Joseph Rowntree at Wellington Workhouse, Somerset, 1867
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, the Somerset County Gazette published an abridged version of Rowntree's report of his visit to the Wellington Union workhouse.
The Wellington Workhouse contrasts very unfavourably with various other houses in the West of England. In regard to the allowance of animal food, I believe it is lower than any workhouse in England. The quantity, published by the Guardians, is two ounces per day three days a week, whilst the remaining four days no allowance of meat is made — the full quantity being six ounces per week. I visited the adjoining workhouse of Tiverton the same day, where I found that fifteen ounces of meat per week was the quantity given, and some additional in the soup; also four ounces extra of suet pudding and bread, with meat and potatoes. At Wellington no bread is granted. Bread and cheese only is given two days per week. This is objectionable for old people, and no milk is used in making the oatmeal gruel for breakfast and supper, whilst broth, or extracts from the boiled beef, is rigidly withheld from the regular adult household, and it is, with great economy, made to serve as a dinner for the children, with bread. At Exeter City Workhouse eighteen ounces of animal food is allowed for each adult per week. I informed a Wellington ex-officio Guardian, who attended the board six years ago, that their printed dietary-table which I saw in the dining-hall was unreasonably low, but no result has followed. I therefore now inform the ratepayers through the medium of the press, and ask them to investigate the penurious doings within the dreary walls. I consider, also, that many of the hospital inmates are fed much too low. The clothing might be better and warmer, especially for the hospital patients and the imbecile class, whilst the general household really need have warm clothing. The beds and bedding were better than many unions supply, and the house clean. The system pursued with the casual poor at Wellington, who apply for night's lodging, is more arbitrary than any I have yet found in Devonshire. The unhappy casual must submit, in winter, to a warm bath on entering; his own clothing is taken from him for twelve hours, and he is consigned to a cold ground-floor ward, with one or more old thin rugs. Here, on a raised board and straw mattress, he must spend ten or twelve hours. His clothing is returned to him in the morning, and he performs the task assigned him for the food and lodging has had. This is quite proper, although, I think, a little of the milkless gruel might be as well bestowed with the dry bread at Wellington as in London. It will observed that the West of England unions are under the same Poor-law Inspector, Mr. Gulson — a man of many years experience. He is stated to have ordered that the baths shall be administered in winter. Many men are, no doubt, of the vagrant class, and ought to work. Has the Government Inspector, during the last twenty years, closed his eyes to the great disparity in dietary even in the same district?
Unless otherwise indicated, this page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.