The Poor House…

During my frequent trips to Birmingham I stay at a former Rowton House, lodgings for working class males in the early 1900s and we’re not talking about a small scale B&B either, the (now) Hotel that I stay at once housed 900 males, mainly Irish, who had come to Birmingham’s industrial districts seeking work.

For no other random purpose than a recently heard local radio documentary we therefore turn our attentions to one of Leeds’ former workhouses, the Leeds Moral and Industrial Training School located on what was then the outskirts of the city and what is now the famous Leeds St James’ Infirmary, more pertinent the Moral and Industrial Training School is now the world famous Thackray Medical Museum, and excellent place to visit and one which I recommend to the house, especially for those with children who usually revel in its blood, gore and shit, yes, shit, for the study of medicine and public health is nothing if you do not study shit – maybe you should not eat a full breakfast before visiting – your kids will love it though.

Leeds in the 1830s had exempted itself from the provisions of The Poor Law and its workhouses and care of the destitute of the city was a random affair until The Leeds Guardians took on the responsibility and built the Beckett Street “Training School” which still stands today and very magnificent it looks too.

It sounds like it was a wonderful place for the poor infants of the city to be educated in the ways of Victorian work, the first rule of admittance being that its child residents should be put to work at shoemaking for nine hours per day before any “education” was offered. It first headmaster was dismissed for being “ineffective” and its second head was reknowned for having such a temper with the infants in his care that he “frothed at the mouth”, a third head was reported by inspectors in 1853 of being “an habitual drunk, swearing and fighting”, sounds like a wonderful place to have gone to school, no really.

A flood of Irish immigrants into the city in the 1840s and 1850s (my own ancestors included) caused an adult workhouse to be erected alongside the Moral and Industrial Training School with accommodation blocks, an infirmary, chapel and “idiotic” wards followed by a much bigger infirmary in 1870, a period during which the site could boast345 beds to cover a population of 118,000. A 40 room nurses home and an “imbecile” ward were added in the 1890s, and a “casual” ward in 1901 where those who found themselves “casually” vagrant could book a few weeks in the 30 cell mens quarter or 20 cell womens quarters and after examination and declaration of fitness pay for their keep by breaking stones for road use.

Census records for 1871 show a list of 41 permanent inmates in the Casual Workhouse all listed as “vagrants” including the Pardon family, father Edgar aged 34 with his four children aged 2 to 10 and no mention of a mother, ten years later in 1881 the Workhouse has a total of 461 residents with single parent families being commonplace the youngest resident being Alice Watson at 8 months old, daughter of a “washerwoman” although of course their presence in the workhouse records includes those who were there to receive free treatment in the Infirmary, the fact that they had a specific “Smallpox Clinic” at that time also being relevant.

If you were ever in any doubt as to the validity of the writings of Charles Dickens then one glance at the poorhouse records of the time will immediately validate Mr D – and incidently can I recommend his wonderful novel “The Parish Boys Progress” (Oliver Twist to you and I), forget anything you’ve seen on TV or film and certainly forget Lionel Barts version and just read the book…

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