Ancestry UK

A Day in the Withington Workhouse

The following article was published (with no attribution of authorship) in The Sphinx magazine in two parts in April 1871. Withington was the location of the workhouse run by the Chorlton Union.


The English ratepayer, receiving at various times slips of paper on which are inscribed definite cash amounts said to be "Due on Demand," has an instinctive knowledge that he must pay the said amounts prior to a given day to certain officers whose names are printed on the papers in question. He usually responds to the call with the utmost meekness, but has meanwhile the faintest possible notion of the manner in which the funds thus disbursed by him are subsequently employed. In common with the majority of our fellow citizens we have for some time past civilly responded to the not always civil demands of the tax-gathering fraternity in a state of resigned ignorance of all about the imposts, but their names. Being willing to know something of one of the channels down which our coins were said to vanish, and having an idea that workhouse life would present many phases likely to suit our contemplative disposition, we gladly availed ourselves of an invitation to spend a day inside the extensive workhouse of the Chorlton Union at Withington.

It is not generally known that the Withington workhouse stands on its own grounds, or, in other words, is surrounded by a quantity of land, which it farms, raising thereon wheat and oats and bacon for its own use. Crossing these fields and passing by the graveyard, which is the final resting-place of the outcast and helpless who find a temporary shelter in the neighbouring buildings — and which is none the less pretty or tranquil because almost the only memorials of the dead beneath are grass-covered mounds and evergreen bushes — we were ushered through the gates of the workhouse into a fine hall, designed doubtless to suggest to all who enter it, the nobleness of charity. From this place we were escorted along a corridor about four hundred and fifty feet in length, extending from end to end of the house, on each side of which are ranged the various offices, school-rooms, and sitting-rooms; then out again into the open air, and up a flight of steps to an elevated terrace at the back of the house, built on arches, which terrace connects with each other the five pavilions used as hospitals. Standing on this terrace we were enabled fully to enjoy the pleasant rural situation of the buildings. Indeed, so pleasant was the prospect, that it was difficult to realize that poverty lay in front of us, insanity on either hand, and disease and death behind.

After a few preliminaries in the shape of introductions and mutual explanations between ourselves and the gentlemen who had volunteered to be our escort, we were led back into the house in order to witness the ceremony of dining. An immense kitchen, in which potato-hash had apparently been prepared by the cart-load in a series of huge boilers, first attracted our attention. Passing through this apartment we gained the dining-room. This place is fitted up with a series of fixed tables and seats arranged something like the pews in a chapel, the diners being seated side by side and back to back. The women do not sit with the men, but, like Dr. Johnson, at the publisher Cave's, partake of their food behind a screen, which screen runs up the centre of the room. The old people occupy the front seats, the middle-aged and young come next, and the children bring up the rear. Speaking of this system of classification we were glad to learn that in the bed-rooms and day or sitting-rooms a further principle of subdivision is adopted, the moral, orderly, and cleanly people being placed in one series of rooms, and the black sheep in another. To each dining-table there is one saltcellar, which is a fixture. About four hundred people — principally aged — were dining, and the clatter of spoons went on with a mechanical briskness, which seemed to indicate that the company was quite undisturbed by the presence of our party. But though the heads before us were all bowed food, we could not help feeling that our inspection was rather rude, and therefore retreated quickly into a sort of big pantry, in which some hundreds of loaves were being cut into slices for supper. These are served out by weight. When they are too heavy the corners are cut off. We were shown several large baskets filled with these corners, which are saved for the use of the children. Every pauper has the right to see his bread weighed if he suspects that it is too light.

