Harsh conditions in the Workhouses

PROMINENT BUILDING: In its later years this building became Burnley General Hospital but it was built as Burnley's third Workhouse in the 1870s (S)

PROMINENT BUILDING: In its later years this building became Burnley General Hospital but it was built as Burnley's third Workhouse in the 1870s (S)

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Recent articles on the story of the treatment of our local poor concentrated on what is termed the Old Poor Law which can be dated back to the latter years of the reign of Elizabeth I. This system was parish or township based and was paid for out of local rates which, as the system originated in pre-industrial days, came mainly from landowners and farmers.

Each parish or township was expected to have its own poor (or work) house where inmates would be given “in-door relief”.

However, it was often the case that the poor were given assistance while living in their own homes. This latter was generally less costly and known as “out door relief”.

It could be given in many different forms. We have seen that, in 18th Century Briercliffe, payments were made to doctors to visit the poor, midwives were hired and paid for when their services were required, coal for heating and cooking was supplied when needed and food was distributed regularly, often from local suppliers.

A similar system existed in Burnley and we have details of how it worked as late as the 1820s and early 1830s.

There were other forms of “out door relief” and one of the more common was to subsidise local wage rates. Though not entirely new, it was after a meeting at the Pelican Inn in the village of Speen, Berkshire, in 1795 that this system became more common. The local magistrates were the instigators, and their intentions were doubtless humanitarian, but their system soon proved to be more costly than they envisaged. In 1793 Britain had become embroiled in the French Revolutionary Wars and food prices began to rise.

This was not the only reason for the rise in prices but it was not long before the Old Poor Law was questioned. As early as 1797 F.M. Morton published a book, “The State of the Poor”, very much against what is now known as the Speenhamland and other allowance systems. Morton argued the labourer should fend for himself by spending his income more carefully and should seek an alternative diet to that of the then staple, bread, which was becoming daily more expensive. He even pointed to the North of England where he thought the Northern labourer was better at managing his income.

What he might have added was that there were effectively two Englands – the South, largely agricultural, and the North and the Midlands, which were becoming increasingly industrialised. Any new system of poor relief would have to recognise these differences if it was to be successful. It would have to provide for what we now call the “trade cycle” in which there were characteristic productive bursts, when there was great demand for labour, followed by quieter times when labour was not so much in demand. Of course, those concerned with the financial aspects of the situation shouted loudest and the New Poor Law, as it became known, was not supported by many in the North.

Morton’s observations were among the first in what became a tide of criticism of the Old Poor Law. This was supported by the statistics which show the cost of poor relief had risen from £2m. in 1784, to £4m. in 1803 and £6.5m. in 1813. These increases were mainly explained by war-time inflation and the rising population. However, the rate-payers only saw their poor rates increase, something they clearly wanted to curtail.

The case for ending the Old Poor Law and replacing it with something thought to be more efficient was developed, in 1798, by Thomas Malthus, whose opinions on population are well known. He argued that allowance systems encouraged early marriage and large families and he added that labourers should not get married and have families until they were able to support themselves and their children.

Early in the 19th Century, especially at Southwell, Nottinghamshire, an attempt was made to reduce expenditure on the poor. The magistrates there abolished out door relief and introduced harsh discipline into the workhouse, making the latter an object of fear and a deterrent to the poor.

In 1830 the Swing Riots, which took place in agricultural parts of the country, lead to more objections from payers of the poor rate. It was noticed the riots were taking place where the allowance systems, like the one started in Speen, were the norm. There followed a demand that the poor should be treated more harshly and this would be an incentive for those who might become reliant on the poor rates to find work.

Demands for change led to the appointment, in 1832, of a Royal Commission which was to inquire into provision for the poor. By this time there was a general clamour to get the poor rates reduced and the advocates of changes which would produce this state of affairs were in the ascendant. In 1834 the Poor Law (Amendment) Act was passed which said “out door relief” should be continued only for the elderly and infirm; “out door relief” for the able-bodied should be discontinued; that the able-bodied should be placed in workhouses where conditions should be worse inside than they were for the poorest outside and parishes should join together to form larger Poor Law Unions run by elected Boards of Guardians.

The Act stated the implementation of its provision should start at once and it did so in the South of England. The changes were to take place in the North of England from 1836. Little difficulty was experienced in the first two years but, in 1836, it was made clear there was much opposition to the Act in the North of England.

