Updated 28 Mar 2008

WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900

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Here's a piece from DERBYSGEN, written by Peter King, provided by Liz in Cornwall.
She says "We hear so much about the workhouse and how the older generation feared it.
I think this gives us an insight as to why."

You'll find an excellent website about Workhouses at: www.workhouses.org.uk
Also see a description of Wirksworth workhouse in 1795.

Compiled, indexed, formatted and copyright © 2001, . All Rights Reserved.

The Workhouse

Through much of the 19c and the early 20c. the very mention of the workhouse struck dread into the working classes and even some of the middle class suffering some misfortune. The usual reason that people ended up in the workhouse was an economic collapse in their personal circumstances-for example, sudden unemployment, accidents, the loss of the family breadwinner, illness and inescapable old age. The most vulnerable were orphan and foundling children, and the families of men who had been transported or were in prison, unmarried pregnant girls and the old who were no longer able to earn a crust.

Although workhouses earned a reputation for strict discipline and downright cruelty, there were a few good things to be said for them. Menfolk were encouraged to work harder to save their families the disgrace of becoming inmates. There was sustenance to be had, though of a meagre amount and monotonous kind,and there were schools where children up to the age of 14 received rudimentary education in the three Rs. Had they been at home they might have had less to eat and would have foregone any education because of the need for child labour. Some workhouses even had classes of instruction in some trades, some children were apprenticed and others were helped to emigrate. As many as a third of the population of old people at the end of the 19c. were at some time obliged to seek relief. While many ended up in the workhouse, some out-relief was administered to old people in their own homes by the more sympathetic guardians. Sickness and senility necessitated indoor relief.

Usually the infirmary was a freezing and draughty cold room. There were iron beds and painfully thin mattresses,and no furniture in the rooms other than beds. Nurses were usually untrained inmates, mostly over 50, and some even over 80! Mental cases were unkindly described as "imbecile", "idiot" and "lunatic" and a survey undertaken in 1858 produced a figure of around 30,000 such unfortunates, or 1 in 6 of all indoor paupers. Many of these may have been epileptic or suffering from some treatable complaint, and no doubt the surroundings led many to a state of chronic depression and melancholy. Expectant mothers needed the care of the workhouse infirmary and many children were born in the workhouse due to the fact that the infirmary acted as the lying-in hospital for deserted mothers to be, and unmarried pregnant girls.

Prior to the Poor Law Act of 1844 officers of the parish would do anything rather than have to support a mother and her illegitimate child, so this led to some compulsory marriages. If the constable managed to apprehend the supposed father he would give the man the option of going to church or going to gaol ! .. With the woman in one hand, and a warrant in the other, the constable marched the offending father off to the church to be wed, and occasionally handcuffed the man to ensure he did not escape.

Vagrants often ended up in the workhouse and were known as "sturdy beggars". They occupied a separate "Vagrant Ward ", many came from distant places and were granted food and shelter in return for their labour. They were not welcome inmates and consequently their conditions were harsh. Their rooms unheated, their bedding was scant and they were subjected to a compulsory bath on admission. The "hungry forties" led to increase in their numbers and the potato famine in Ireland produced more homeless beggars and tramps.

The Poor Act Amendment Bill 1844.
Some of the main points included an order that mothers of illegitimate children might apply for a summons to be served on an alleged father at the next Petty Sessions, where Justices having heard the evidence, would make an order for the father to pay the mother a weekly sum not exceeding 4s plus costs.

A mother of a bastard, neglecting to maintain it, or deserting the child, could be punished under the Vagrants Act. Compulsory apprenticeship of paupers was to be abolished. A woman whose husband was overseas, in custody or reckoned to be a lunatic was to be subject to the same conditions as though she were a widow. Any insane person, chargeable to the parish, holding any estate more than sufficient to maintain his family, was to have his money seized, and his chattels sold to pay for removal charges, maintenance, clothing, medicine and care.

Every birth and death within any workhouse was to be registered in the parish or place in which the workhouse building was situated, but for births occurring in the workhouse, the name of the parish or union to which the mother was chargeable, to be inserted in addition to her name. Registration fees were to be charged to the parish to which the person chargeable.

Usually Masters of the Workhouse were retired Officers or N.C.O.s and sometimes former policemen. The job would appeal to a homeless couple, the husband perhaps a bully, with a shrewish wife, delighted to command the unlimited supply of free servants. Generally speaking though, workhouse matrons were slightly less unkind than their husbands. There were however, some Masters with a real sense of vocation, sometimes staying in the post for 20yrs or more. Porters at the House gate had a kindly reputation and no doubt saw much sadness and desperation in the poor and infirm. Tramps and vagrants nevertheless received little of their sympathy.

Staff were paid badly,and far less than their counterparts in the prison service. For instance a prison governor in charge of 900 convicts might receive £600 p.a. whereas the workhouse Master and his wife, with 600 inmates, responsible for newborn infants,senile lunatics and every other type of person might receive about £80 p.a., the highest known joint salary being £150p.a.

Separately a Matron`s salary would be £50, for a Chaplain £100, a Surgeon £78 and a Porter £25 p.a. All worked intolerably long hours with no regular holidays. Sometimes the Chaplain would be non-resident, combining the work with a curacy nearby. His duties would be to read the prayers, preach at least once on Sundays, visit the paupers receiving outside relief when they were sick, and baptise the children.

The Clerk of the workhouse was an important person, dealing with the finances and general administration, sometimes these duties were undertaken by the Master. The Master had a great influence on the happiness or otherwise of those in his care, and a kindly man probably turned a blind eye to the harsh rules and regulations.

In the middle years of the 19c no actual nurses were employed to tend to the sick and they were left to the care of the more capable and able-bodied pauper inmates as mentioned before. By about 1862 Florence Nightingale turned her attention to the problem, and in a pioneering scheme began to train nurses at the Florence Nightingale School who were then introduced to Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary.

Compiled, indexed, formatted and copyright © 2001, . All Rights Reserved.