Joseph Rowntree at South Shields Workhouse, 1862

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.

In March 1862, Rowntree submitted a long letter to the Shields Daily Gazette, describing his impressions of the South Shields Union workhouse. The newspaper felt unable to publish his notes in full, but instead decided to 'extract or condense all the material parts of them.'

Our correspondent visited the South Shields Workhouse during the past year, getting admission by means of an introductory note from a guardian. He found the establishment perfectly clean; but again a deficient use of baths. Ventilation not so good as might be. All the beds of straw — which ought to be modified; and better pillows should be supplied. In cold weather am additional blanket would be seasonable. He remarks that the quilted woollen rugs are of good quality. Oakum-picking and stone-breaking are the employment in which the inmates are engaged — not very suitable or profitable ones. The quantity of land under culture is small. The education of both boys and girls is committed to a female teacher; and our correspondent thinks the arrangement unsatisfactory. The children might, he suggests, be allowed to attend Sabbath schools the town — the number in the Workhouse being small; where the number is large he would prefer that a Sabbath-school should, with the assistance of volunteer teachers, be conducted in the Workhouse. He asserts that the classification required by the standing orders of the Poor Law Board cannot be fully carried out, and that to some extent the children come contact with the adult inmates. The dietary had been improved since a previous visit made by our correspondent, but he sees room for improvement yet. The allowance of bread for dinner might be increased. The hospital patients have not the ordinary allowance of butter; and some other extras, frequently supplied in workhouses, might be granted to them, and also to the old men and women. The limited extent of the ground attached to this Workhouse render it advisable that the inmates, especially the children, should have frequent opportunities of walking outside the boundary walls. Although various Christian ministers attend the Workhouse, and preach to the inmates, very few visits are paid to the hospital and other wards, and the absence of lady visitors is much felt. The Town Missionary not only takes his turn in preaching, but also visits the hospital wards — he has not felt at liberty (our correspondent remarks) to extend his visits to the Workhouse proper. Mr Rowntree states that when last in this neighbourhood, few weeks ago, he was refused admission to the Workhouse — the Guardians having, after his former visit, passed a resolution excluding him. Of the reasons for this, and whether they were sufficient or not, we are, of course, unable to form any opinion.

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