Shropshire History

Victorian

Shropshire

Return

to Index

 

The period of history from 1837-1901 was known as the Victorian Period since she was the ruling queen.

 

 

It was a time of great expansion of empire and also industry.  Shropshire was an industrial centre – see separate pages on Canals, Ironworks, Mines and Railways. There was a scramble amongst investors to build railways, as can be seen below.

 

1846

Shrewsbury & Chester Railway

1849

Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway

Shrewsbury & Stafford Railway

1852

Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway

1858

Crewe & Shrewsbury Railway

1860

London & North Western Railway (Shropshire Section)

Oswestry & Newtown Railway

1861

Knighton Railway

Much Wenlock & Severn Junction Railway

Tenbury & Bewdley Railway

Wellington & Severn Junction Railway

1862

Great Western Railway (Shropshire section)

Severn Valley Railway

Shrewsbury & Welshpool Railway

1863

Nantwich & Market Drayton Railway

Oswestry Ellesmere & Whitchurch Railway

Wenlock Craven Arms & Lightmoor Extension Railway

1866

Bishop’s Castle Railway

Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway

1867

Wellington & Drayton Railway

1870

Stoke & Market Drayton Railway

1872

Whitchurch & Tattenhall Railway

1895

Wrexham & Ellesmere Railway

 

1837 – Victoria becomes queen

 

1853 – Crimean War starts

 

1864 – First modern Olympic Games started by William Brookes in Much Wenlock

 

1867 - Transportation to the colonies abolished

 

1868 - Hanging in public abolished

 

1872 – Springwell Pit shaft disaster.

 

1880 – First Boer War starts

 

1881 – Mary Webb the author born at Leighton.

 

1882 – Casual Poor Act

 

1889 – Salop County Council created.

 

1893 – Wilfred Owen the war poet born near Oswestry.

 

1895 – Snailbeach Mine cage disaster.

 

1898 - Hard labour in prisons abolished

 

1899 – Second Boer War starts

 

1901 – Victoria dies.

 

 

Discovering Shropshire’s History

 

Guide to Victorian Wellington

 

Memories of Morda Workhouse

 

Shropshire Institutions

 

Shropshire Workhouses

 

The Workhouse

 

 

 

 

Victorian Workhouses

 

 

The Workhouse was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death. The new law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers as it was anticipated that, if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere, then wages would inevitably rise. Subsequent laws against vagrancy defined those who were able to work but could not as opposed to those who were able to work but would not. Supporting the destitute was a problem exacerbated by King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries as they had been a significant source of charitable relief and provided a good deal of direct and indirect employment.

 

The Poor Relief Act 1576 established the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it. The Relief of the Poor Act 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through age or infirmity, were unable to work. It declared that the able-bodied should be offered work in a house of correction, whereas the "persistent idler" was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the impotent poor (the old and the infirm) although most assistance was granted through “outdoor relief”. This was money, food or other necessities given to those living in their own homes and was funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish.

 

In 1776, the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales was more than 1,800 with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. This growth in the number of workhouses was prompted by the Workhouse Test Act 1723, which obliged anyone seeking poor relief to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work for no pay (a system called indoor relief). The growth in the number of workhouses was also caused by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782. This allowed parishes to share the cost of poor relief by combining to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. The able-bodied poor were instead either given outdoor relief or found employment locally. So keen were some Poor Law authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish.

 

Mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers and a series of bad harvests meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 attempted to discourage the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse. Some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates, and most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, bone crushing to produce fertiliser or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike. Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. But the provision of free medical care and education for children, neither of which was available to the poor living outside workhouses, meant that workhouse inmates were often better off in those respects.

 

The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order 1844 aimed to end outdoor relief altogether for the able-bodied poor. However, in 1846 only 82,000 able-bodied paupers were maintained in workhouses and 375,000 were still on outdoor relief. Excluding periods of extreme economic distress, it has been estimated that about 6.5% of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time. After 1835, many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind brick walls, so-called "pauper bastilles". The commission proposed that all new workhouses should allow for the segregation of paupers into at least four distinct groups, each to be housed separately:-

 

·        aged and impotent

·        children

·        able-bodied males

·        able-bodied females.

 

 

A common layout was a radial design with four three-storey buildings at its centre set within a rectangular courtyard, allowing for four separate work and exercise yards, one for each class of inmate.  Separating the inmates was intended to serve three purposes:-

 

·        to direct treatment to those who most needed it

·        to deter others from pauperism

·        as a physical barrier against physical and mental illness.

