibles. I learn that very few Scripture readers are in regular attendance. The occasional visits of the town missionary, J. Godson, of Miss Harrison's groom, J. Bates, and also those of few ladies, are much valued. The latter would do well to extend their efforts to other inmates, besides the class to which they have generally attended. The sick, the aged, and the infirm, seem to miss such efforts. There are also occasional public services by various ministers, but, as is evident, a large portion of the inmates cannot receive benefit from them. I do think that, in town of 180,000 inhabitants, one might expect that a much greater number of Christian men and women would volunteer their services for the religious benefit of their poor neglected neighbours. Visitors, both ladies and gentlemen, are much needed. And though the ratepayers are saved the expense of a paid chaplain probably £100 per year, they should remember that this is done on the principle (in which I fully coincide) that voluntary efforts in religious matters are most efficient and every way preferable. Indeed, I trust that the simple naming of this deficiency will stimulate some few religious persons to apply themselves to this work, as the highest kind of charity they can engage in.

With regard to the attendance of the medical officer, Wm. Skinner, in the hospitals and lunatic departments, I find reason to consider that his attention is fairly given, though there are many defects which must lessen the efficiency of his remedies. I allude to the want of ventilation, over-crowding, and absence of classification; but I am told there will great improvement in these respects when the alterations in progress are completed. If the duties of the doctor and the paid nurses in this department are properly carried out, they deserve credit. But in other parts of the house there are several of the inmates who require more especial and frequent attention from the doctor. I allude to cases liable to epileptic and other fits, and wounds of various kinds, which are only seen once a week. Should not these have closer attention? In illustration, I may name the case of Joseph Kenny, aged 17½ years, liable to monthly epileptic attacks. He states that he has been in the house about a year, and has not been examined or attended to by the doctor during this time. But this is one of a class of cases which ought to come under the weekly review of the house committee in connexion with the doctor. I have reason for believing that this regular visitation of the house committee is a point greatly neglected. I mean that personal inspection of every ward and inmate in the house, which it is their duty to perform. It must be evident that there are many individual cases which require different alteration and treatment from one week to another, not only as to mental or bodily condition, but as to the disposal of the inmates in the various wards, and regulation of their employments. Besides, the sanitary condition of the house and the state of the stores require the constant attention of the guardians, involving responsibilities which their acceptance of office binds them to fulfil. I admit that a portion of the committee may attend at the house and make a weekly minute of such attendance; but this is not sufficient; it is personal inspection of the inmates, and a thorough review of the house which are required equally by their duty to the poor and the ratepayers. In my opinion, the house committee should consist of the whole of the guardians in rotation, so that each guardian should feel himself responsible both for relief and expenditure. It is possible that, through the neglect of this personal inspection, the poor may not be properly cared for, and yet that the rates may increase.

The master may do all that is possible in his onerous position, especially as I find he has the whole of the bookkeeping to attend to without, the aid any paid assistant, so that no wonder if some things are omitted in such an extensive establishment.

Then as to the great matter of industrial training already alluded to. There seems in this workhouse no system whatever. There is need of a paid officer, a competent man of energy to devise and direct some means of useful mechanical employment. The mere oakum teasing is at best a profitless employment. Many of the inmates are quite capable of being trained to mat making, weaving, carpentering, and other useful work, all of which are pursued to profit in some workhouses. I believe that the useful employment of paupers is a course which both humane and economical reasons support, and only requires to be properly carried out by boards of guardians to receive the full sanction of the poor-law board. The ratepayers may not be aware that many of the inmates, although affected with special infirmities, are capable of working at these useful employments for many years to come, hence the great importance of their labour being turned to good and profitable account.