Leaving the bread-cutter to his crusty employment, we next visited the interiors of the hospitals. The Withington Workhouse is adapted to accommodate twelve hundred people, but about one-half the inmates are usually stretched on beds of sickness. There are five hospital buildings, connected only by the terrace previously referred to, and containing in all fifteen wards or rooms, and about five hundred beds. The hospital arrangements appeared to us to be perfect. We readily agreed with the doctor that cleanliness and fresh air are no slight helps to the medical man. Anything more clean than the wards we visited, or more orderly and complete than the various appliances and systems of ventilation, it would be difficult to conceive. The beds looked quite inviting, and the floors were spotless. But white as were the sheets, some of the faces were whiter. The patients were of all ages, and suffering from all sorts of complaints, medical and surgical. They were of course classified. Many were people quite able to support themselves respectably when in health, but compelled to come here when overtaken by accident or sickness. We were shown, for instance, the case of a servant maid, who, in slipping down some stairs, had managed to thrust her hand through a window, and thus had severed some of the arteries and tendons at the wrist. Some of the faces wore the glad expression of returning health; others had the listless look which betokened that they were approaching the unknown land which rich and poor must enter alike. The use of one ward was graphically enough indicated to us by the large number of very young infants present. We were told that the adult occupants of the beds were all either servant girls or members of that profession to which it is considered indelicate to allude. If it be true that an increasing population is always a sign of a nation's prosperity, perhaps many of the ratepayers will be satisfied with the necessity of devoting a portion of the rates to this last department of the workhouse.

The doctor having completed his description of the hospitals, we were handed over to the care of the governor, and conducted through the various day, work, and store-rooms. In some of the day-rooms, and in the grounds attached to them, the old men were standing and sitting as if doing nothing but waiting for their clean shirts. Whether our presence caused them to be silent or not we cannot say, but a more listless and aimless company we do not care to look upon. We were much more pleased with the old women. In their clean white caps they looked quite motherly, and many, moreover, were busily engaged with their needles. We have always thought that in this power of being able to work, if they choose, at all times, in the drawing-room as well as in the workhouse, women have a great advantage over men. A woman can take up her tatting when a man is confined to tattling or playing with his fingers. One old lady of about eighty, who was hard at work knitting, had been confirmed, in company with several of her elderly sisters, by the bishop the week before our visit. None of the inmates are compelled to work after they are sixty years of age; and we were informed during our progress through the work rooms that it is difficult to get into the house a sufficiency of able-bodied paupers. We formed a slight idea of the amount of work to be got through when our attention was directed to the immense number of stockings to be kept in repair. The principal work-rooms are the laundries in which the women are employed. These are fitted up with every appliance calculated to expedite the work. Amongst others, huge washing-machines, driven by steam power. There are also shoemakers', joiners', and tailors' shops, in which the lads are taught those various handicrafts.

The store-rooms are very extensive, and they were so suggestive of plenty that it was really pleasant to walk through them. Flour, meal, and tea appeared to be the principal supplies. There was also a quantity of snuff made up into screws to be distributed to the partakers of that luxury, and a supply of tobacco, likewise for distribution. The quantity of the latter given out weekly does not appear to be sufficient for the smokers, and is usually eked out with tea-leaves; but we were informed that the renown of these dainties is sufficient to attract paupers from all the surrounding localities to the Withington Workhouse. We were likewise shown into a cellar well-stocked with barrels of beer and porter for the use of the invalids, and into another containing an extensive supply of mutton-chops, intended for the same persons. In view of the destination of these articles, we do not doubt that many of the inmates are occasionally troubled with mysterious complaints, and we heard a hint that sometimes severe blisters are required in order to convince the sufferers that they are in good health. A very complete system is required to keep so extensive an establishment in order, and one or two of the Workhouse contrivances suggested to us that the ruling genius had discovered the principle of perpetual motion. To take one example: The straw which is got from the crops of wheat on the Workhouse farm is used for stuffing the beds. In order to ensure cleanliness, it is regularly changed; it is then passed on to the pigs, and when the pigs have done with it, it serves as manure for the fields, where, we suppose, it again grows up into wheat.

