Ancestry UK

Sheffield Union Workhouse

In August 1896, Mr Rutherfourd John Pye-Smith, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Sheffield University, and Consultant at the Royal Hospital, toured the Sheffield Union workhouse as part of his investigation of the workhouse system. An account of his visit was published in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 4 September 1896.


24 August 1896.

Sir, — The day after my visit to Ecclesall, I went, provided with a kind note from the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, to the workhouse of the Sheffield Union. It was a bright morning, and the beautiful situation of the establishment, and its long avenues of poplars, bright with nasturtium borders, and the well-timbered wood beyond, were quite refreshing. A few men were at work, wheeling earth, in the field, where were also a crop of oats and large quantities of vegetables. But then the "Great House!" a block of buildings close on a quarter of a mile long, with isolated blocks springing up all over the estate. Some of these are the "Cottage Homes", large houses one might call them, but cottages, indeed, compared with this great pauper palace. The date on the foundation stone is September, 1878, and the house has been in use for 15 or 16 years. It has accommodation for 1,748 inmates.

On asking to see the Master, 1 found that he was away, but the Matron very kindly offered to take me over the institution. In a bright-looking grass-yard a few old women were walking about, their ugly uniform spoiling what might otherwise have been a pleasant picture. The first room we entered was the sewing room, where some 60 or more old women were busily engaged making the same ugly garments that they are forced to wear. Passing through one of the day-rooms, where a few books seemed to be the only source of recreation, we came to the Nursery, where in their quaint little cage-like cradles, infants were being attended by infirm old women. How unlike the bright young nursemaids one sees in ordinary life! We have recently been told why the babies are considerately removed from such influences when they arrive at three years of age! The poor little mites have only a dreary asphalted yard to take their out-door exercise in.

The next was, indeed, a dismal room, but happily it was empty. It is for able-bodied women who misconduct themselves in the house, or who are constantly returning after their discharge. On an average there are half-a-dozen here every day. They sit here, with no outlook through the windows, and pick two pounds of unbeaten oakum a day. The work makes their fingers sore at first, but not to the extent of blistering them.

We then passed through several dormitories, on the doors of which is marked the cubic space of each room, and the number of occupants. About 440 cubic feet of air per person seems to be generally allowed. It is none too much, though well over the minimum allowed by the Local Government Board.

I was glad to find that the pauper wards-women have no authority over the inmates, their duties being cleaning only. The doors of the dormitories are locked from outside at night, and, indeed, locked doors during the day time seem almost universal throughout the building, but, inside a glass case, which can be broken in case of fire or other need, a key hangs near the door in almost every room.

The next department seen was the laundry, where about 20,000 articles are washed every week! A dozen women, out-workers, get 1s. 6d. a day and their three meals for working here. Besides these, about 30 of the able-bodied inmates assist the two paid laundry women. In other parts of the house out-workers receive 1s. 3d. a day and their meals for scrubbing. These are women without children. The extra 3d. a day earned by the women in the laundry is for the support of their children! There is apparently plenty of work in the house to occupy all the able-bodied women. It is with the able-bodied men, in times of bad trade, and when most outside work is stopped by frost, that the Guardians seem to experience the greatest difficulty.

After a glance at the dining hall, where, but for the addition of pepper pots, the scene presented much the same appearance as at Ecclesall, we went to the kitchen, and I was invited to taste the dinner of the day, which happened to be soup. I was rash enough to take a breakfast cupful, with a piece of their excellent bread, and I paid the penalty of a severe attack of indigestion. A professional cook and five bakers are employed here, and have half-a-dozen inmates to assist them. Black beetles, as at Ecclesall, are a great nuisance, and occasionally get into the food, but vigorous steps are being taken to decimate them.

In the stores I saw specimens of the milk, which is tested daily, and is on the whole very satisfactory, 145 gallons are consumed every day! It might be well to have the margarine and other provisions analysed occasionally. Large quantities of clothing were seen in another part of the stores. Exactly the same articles of underclothing are given to every inmate according to sex and age — an arrangement I have known to act harshly and injuriously in individual instances.

The Lunatic Asylum was next visited. Both male and female day rooms are provided with a piano, which, when a good performer is obtainable, must exercise a most beneficial influence. In the male ward, a poor old Scripture reader was pathetically singing hymns to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"! The hospital wards are, most of them, very bright, the decoration of the walls and the fine show of flowers giving an aspect of cheerfulness which forms a pleasing contrast to the rest of the institution. Previous to the introduction of trained nursing, six years ago, the nursing, I was told, was done by a staff of seven untrained women. Now, there are as many as 36 nurses. Much of their time is, however, occupied in attending to the bed-linen and clothing of the patients.