 

Each Poor Law authority employed one or more relieving officers, whose job was to visit those applying for assistance and assess what relief, if any, they should be given. Any applicants considered to be in need of immediate assistance could be issued with a note admitting them directly to the workhouse. Alternatively they might be offered any necessary money or goods to tide them over until the next meeting of the guardians, who would decide on the appropriate level of support and whether or not the applicants should be assigned to the workhouse.

 

Workhouses were designed with only a single entrance guarded by a porter, through which inmates and visitors alike had to pass. Near to the entrance were the casual wards for tramps and vagrants and the relieving rooms, where paupers were housed until they had been examined by a medical officer. After being assessed the paupers were separated and allocated to the appropriate ward for their category : -

 

·        men over 60

·        women over 60.

·        boys under 14

·        girls under 14

·        able-bodied men between 14-60

·        able-bodied women between 14-60.

 

Children under the age of 2 were allowed to remain with their mothers. Clothing and personal possessions were taken from them and stored, to be returned on their discharge. After bathing, they were issued with a distinctive uniform.  For men it might be a cotton shirt, jacket, trousers and cloth cap.  For women a dress worn underneath a smock. Shoes were also provided. Some workhouses had a separate "itch" ward, where inmates diagnosed with skin diseases such as scabies could be detained before entering the workhouse proper.

 

Conditions in the casual wards were worse than in the relieving rooms and deliberately designed to discourage vagrants, who were considered potential trouble-makers and probably disease-ridden. Vagrants who presented themselves at the door of a workhouse were at the mercy of the porter, whose decision it was whether or not to allocate them a bed for the night in the casual ward. Those refused entry risked being sentenced to two weeks of hard labour if they were found begging or sleeping in the open and prosecuted for an offence under the Vagrancy Act 1824.

 

 

A typical 19th Century casual ward was a single large room furnished with some kind of bedding and perhaps a bucket in the middle of the floor for sanitation. The bedding on offer could be very basic, eg only straw and rags, although beds were available for the sick. In return for their night's accommodation, vagrants might be expected to undertake a certain amount of work before leaving the next day. Until the passage of the Casual Poor Act 1882 vagrants could discharge themselves before 11am on the day following their admission but from 1883 onwards they were required to be detained until 9am on the second day. Those who were admitted to the workhouse again within one month were required to be detained until the fourth day after their admission. Normal inmates were free to leave whenever they wished after giving notice of 3 hours but if a parent discharged themself then the children were also discharged, to prevent them from being abandoned.

 

Some Poor Law authorities hoped that payment for the work undertaken by the inmates would produce a profit for their workhouses, or at least allow them to be self-supporting, but whatever small income could be produced never matched the running costs. Nevertheless, local people became concerned about the competition to their businesses from cheap workhouse labour. Some inmates were allocated tasks such as caring for the sick but most were employed on generally pointless work. The daily workhouse schedule was :-

 

6:00                Rise

6:30–7:00      Breakfast

7:00–12:00    Work

12:00-13:00   Dinner

13:00-18:00   Work

18:00-19:00   Supper

20:00               Bedtime

 

Some Poor Law authorities sent destitute children to the British colonies to live with families there, in particular to Canada and Australia. They were known as Home Children and thousands were sent.  Conditions were regulated according to a list of rules contained in the Consolidated General Order 1847, which gave guidance on diet, staff duties, dress, education, discipline and redress of grievances.

 

Although dreary, the food was generally nutritionally adequate, eg a breakfast of bread and gruel was followed by dinner, which might consist of cooked meats, pickled pork or bacon with vegetables, potatoes, yeast dumpling, soup and suet or rice pudding. Supper was normally bread, cheese and broth and sometimes butter or potatoes. The larger workhouses had separate dining rooms for males and females and those that did not staggered meal times to avoid any contact between the sexes. Rations provided for the indoor staff were much the same as those for the paupers, although more generous. The master and matron, for instance, received six times the amount of food given to a pauper.

 

Education was provided for the children but workhouse teachers were poorly paid, without any formal training and facing large classes of unruly children with little or no interest in their lessons. Few stayed in the job for more than a few months. In an effort to force workhouses to offer at least a basic level of education legislation was passed in 1845 requiring that all pauper apprentices should be able to read and sign their own indenture papers. Workhouses had links with local industry and some parishes advertised for apprenticeships and were willing to pay any employer prepared to offer them. Religion played an important part in workhouse life and prayers were read to the paupers before breakfast and after supper each day. Each Poor Law Union was required to appoint a chaplain to look after the spiritual needs of the workhouse inmates, who was invariably expected to be from the established Church of England.