The inspection of the lunatic wards could not have other than a saddening effect. Mr. Clements, the doctor, again joined our party prior to our entrance to these wards, and considerately accompanied us through them. The first room we entered was occupied by middle aged and old women. Here a poor thing named Nannie sidled up to us in a queer fashion, and, shaking our hand, replied to our enquiry that she was very well, hoped that we were the same, and that we had left all well at home. While talking her body was never still, its movements being compounded of slides and curtsies. The other lunatic women who were standing around looked on with half-pitying, half-apologetic expressions on their faces, as if beseeching us to make allowances for poor Nannie's peculiarities. Another room was appropriated to young creatures, aged from eighteen to twenty-five years, or thereabouts. They were chatting together just as any other assembly of girls would do, and our entrance was the signal for whispered surmises as to who we were. But all the faces wore a strange, unsatisfied look which told us that we were in strange company. One poor girl with bright eyes and glowing cheeks put a thin hand into ours, and, gazing eagerly into our face, strove to recognize us. She told us that she had enjoyed herself very well during her visit, and that it was a very nice place; but she was getting rather tired and would like to see her friends. When we parted from her she gave us her name and address, and begged us with a painful earnestness to call at her home and give her love to all whom we should find there.

In the wards for males we were struck at first with the intelligent cast of features of many of the inmates. One particularly well-made and powerful-looking man advanced to us and, assuring us that he was quite recovered, begged us to bring his overcoat to him and let him go. We half-believed that he was sane, but a glance at the eye, which never rested, soon settled the matter. When we left him he vowed to memorialise Her Majesty the same evening, the result of which action on his part would cost us millions of pounds. To each ward is attached a pleasantly laid-out ground, all grass and shrubs. The majority of the males were reclining on seats in one of these enclosures. Here the spectacle became even sadder, One poor fellow with a bandaged arm was addressing a brick wall in terms of earnest complaint and expostulation. He seemed utterly miserable. From the seats others were watching him with cynical, stony countenances not pleasant to look at. Out in the beautiful sunshine and on the fresh greenness of the hopeful spring, there was an awful weariness about those still figures, which was all the more appalling when we learnt that drink and vice were the chief causes of the ruin they expressed.

The lowest types of humanity shown to us crouched in the ward and on the ground for female idiots. We were led into a snug apartment, resembling a comfortable kitchen. In a corner by the fire sat an object which seemed all head, knees, and feet. It was a girl. On the floor By her side was another. They never looked up or spoke; only jabbered inarticulately. More were squatted over the grass and gravel paths outside. We saw the face of one who was huddled up on a ledge, in a kind of shed, as if on a perch. Call it the face of a monkey or what you will, it was not the face of a human being composed of body, soul, sad spirit. Talking on the subject, our guide told us that the brain of a male idiot, who had died in the workhouse a little while before, had been examined. It was pronounced to be a perfect structure, and, as far as material went, the brain of a highly intelligent man. This statement caused us to be much more impressed by the difference between the faces of the lunatics and those of the idiots. In the former, we fancied we could see an indwelling spirit vainly trying to produce harmony through the chords of a shattered instrument. In the latter we could detect no spirit at all. We wondered whether the first were immortal beings dwelling in ruined tenements? the latter only moving machines pulled about by electric ganglia. The doctor's words " It is a mystery," ended our reflection.

The opening of a door, shrill bursts of joyous laughter, a rushing as of a swarm of bees, and a crowd of little girls have fastened upon the legs and hands and arms of each member of our party. It is like music after despair. For an instant we are so dazed that we stand passively submitting, like Gulliver, to the assaults of the pigmies. Little by little we make out that we are in the girls' playground, and that these are a portion of the workhouse children. Some have rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and dimpled faces; others have faces not so chubby or rosy; but all look merry. There is a shadow of melancholy present, because we can't forget that these are foundlings, picked up in the streets, or born in the workhouse, and dependent for future happiness upon the kindness of strangers. But we fairly enjoy ourselves. Tossing one child into the air, we are deafened by shouts of "me, me." At length, being thoroughly tired, and having had our hands kissed and smoothed and petted all round, we bid our young friends "good-bye," and enter the nursery. Here, seated on the floor, surrounded by an admiring circle of small infants, is a juvenile scarcely large enough to walk, slowly and cautiously blacking its shoes with a brush, which its tiny strength appears just able to move. Outside the circle is a youth of about three summers, apparently the wag of the company, inasmuch as he proceeds to make faces at us, to the intense amusement of a select party of his acquaintances. A promise of cake induces the band to place their diminutive forms on seats provided for them, and to favour us with a song, which we have heard before, beginning, "A little ship was on the sea." Passing through a neighbouring room, we are shown the numerous cradles in which the latest generation of paupers take their rest. One of these cradles, adapted to hold six infants, is declared to be an object which elicits exclamations of delight from all the ladies who visit the workhouse.