In Colne the town refused to elect Guardians but in Todmorden things were much worse as riots were threatened if the Act was introduced there. Those who opposed the Act had the support of the leading employers of Todmorden, the Fieldens. John Fielden, by this time, was an MP and had demonstrated his reforming zeal by obtaining the Ten Hours Act by which work was limited in cotton mills, like his own, to a maximum of 10 hours a day. A Radical MP, he could hardly have been expected to support an Act like the Poor Law (Amendment) Act and it was not until the 1870s that Todmorden got its workhouse.

It might be useful, at this stage, to say a few words about the Burnley area in relation to the administration of poor relief. A local Poor Law Union was created with Burnley at its centre. It also included Colne and Padiham and all three of these places had their own workhouses in 1834. Of course there were additional small workhouses in some of the other townships. Habergham had a few cottages which served as a workhouse and Briercliffe still had similar provision in Haggate. The workhouse at Habergham closed in 1838, after a decision made in 1837, but not before the Guardians ordered the inmates should pick oakum or work on the roads if they wanted feeding! It appears the facilities in Briercliffe remained in use for up to 20 years.

Once they were up and running in 1836 the newly elected Poor Law Guardians of the Burnley Union decided there was no need to build a new Union Workhouse which would have served the whole area. It was their opinion the three existing workhouses were sufficient for the needs as they existed in 1837 when the decision was made. In fact it was stated there was space in the three combined workhouses for three times the number of inmates that they were accommodating at the time.

A few words about the workhouses may be of interest. The Burnley workhouse had been built in 1819 on a plot of land adjacent to the Calder in Royle Road. Although the building survived into photographic times so far as I know we have no picture of it but we know the land on which it was built measured 6,000 square yards and the main building was substantial at 162ft in length by 36ft wide. We also know it had wash-houses at the back, there was a “shed” in which there were 16 handlooms and there were pig-sties and a walled garden.

The building appears on the 1827 Fishwick Map of Burnley but this image lacks any detailed information and the same can be said of the Merryweather Map complied in the early 1840s. It has just occurred to me that it might appear on the 1851 OS map which is a very detailed publication. I will check this out and let you know next week. If the information is detailed enough, with what we already know, it might be possible to recreate what the building looked like.

None of our local historians has realised the importance of this building. Even John W. Kneeshaw, writing of “Burnley in the Nineteenth Century”, barely gives it a mention though he goes on to say that, in 1837, the Guardians decided to close the cottage workhouses at Marsden, Barrowford and Habergham Eaves.

The Colne workhouse dated from a similar period to the one in Burnley. It was under construction in 1820 and the site chosen was at Flass, which was, at the time, in the ownership of the Duchess of Buccleugh. We know that, in 1832, the workhouse could accommodate 90 inmates and 24 looms were provided on which some of them could work. Three years later, 42 paupers were living at the workhouse all but one of them from Colne.

If ever a town needed a complete and indexed history it is Padiham. We know the town had a workhouse in the 18th Century and it was replaced, in 1832, by another, which in the official language of the County Archaeologist, is described as being “to the east of the urban area”, but I have to admit I know little about it. There is, though, some confusion about Padiham and workhouses as a building, now in a poor state of repair, on the Blackburn Road out of Padiham was known as Workhouse Farm.

For the first months of the existence of the Burnley Union few changes appear to have been made to the existing system. This may have been because of the situation in Colne where there was outright opposition to the creation of a Union.

The workhouses in Burnley in 1837 accommodated 23 aged and infirm, six able bodied, six boys between the ages of seven and 13, two girls between the ages of seven and 16 and 10 children under the age of seven. This did not comply with the 1834 Act, especially so because, as you can see, families were housed in the same building. In 1838 it was decided Padiham Workhouse should be used for children, Burnley would house the able-bodied and Colne should house the aged and infirm.

Thus the Act was complied with. It was the intention of the Act to make workhouses “less eligible” than the conditions of the poorest families living in their own accommodation. A moment’s pause is necessary here if only to ask you to try to consider what the poorest conditions in normal society might be. I don’t need to tell you we would regard them as horrendous.

It is not surprising the new harsher workhouses were soon termed, by the people who feared them most, as “Bastilles”. A generation before that word had come to describe the most execrable of buildings, and workhouses certainly fit the bill.