Joseph Rowntree at York Workhouse, 1868

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 York Herald in February 1868, describing the York Union workhouse.


Respected Friends,—“By the law of England it is provided that every poor person in a state of destitution shall receive relief from a public fund, in food, clothing, in lodging, or in medical or surgical assistance, according to the necessity of such person. No question is raised as to the country, sex, age, character, or conduct of the destitute. The only inquiry is as to the actual destitution. The relieving officers or overseers are empowered to deal with urgent or sudden cases of distress without waiting for the direction of the Board of Guardians.”

How far these requirements of the law are complied with in the wealthy city of York, where churches, chapels, schools, and benevolent societies are numerous, may be judged of by the following:— Any poor wayfarer arriving there, and applying for relief at the Union Workhouse, no matter how far he may have journeyed, how long he may have fasted, or however wearied, out of health, starved, or hungry he may be, receives no food whatever on the evening of his admission. “No supper is allowed for casuals.” Fancy for a moment a poor man out of employ (and here I would just again remark that I have no sympathy with regular professional tramps and vagrants who ignore honest labour when obtainable, and who prefer an idle life but it is difficult to discriminate, and dry bread and gruel even for these are not very costly luxuries, and it is preferable that a score even of regular mendicants should be regaled with these epicurean dainties (?) rather than one honest deserving working man, lame or sick, wayfarer, should starve), walking all the way from Malton, Thirsk, Easingwold, Stokesley, Tadcaster, Pocklington, Helmsley, Kirbymoorside, Pickering, Middlesbro', Bedale, Otley, or other neighbouring towns on a cold winter's day, and reaching the legal asylum at York for the homeless and destitute. Hungry, wearied, and cold as he must be, he finds no supper, and if his necessities had compelled him to seek the casual wards at any of the above towns, he would start without breakfast, as no food whatever, either night or morning, is given by the so-called “Guardians of the Poor,” in these places, whilst the accommodation provided is of the most wretched character. Is not such treatment enough to drive men to desperation? In most places the destitute wayfarers are not allowed to beg, and as they can obtain no relief in many of the unions, what can they do? They have a right to appeal to the magistrates, but this is generally in vain: they are tempted to steal, or commit some crime of violence, or arson, as is done in many cases, in order to obtain in a prison the food, shelter, medical attention, and other necessaries denied in the workhouses.

Complaint is made that the women are frequently deprived of fire in their ward in the depth of winter, and the bedding, &c., is very deficient and dirty; why do these deprivations exist? A fire is allowed the men till near nine o'clock usually, but it la sometimes put out considerably before that hour. The sleeping accommodation consists of a very hard straw mattress and an old dirty rug calculated to spread cutaneous diseases through the land. It is evident, therefore, that the casuals must sleep in their clothes, and as these are often very wet, they run great risks of taking cold, causing pulmonary disease, rheumatism, &c. In the morning they rise at seven, and are set to work for two hours and a half cutting wood, pumping water, &c. After this is done, and when the poor creatures must have fasted from 15 to 24 hours, they are served with a breakfast of six ounces of dry bread — I have seen the allowance weighed — and a pint of poor gruel — the cost is about five farthings — and this is given them in the open yard standing, regardless of storm or cold. If this is not making a mockery of “relieving the destitute” I know not what can be? The York Board of Guardians are evidently determined not to cause apoplexy in any of the casuals by giving them too hearty a meal on an empty stomach! There are no baths (this would involve a small expenditure), but a little water is allowed for washing, but there is only one towel for whatever number there may be each evening. One evening last week there were thirty, and they all had to use, not dry themselves, on the one filthy towel. I met with a comparatory case to-day proving the treatment of women is as above stated, and this is extremely improper. The surgeon does not attend either night or morning, as is now the practice in well regulated large unions, to examine those who are unwell, lame, and who may be unable to proceed on their journey; and if any ask the porter to see him they are generally not allowed to remain in the ward or to do so. On the 30th ult., a man fifty yeara of age informed me, and others confirmed his statement, that he had made application to be allowed to see the surgeon, but was refused by the porter, although the doctor that morning was in the workhouse at the time the casuals were discharged. Another man, a day or two before, made the tame application, and was refused. I observed him in the street extremely lame; such a case ought not to have been compelled to go in search of the relieving officer and the union surgeon. Allow me to recommend the guardians to investigate the present system pursued at the “new casual wards;” although some improvement has been effected on the old vagrant office system, much more ought to be done. The rule for many years in the city was made absolute not to supply food night or morning except, to use the words of the officer then in charge, “the party was likely to die.” May we not consider the decision of the officer wise in a worldly point, as it might save the ratepayers the expense of a coffin, &c.. The old vagrant office in this city was closed in June, 1867. It was opened when Samuel Tuke was a guardian, and during his time bread was allowed.