In the boy's playground we saw a number of as artful-looking dodgers awe have ever beheld. Upon our entrance, and in obedience to a sign ham the governor the whole of the boys, with one exception, ranged themselves in a crowd before us. The exception alluded to was a little lame fellow who, supported on a leg and a crutch, and whip in hand, was actively pursuing a gyrating top, evidently imagining for the time being that the universe contained nothing but the top and himself. Most of the faces before us had that look of wide-awake intelligence which is the only good gained from a street education, softened somewhat by the discipline of school-life. There was no mistaking the Lancashire extraction of one diminutive personage. The Governor called for six of the biggest boys to run a race for the usual prize to be enjoyed at supper — cake. Six boys stood out from the rest, one of the six being the smallest present. Holding up his head, however, he seemed to think he was decidedly the biggest, and, notwithstanding some objection on the part of his companions, managed to maintain his place. During the enunciation of the "one, two, three," we observed that his stockinged feet were slyly creeping from the encasing clogs, and, when the starting number was given, away he went down the playground and back again, winning the race by about three lengths. On our way to inspect the piggeries we saw several boys gardening, under the superintendence of a paid instructor.

The last department of the Workhouse which we visited was a building appropriately designated "The Test House." It was a narrow apartment, consisting of a passage along the side of a number of wooden cages, to each of which was attached a machine resembling a huge coffee mill. We were informed that able-bodied male applicants for relief, who are supposed to be vagabondish, drunken, or idle, are placed in these cages, there to grind the corn which is raised on the adjoining farm. The men are locked in here at about eight o'clock in the morning, if we remember rightly. The mills are filled three times during the day, and if the grinders have ground the specified quantity they are liberated at about five o'clock. Dinner is served to them in the cages. Behind the grinding-room is the sleeping apartment, and attached to it a barren yard containing a heap of stones. We can assure our fellow ratepayers that no sluggard or drunkard will partake of the workhouse charity until forced by hunger, and that as long as he is an inmate of " The Test House" he earns his living- Indeed it seemed to us that the regulations effectually confine the benefits of the Institution to those sufferers who must ever be the proper objects of charity. Whether in the details of these regulations or in the nature of the benefits there is room for improvement our day did not afford us sufficient opportunity to ascertain. Doubtless there may be. Our courteous guide, the governor, Mr. Brokenshire, told us that the admirable appliances and systems which we saw in thorough working order were the accumulation of the fifteen years which have elapsed since the original building was opened. We believe, however, that very considerable advances in efficiency and towards perfection have been made in the last few years. The institution at present is considered to be one of the most complete and perfect in the kingdom, and improvement is still going on.

So far as we could judge, the superannuated paupers receive all the comfort which their own habits and the difficulties of the question will permit. Perhaps none but those who have to deal practically with the question can understand those difficulties; but after all the aged and infirm are they who need our charity. It seemed to us that the sick and afflicted are most attentively cared for. As for the children, we are taught to believe that, no matter how they come, they are God's gifts. They at least have wronged no man. Many of the young faces which looked up into ours had the weird outlines and wistful expressions which are the sure results of poverty and sin; but we have been in several private houses, where servants have been numerous and money plentiful, and where the children have been less childlike than those we saw in the workhouse.

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