 

 

Discipline was strictly enforced in the workhouse. For minor offences such as swearing or feigning sickness, the inmate could have their diet restricted for up to 48 hours. For more serious offences such as insubordination or violent behaviour, they could be confined for up to 24 hours and might also have their diet restricted. Girls were punished in the same way as adults but boys under the age of 14 could be beaten with a rod or other instrument. Persistent offenders or anyone bringing "spirituous or fermented liquor" into the workhouse could be taken before a Justice of the Peace and even jailed.

 

Each Poor Law Authority was run by a board of guardians elected from each of the participating parishes, assisted by six other members. The guardians were usually farmers or tradesmen and, as one of their roles was the contracting out of the supply of goods to the workhouse, the position could prove lucrative for them and their friends. Although the 1834 Act allowed for women to become workhouse guardians provided they met the property requirement, the first female was not elected until 1875. Working class guardians were not appointed until 1892, when the property requirement was dropped in favour of occupying rented premises worth £5 a year.

 

Every workhouse had a complement of full-time staff, often referred to as the indoor staff. At their head was the governor or master, who was appointed by the board of guardians. As well as the overall administration of the workhouse, masters were required to discipline the paupers as necessary and to visit each ward twice daily, at 11am and 9pm. Female inmates and children under 7 were the responsibility of the matron, as was the general housekeeping. The master and the matron were usually a married couple, charged with running the workhouse "at the minimum cost and maximum efficiency for the lowest possible wages". A typical workhouse accommodating around 200 inmates had a staff of 5, which included a part-time chaplain and a part-time medical officer. The low pay meant that many medical officers were young and inexperienced.

 

Towards the end of the 19th Century, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor. Responsibility for administration of the Poor Law passed to the Local Government Board in 1871 and the emphasis soon shifted from the looking after the poor to the care of the sick and helpless. The Diseases Prevention Act 1883 allowed workhouse infirmaries to offer treatment to non-paupers as well as inmates and by the beginning of the 20th Century some infirmaries were even able to operate as private hospitals. By the end of the century only about 20% admitted to workhouses were unemployed or destitute but about 30% of the population over 70 were in workhouses. The introduction of pensions for those aged over 70 in 1908 did not result in a reduction in the number of elderly housed in workhouses but it did reduce the number of those on outdoor relief by 25%. It was not until the National Assistance Act 1948 that the workhouse finally closed.

 

The town of Wellington had two workhouses during the Victorian period, both of which still survive. The first in Walker Street stands next to the Library and was opened in 1797. It was capable of holding 160 inmates but rarely appears to have been full. The 1861 Census only records 70 inmates living there. The building was later replaced by new facilities on Holyhead Road, which contained a separate infirmary and schoolhouse. Edward Lawrence was appointed Master of Wellington Workhouse in September 1890 and kept a diary charting the events of his time in charge. Lawrence had campaigned for social justice for the poor and conditions in the Workhouse were far from satisfactory when he arrived in post. Inmates were forced to eat contaminated food and many of them had diarrhoea. On one occasion, Lawrence described “night soil as Eau de Cologne in comparison to the smell of the putrid mutton being prepared for the inmates’ dinner”. The gas supply was in a dangerous condition, the inmates were not allowed electric light in the evenings.

 

Lawrence accused his assistant of treating the male residents “like dogs” and his frustrations quickly led him to become disillusioned with both the workhouse system and the inmates themselves. After just one month in charge, he described the male inmates as “bone idle” and their female counterparts as “thieves, liars and false as hell”. Lawrence’s refusal to follow established practices soon led him into conflict with the Local Board of Guardians and he was dismissed in 1891 after only a year.

 

List of Shropshire Workhouses

 

Atcham (SJ538075)

 

Benthall (SJ668028)

 

Bishop’s Castle (SO321888)

 

Bridgnorth (SO713936)

 

Broseley (SJ672018)

 

Church Stretton (SO455943)

 

Claverley (SO793933)

 

Cleobury Mortimer (SO670763)

 

Farlow (SO640800)

 

Haughton (SJ371271)

 

Ironbridge (SJ676035)

 

Ludlow (SO514753)

 

Madeley (SJ674038)

 

Market Drayton (SJ673339 & SJ662333)

 

Much Wenlock (SJ6625002)

 

Newport (SJ752187)

 

Oswestry (SJ289279)

 

Quatt (SO755882)

 

Ruckley (SO531999)

 

Shifnal (SJ748072)

 

Shrewsbury (SJ486120)

 

Wellington (SJ648108 & SJ650114)

 

Wem (SJ515297)

 

Whitchurch (SJ544419)

 

Worfield (SO758956))