Passing through the dispensary and operation room, we were shown the manufacture of aerated waters, which, by means of a machine lately purchased, are supplied to the hospital and other parts of the institution at a surprisingly cheap and rapid rate.

The married people's quarters were not on view, in consequence of classification alterations. There are at present four such couples in the institution, but provision is being made for nine old couples near the old site, and for about 20 more at Goddard Hall. They are to have a day-room and a bath-room to every nine persons.

Taking leave of the matron, who had so courteously devoted three or four hours to showing me over the main building, and finding that I should not have time to visit the Children's Homes, I was now conducted to the casuals' quarters.

The general plan of the casual block is similar to that at Ecclesall, but the Tramp Master has two paid assistants under him. The porter's wife looks after the women and children. The numbers of late have considerably exceeded 6,000 a year, giving a weekly average of 120. No stone-breaking has been done here for the last three months, the Corporation not requiring it; 13 cwt. of granite is the quantity given for a day's task. The casuals present at the time of my visit were all engaged in cutting wood. I was told that, perhaps, three-quarters of the casuals are chronic tramps, and that drink is the main cause of their falling out of the ranks of honest labour, into which their very appearance must make it well nigh impossible for them ever again to enter.

Fir Vale vagrants' drying room, date unknown.
Courtesy of Northern General Hospital Archive, Sheffield.

I went home, wondering that we citizens of Sheffield should be so apathetic to the final lot of many who have helped to build our city's reputation, and to create the wealth that abounds in its suburbs, that those who undertake the work of dealing with the destitute seem so blind to the evils inseparable from pauper palaces, and that practical Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century has found no better way than this for meeting the needs of the poor; and I felt, with Wordsworth —

Have I not reason to lament?
What man has made of man?

Whilst admitting to the full the great improvements effected of late by the Guardians in the working of the Poor-Laws, the removal of the children from the workhouse being the most conspicuous, the most valuable, and the most hopeful, and whilst gladly admitting, from personal inspection, that the Fir Vale workhouse appears to be generally well and carefully managed as an institution, there are as yet, I think, many occasions for criticism. The vast size of the building must make it impossible for anyone to know all that goes on within its walls, and the enormous number of inmates must render it utterly impracticable for anyone to show personal interest in each one. On the same account the hateful system of locking every door is perhaps almost inevitable, since it must be a question between the paupers being locked or lost! The same lack of suitable occupation for the old and infirm is noticeable, as at Ecclesall, with the same absence of interest and hope in almost every face. The common rooms of the able-bodied are, I think, disgracefully lacking in the smallest attempt at anything comfortable or elevating. The conditions of the casual and of the out-worker are very similar to those found at Ecclesall, and are open to similar criticism. The evils of pauper superintendence, though not entirely absent, are much less apparent than at Ecclesall, owing to the greater proportion of paid assistants in the various departments. The numbers of the medical staff and of the nursing staff, in proportion to the number of patients approach much more' nearly than at Ecclesall to those usual at charitable hospitals. The sick wards are bright, and a piano has recently been purchased for use in various parts of the institution. The uniform of the women is in every respect about as bad as it can be. Why should it be uniform at all? Surely the numbers dealt with would render variety as easily attainable as uniformity. A workhouse badge is as repulsive to adults as it is harmful to children. The regulations for visiting and leave of absence are, I think, unnecessarily restricted, in spite of the occasional luxury of a stroll in the wood. The diet, which I propose to discuss more fully in another letter, is in many respects extremely unsatisfactory. The entire absence of tea from the dietary of all under 60 years of age, women as well as men, is a great mistake, and is on a par with the great restriction in the allowance of tobacco to the old men, not a quarter of whom seem to get it. What will the wives of the Guardians say when they hear that the women who work hard at Fir Vale all day never get a taste of tea? This brings me to my last criticism. A great deal might be done here, as at Ecclesall, by the appointment of a Ladies' Visiting Committee.

Finally, I must repeat my conviction that, if the Guardians would look at the questions which must constantly be presenting themselves to them "from the point of view and feeling of the helpless poor," that is, if they would put themselves in their place, the conclusions arrived at would be more satisfactory than they have often been. Why not start a Poor-Law Discussion Society? If our Guardians and others who take an interest in the welfare of our poor, ladies as well as gentlemen, and some of the poor themselves, could meet once a month for the friendly discussion of questions of principle and of detail, of schemes of legislative reform, as well as of administration, such mutual interchange of opinion might, I should hope, bear good fruit.

I am, yours truly,


Mr Pye-Smith also visited Sheffield's Ecclesall Bierlow Union workhouse.

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