I furnish a further case of many in support of the former remarks. I met a man in York named Jones, from Rutlandshire: he stated he was a railway navvy and had been thrown out of employment through the suspension of works on a new branch line. Jones walked from Leeds to York on Sabbath day, and obtained admission to the casual wards for the night; no supper was allowed, and he was unable to rest on the hard pallet and dirty rug provided. On rising at seven o'clock a.m., he was prepared suitably to perform the two and half hours — (I do not object to the time or work) — of pumping water and sawing fine [fire?] wood. However, sick and faint, he went through the ordeal. Jones had walked 28 miles and fasted 26 hours before the scant breakfast was handed out to the men at 10 a.m. in the open yard whilst standing. Men ought not to be ordered to work before food is supplied; unless more humane treatment can generally be extended to the casual poor, the representatives of the society for prevention of cruelty to animals ought to have access to these wards and report cases of abuse to the justices; the latter require to be much better informed in many instances as to the work demanded and food allowed before convicting the accused of not performing the task on the unsustained charge of the master or porter; men are often physically incapable to perform the task demanded in many Unions in England and Wales. I am informed that men in search of work are not allowed to occupy the York casual ward two consecutive nights, as is the case in some unions. Employment cannot generally be found in towns without spending considerable time in seeking work, therefore this rule ought to be relaxed. On Sabbath day, the 9th inst., I conversed with two wayfarers in York streets who had that day walked from Pocklington That union-house fare and accommodation is of the lowest type, and no food whatever is administered to the destitute. One of the men was suffering acutely from bruised feet and physical exhaustion; he was on his way to the north of England with the prospect of employment. The refusal of supper at York was a severe deprivation to these men. A poor fellow from Scotland I saw on the same day was reduced to a state of physical suffering and hunger I cannot describe; he went to the York Union for the night.

I would respectfully submit that, in a place like York, two plain meals should be provided, and men not be allowed to lie down on their miserable pallets almost famishing with hunger. Some means ought also to be provided to dry clothes, &c.; the importance of such an arrangement cannot be overrated in the county. I am informed that the supply of rugs is often very inadequate, and that, as a general rule, when the number of casuals is large two men have to divide one old rug between them as best they can. There is no Bible in the ward, or religious tracts for them to read. The paid chaplain never attends to this portion of his destitute flock, not even to read the Scriptures to the wayfarers. I am also informed on reliable authority that part of their scanty breakfast (the thin gruel) is withheld on the Sabbath. I suppose, because they cannot be set to work that morning. This is most improper. It would be far better, and much more in accordance with the precepts of Christianity, that they should be allowed to remain over that day, and have the house rations and three meals on the day appointed for rest to man and beast This is done in Scotland, and if it were done throughout England universally, the expense to each union would be small, and it would press unfairly upon none. It is quite certain that they will get no work on the Sabbath, and were they allowed to remain in the unions a great many destitute persona and beggars who now infest our streets and lanes and highways on that day would be kept out of them. Advantage might also be taken of this by the paid minister of the union to assemble them together for reading the bible and worship, and let them be reminded that they are responsible and immortal beings. In some unions this it attended to nightly by volunteers and ministers. When men are treated as heathens and outcasts, they are very likely to act as such. It is satisfactory to learn that a few Dissenters have access to the workhouse, and assemble some of the inmates on Sabbath day at 7 p.m., and they also visit the wayfarers at 8 p.m. for their spiritual welfare, and distribute tracts, &c.; of course they meet a different company each week. Formerly these volunteers were allowed to visit the hospital patients, much to the consolation of tho infirm, the sick, and the dying, who cannot attend tho service in the chapel; but unhappily, without any reason being assigned, the master informed these Christian men two years ago they must discontinue their visits to the hospital. Allow me to inquire was this counter order of the board of guardians their own decision, or that of the paid minister, or master of the workhouse? I consider the guardians and ex-officio guardians are largely accountable for many needless committals to prison in Yorkshire (!) Do the North and East Riding magistrates take no interest in preventing recommittals to prison? I may further notice this subject in a future number of your journal.

I am respectfully,


Leeds, 2nd month, 11th, 1868.

At a subsequent meeting of the Board of Guardians, also reported by the York Herald, the chairman refuted Rowntree's allegations. Part of the report is included below.

Mr. J.L. Foster said most of the gentlemen in this room would have seen a letter which had been inserted in the York newspapers, signed by Mr. Joseph Rowntree, of Leeds, in which many charges were made against the Board of Guardians respecting the treatment of the vagrants in the Workhouse. He did not intend to enter into the details of that letter, but in reference to the charges contained in it he would ask Mr. Wilson, the Workhouse master, a few questions. (Hear, hear.) Mr. Foster then took up the allegations of Mr. Rowntree's letter seriatim, and, as the result of his interrogatories, it appeared that the average number of vagrants per night at the York Workhouse was sixteen, and the number of rugs supplied, thirty-three; that the mattresses were not of straw, but of fibre; that six towels were supplied, and not two, each being three yards long, on rollers, and frequently changed, four being for the men, and two for the women; that it was not true that two men had to share accommodation intended for one; that the quality of the bread and gruel supplied to the vagrants was the same as to the other inmates; that fires were lighted in the male and female wards whenever necessary; that it was untrue that the bedding was either deficient or dirty, and also as to there being no baths in the male and female wards; that the breakfasts were not served in the open air, as alleged, but in the receiving wards. It was further elicited that there were in the hospital under treatment a large number of vagrants; that the rugs were frequently fumigated, washed, and cleansed, and none were in a filthy state. Vagrants were allowed in many instances to remain two nights, and, as a matter of fact, it was stated that the wallets of this class were generally well filled with provisions, and in cases of extreme destitution or illness food was supplied immediately on the admission of vagrants. It was also stated by the workhouse master that Mr. Rowntree had never been in the vagrant ward of that building in his life The above answers were in direct opposition to Mr. Rowntree's statement, and afforded a complete refutation of his charges.

Unusually, Rowntree himself was invited to attend this meeting. After addressing the board himself, he was allowed to bring forward three pauper witnesses, who had agreed to support his allegations. The three were interviewed in turn by the board, while Rowntree withdrew. To his considerable chagrin, and to the guardians' great amusement, each witness professed to having little or no complaint about the treatment they had received at the workhouse. Rowntree's campaigning appears to come to an end at about this time. Whether his difficult experience at this meeting had any bearing on this is unclear.

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