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The Huddersfield workhouse scandal: 1848

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. It established workhouses and abolished the system of outdoor relief for the poor. The Act was intended to reduce the cost of poor relief and was implemented rapidly in the rural south of England; there was little attempt to introduce it to the north until 1837. Poor relief in the north continued to be given as outdoor relief for very good reasons, not least that it was more efficient than building workhouses.

In 1837 the Registration Act (of Births, Marriages and Deaths) was passed; the administration of this legislation fell within the remit of the Poor Law authorities. However, in Huddersfield, the setting up of Poor Law Guardians was resisted strongly. Eventually the ratepayers were obliged to comply with the law but the following case illustrates how workhouses could cause further hardship to the poor.

Taken from the Leeds Mercury, May 1848.

Huddersfield Workhouse Abominations - Andover in the shade

Medical relief and general treatment of the sick poor. - To the ratepayers of the township of Huddersfield. - The undersigned, being overseers of the poor, having had it in charge by the ratepayers in vestry assembled, to institute a searching inquiry into the manner in which the sick poor are, and have been treated in the Huddersfield workhouse, and having ascertained that charges have been duly made to the poor law authorities, which in cruelty and disgrace surpass even the facts that earned for Andover such an unenviable notoriety; and having, moreover, learned the facts connected with the question of medical relief for the township as exemplified in the extremely hard case of Mr. TR Tatham [the Medical Officer], who for the last four years has been fighting the battle of the poor against niggardliness and parsimony, and standing up for the true interest of the ratepayers against real extravagance and shortsightedness, deem it incumbent on them to call the ratepayers together, in open vestry, that the facts of the whole case may be made known, and such steps taken as may be deemed most fitting to wipe away the disgrace that will otherwise indelibly attach to the township. Therefore, notice is hereby given, that a vestry meeting of the ratepayers of the township of Huddersfield will be held in the Guildhall, on Monday evening, May 1st, at seven o'clock, to consider the question of medical relief, and the general question of the treatment of the sick poor in the Huddersfield poorhouse; and further to consider the case of Mr. TR Tatham, the medical officer for the northern division of the township, with a view to carry out the suggestion and recommendation of Baron Alderson, on the trial of the cause "Tatham v the Board of Guardians of the Huddersfield Union" who remarked that "it would be a disgrace to the township of Huddersfield to allow Mr. Tatham to be one shilling out of pocket by his attention to the sick poor, or by his attempt to obtain compensation for his services and great risk of life incurred in attending the fever hospital. A public subscription ought to be set on foot; and if he (Baron Alderson) were an inhabitant of Huddersfield, he should certainly subscribe to it".

Huddersfield, April 24th, 1848   William Moore)
Joshua Hobson)
  Overseers of the Poor

The Rev. Josiah Bateman, Vicar of the parish, was unanimously called on to preside, and after he had read the notice above given, he observed that the terms in which the notice was couched were strong - very strong - too strong, he was inclined to think, unless the parties using them were well assured of the facts that in their opinion warranted them. However, it did not follow that because those strong terms had been used, the meeting were obliged to adopt them. They were called together to have laid before them certain allegations, and to judge of those allegations after both sides had been heard, if any one appeared to contradict them, and he trusted that to this examination they would come with unprejudiced minds. As to the nature of the facts (or alleged facts) that were about to be laid before them, he knew nothing either on one side or the other, but he must frankly confess that he could not refrain attending to hear and judge, after the notice that had been issued. He understood that the overseers had prepared a report, which he now called on Mr. Hobson to read.

Mr. Joshua Hobson, (one of the overseers of the poor) observed, that with the main portion of the rev. chairman's observations he fully agreed. He admitted at once that the terms of the notice by which the meeting was convened were strong, - very strong; and he for one would have hesitated long ere he had used such terms, had he not been painfully convinced that the facts of the case fully warranted that use. It would be seen by a reference to the vestry book of the township, that the overseers had been enjoined by the ratepayers to institute an inquiry into certain allegations made in open vestry on the 23rd of March last. That inquiry, in obedience to the instructions of the vestry, the overseers had made; and they were therefore in some sort of condition to judge whether the terms used were appropriate or not. For himself, he believed that the feeling would be, when the facts became known, that no terms could be too strong to characterise the abominations that had been practised towards the poor. The overseers had prepared a report of the inquiry they had made, which it now became his (Mr. Hobson's) duty to lay before the meeting. That report was in writing - prepared in the study, where the heat and passion of an excited assembly were absent, and where every sentence and every word would be coolly weighed. This course had been advisedly adopted. The report being in writing, could be referred to again another day - and there can be no mistake as to the nature of its allegations. But the overseers by no means intend or wish that this inquiry of theirs should be a final one. Their advice to the vestry will be, that the township call on the highest poor law authorities to institute a searching investigation into the several matters complained of, laying before them the report he was now about to read, as prima faciae evidence demanding such investigation.

