A glimpse of life as it was in Victorian workhouses

WORKrc'''Margaret Drinkall.
WORKrc'''Margaret Drinkall.
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IN Victorian times the workhouse was a word that carried dread. There was a stigma attached to anyone who was admitted to a workhouse and once inside conditions were extremely harsh.

“Initially people who went into workhouses were seen as lazy idle scroungers and this would deter people from going in. Some would rather starve on the outside than go into a workhouse,” says Margaret Drinkall, author of Sheffield Workhouse.

Although it was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which abolished systems of poor relief and established workhouses throughout England and Wales, they had existed as far back as Elizabethan times and the book cites material from accounts of the town trustees in 1567 to Fir Vale workhouse in the 1900s.

Funded by ratepayers, the main workhouses in Sheffield were on Kelham Street and at Fir Vale, along with Pitsmoor referred to as a school but where children were kept, and Hollow Meadows, a farm which was intended to provide the workhouse with produce but became a place for test labour of able-bodied inmates,

The records of the Sheffield Workhouse were destroyed in the Sheffield Blitz, but the author has used archive material, newspaper reports and the remaining guardian minutes from 1890 to capture something of the lives of inmates as well as the work of the Board of Guardians.

Sheffield was hostile to the 1834 act and resented having to pay to set up workhouses and were not happy with the Board of Guardians, elected on a yearly basis. The guardians were an argumentative lot, according to Drinkall, often defying the Local Government Board and at loggerheads with the work staff, or officers.

But it was the inmates themselves who most interested the author. “One of the drawbacks, though, is the voices of the people were not heard. The only time names were mentioned was when they were punished for bad behaviour. I would like to have known more about them.

“One of the things I enjoyed researching was reading the Master’s Book, the letters he received and sent out. For example, there was an application on behalf of a Mrs Shaw who was a widow living with her son and his wife. The letter said she had worked all her life, taken in washing, and never in her life asked for parish relief but the son had fallen ill and there was no money. That showed it was ordinary people who went in there, people down on their luck.”

Most of the notes and letters confirm how hard life in the workhouse was.

“The conditions were terrible, especially the food. But at least there was food and children were taught to read and write. A lot of the kids had been almost feral when they arrived The guardians worried about them and came up with the idea of emigration to Canada or Australia of orphans,” says Drinkall. “I often wonder about how much the children understood what was happening to them.”

Life was pretty grim for the officers too. “They were on duty 24/7 and one of the biggest bones of contention among staff was that they had to ask permission from the Master to go out. It must have been demeaning for people like schoolteachers and they must have seen themselves as inmates.”

One way in which the Sheffield guardians showed enlightenment was the decision in the 1890s that the workhouses should run on hospital lines. “Up until then they had got inmates to act as nurses but they decided to train nurses as part of the formation of a hospital system. That’s where the word matron comes from in hospitals,” says Drinkall.

“Fir Vale, the one surviving workhouse building in Sheffield, was turned into a hospital in the 1930s. That makes me wonder if that is what’s behind the fear of hospitals among old people.”

The retired Rotherham Borough Council worker dedicates all her time to researching and writing about South Yorkshire’s history. Earlier this year she published Sheffield Crimes and next up is Rotherham War and Peace, looking at the town in the inter-war years.

lSheffield Workhouse is published by the History Press at £12.99.