The manufacture of mats and matting is well adapted for the purpose. Indeed, I have seen inmates of even the imbecile class quite successful in this branch of employment. Of course, this is still better when it can be combined with out-door employment, which, however, the unfortunate position of your workhouse prevents. And I cannot help remarking that it seems a matter for great regret that any money should be spent upon a workhouse in the position of this; had it been applied towards the purchase of a site, with grounds, of say ten acres in extent, about a mile from the town, where proper arrangements could have been carried out, of a sanitary and industrial character, it would have been of great benefit to the inmates, and, in my opinion, would have ultimately tended to the lowering of the rates. Besides some out-door employment is essential to the mental and bodily health of all, especially the idiotic and lunatic classes. As to the quality of the provisions generally, it seemed good, and the quantity supplied a reasonable one; but I was surprised to find that the whole of the bread for this house is purchased. The loss thus incurred is a considerable sum per annum, and the quality of bought bread, it is well known, is uncertain and often defective. Could not a large brick oven be built on the premises during the alterations?

The boys' and girls' schools at Pitsmoor are in a healthy situation, whilst many of the children indicate scrofulous constitutions. Is there no remedy for this fearful scourge on this class of children? There are thirty-five girls in the school; they appear to be under the care of competent mistress, who endeavours to make them understand what they read; several of them read well, and answered questions from the tables, &c., in satisfactory manner, whilst many of them are, as may be expected, very backward. They knit and sew well. The mistress claims the need of using the cane to enforce her influence. “All corporeal punishment to females is contrary to the standing orders of the poor law board.” She informed me “she held a high certificate,” hence she claimed the right of exercising her own private judgment, independent of ratepayers or guardians. Whilst bearing my testimony to her ability as a teacher, my conviction is, she is too severe with her juvenile charge. I fear the valuable assistant-matron is not treated with that respect which is due. I next visited the boys' schoolroom, and found forty boys in two divisions of one room. The master had the first class, consisting of twelve boys, then reading. I stated, as I have often done before, that I was not an official visitor, and wished not to interfere with the reading then going forward. I suggested a chapter to be read from the Testament, which was gone through in a very laborious and incorrect manner. The boys were next questioned from the multiplication and pence tables. No boy could answer the question how much 99 pence made, nor yet solve the query if 2s. 6d. was taken to the grocer for 1lb. of sugar at 7½d. and 1lb. of soap at 4½d., how much change would there be in return. There are many boys who have been in the school four years, and the examination I made was amongst the boys in the upper division. The corporal punishment inflicted by the master evidently fails to develop the mental faculties of these poor boys. I saw two strong canes laid on the table; one was shivered up, and the new one laid ready for active operation. He showed me his punishment book, and I found, to my astonishment, ten entries made during the present year; one of which, causing the boy's head to bleed, was alluded to in last week's newspaper. The charges were of a trivial character— “inattention,” “dirty habits,” &c. The latter was simply the infirmity of children wetting their beds. The master claims the authority of the doctor for this mode of punishment in regard to that bad habit. In other cases, he acts on his own judgment; nevertheless, equity demands that I should inform the ratepayers, whose opinions the master entirely ignores. The punishment book contains a column to be filled up by the guardians, stating their approval or not of each case. I saw the heading on one page, written by the guardians, “approved,” which continued to the foot of it; this was dated up to November, 1859. Hence the doctor, the guardians, and the schoolmaster, are equally responsible for this corporal punishment.

On leaving the workhouse, I did not find the master, S. Rogers, in the office. The young man who accompanied me round, and who is the master's valuable, although unpaid clerk, informed me that no book was kept for visitors to enter their observations; I, consequently, left without doing so; hence my remarks are more minute than they need otherwise to have been.

In giving publicity to my investigations, I may observe that they have been undertaken voluntarily and gratuitously, and with a view of aiding the cause of humanity and religion. I am no paid official, although I have inspected many union workhouses, both in England and Ireland (in the latter during the famine, and I did then report for sixteen weeks to the poor-law board, in Dublin, when my progress was stayed by taking the typhus fever); neither do I represent any organised body. I am, therefore, alone responsible for the views herein expressed. I tender my obligations to the press for their fearless advocacy of the cause of the oppressed.

I am, respectfully,


Post-office, Leeds, 3rd Mo., 9th, 1860.

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