Overseers Report

The overseers of the poor of the township of Huddersfield, having received it in instruction from a vestry meeting of the township (assembled on the 23rd day of March last, to nominate fit and proper persons to fill the said office of overseers), to institute an inquiry into certain allegations then and there made, as to the general treatment of the sick poor had received in the Huddersfield workhouse, beg to say that they have complied with the request contained in the resolution of the said vestry meeting, and have thereupon to report as follows:-

The overseers have had before them the medical officer of the northern division of the township, (in which district the workhouse is situate), and also several of the parties who have acted as nurses to the sick poor, both in the workhouse and in the temporary fever hospital. They have also made it their business to prosecute certain inquiries at the workhouse itself: and the result of all is, that they are forced to the conclusion that the sick poor have been most shamefully neglected; that they have been and still are devoid of the necessary articles of clothing and bedding; that they have been suffered to remain for weeks at a time in the most filthy and disgusting state; that patients have been allowed to remain for nine weeks together without change of linen or of bed clothing: that beds in which patients suffering in typhus have died, one after another, have been again and again and repeatedly used for fresh patients, without any change or attempt at purification; that the said beds were only bags of straw and shavings, for the most part laid on the floor, and that the whole swarmed with lice; that two patients suffering in infectious fever, were almost constantly put together in one bed; that it not unfrequently happened that one would be ragingly delirious, when the other way dying; and that it is a fact that a living patient has occupied the same bed with a corpse for a considerable period after death; that the patients have been for months together without properly appointed nurses to attend to them; that there has been for a considerable time none but male paupers to attend on female patients; that when the poor sick creatures were laid in the most abject and helpless state - so debilitated as to pass their dejections as they lay, they have been suffered to remain in the most befouled state possible, besmeared in their own excrement, for days together and not even washed; that the necessary stimulants ordered by the medical officer have been withheld; that when patients' lives even depended on the free administration of wine, the fever hospital has been left without for more than forty-eight hours at a time; that death occurred amongst the patients from which such stimulant was withheld, which the medical officer attributes to this very cause; that the party whose duty it was to have provided such wine, was repeatedly applied to for it, both by the nurses at the hospital and the medical officer...

This document was printed as a supplement to the Leeds Mercury and gives an account of the main charges on which the Huddersfield workhouse enquiry was based. The conditions in the workhouse in Huddersfield were deemed to be worse than those at Andover (1846). The report of the official investigation adds more to the information given in the report of the Poor Law Guardians of May 1848.



The following extract from the Overseers' report, will show the principal charges upon which the inquiry was instituted:-

Of the general treatment of the poor in the workhouse, the Overseers have to report that the house is, and has been for a considerable period, crowded out with inmates; that there are forty children occupying one room eight yards by five; that these children sleep four, five, six, seven, and even ten, in one bed; that thirty females live in another room of similar size; and that fifty adult males have to cram into a room seven and a half yards long by six yards wide; that the diet of the establishment has been and still is, insufficient; that four shillings worth of shin of beef, or leg offal, with forty-two pounds of potatoes, have been made to serve for "soup" for 150 inmates; that the quantity, in gallons, required of this wash, for the household is 27; that three gills of this "soup," with one fourth of an oaten cake, forms one of the dinners of the establishment; that ten gallons of old milk per day have been made to serve for two meals for an average number of 130 individuals, for a quarter of a year together, -- being little more than one gill per head per day; that the old women are allowed ¼ of a lb. [pound] of sugar and ½ oz. [ounce] of tea each, for a week's consumption; that the clothing of the establishment is miserably deficient; that there is no clothing in stock; that a great proportion of the inmates are obliged to wear their own clothes; that others have little better than rags to cover them; that instances have been known where the nakedness of even females has not been covered; that there are at present but 65 blankets fit for use in the establishment, to fit up 79 beds; that there are but 106 sheets for these 79 beds; being 50 short a pair each; that there is in consequence no change of bed linen whatever; that when cleansed the beds have to be stripped, and the linen hurried through the wash-tub, dried, and on to the beds again for the same night; and that there are throughout the entire establishment the most unmistakable signs of bad arrangement, shortsightedness, real extravagance, waste of the rate-payers' money, and want of comfort, cleanliness, health, and satisfaction amongst the poor.

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