It's April so it's time for our members to help us blog through the 2020 A-Z Blogging Challenge. Our chosen theme this year is Employment, also the topic of our Shared Endeavour where our members are encouraged to research employment within their one-place study. Today's entry is from Karen Bailey.
This blog post technically features not one but eight jobs – a bumper crop!
The workhouse is a fairly standard feature in most English and many Welsh towns in the Victorian period. Established after the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law, the idea was to reduce the cost of the poor from the parish by “encouraging” the poor to work to be able to support themselves rather than rely on parish support. Poor people, including children, worked in the workhouse doing often hard labour in return for shelter, food, and education for children.
Conditions inside the workhouses were terrible – after all, the whole point is to allow people to work to be able to drag themselves out of poverty, so they couldn’t be seen to be too inviting or it would more likely encourage too many people to enter the workhouse if it was seen as an “easy way out”. Families were split up and men, women and children kept apart in different areas of the workhouse. Alas, sometimes people were so poor that they simply had no other choice but enter the workhouse; based on my own family history research, they often didn’t leave again and went from workhouse to grave.
The Poor Law grouped parishes into Unions, and each Union was responsible for building and maintaining a workhouse. The Unions local to my One-Place Study, Droitwich, include Bromsgrove, Kings Norton, Kidderminster and Droitwich itself. An 1843 record from the (English) National Archives recently released as part of their “free digital records” (do go and check that out to see if there are any records available for your Place!), shows a list of jobs within these Unions and the salaries which each were paid.
In brief, the jobs listed are:
- Clerks: the “personal assistants” of the workhouse, doing everything from organising meetings to writing up and submitting reports; Droitwich had one.
- Relieving Officers: These evaluated anyone applying for entry to the workhouse and approved their entry (or not). Droitwich had three.
- Auditor: As the role would entail today, the auditor ensured financial transparency and accuracy of reports. Droitwich had one.
- Master and Matron: These were very often a husband and wife combination. The Master oversaw the management of the workhouse, whilst the Matron acted as his deputy while also dealing with anything to do with female or child inmates. Droitwich had one of each.
- Porter: Much like in a hotel, the porters dealt with all goods and persons entering or leaving the workhouse.
- Schoolmaster: To give the children a basic education and generally supervise them. Droitwich had a combined porter and schoolmaster.
- Nurse: To care for the sick and infirm of the workhouse. Interestingly, Kidderminster lists one but Droitwich, Bromsgrove and Kings Norton did not. Perhaps their poor were not as sick?
Interestingly, the document appears to be a recommendation to reduce the salaries of the workhouse employees within the Bromsgrove and Kidderminster Unions! Apparently, Droitwich and Kings Norton were paying their employees a reasonable sum, as none of those are annotated to be reduced.
If you are interested in learning more about workhouses generally, I wholeheartedly recommend looking at Peter Higginbotham’s workshouses.org.uk for an excellent resource for both workhouses and the Poor Law generally, and for every (I believe!) workhouse in England including histories, records excerpts and photographs.
- Higginbotham, Peter (n.d.). Poor Law and Workhouse Administration and Staff [online]. Available at: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/admin/index.shtml [accessed April 2020].
- Higginbotham, Peter (n.d.). Droitwich Workhouse [online]. Available from: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Droitwich/ [accessed April 2020].
- “Table of workhouses” from The National Archives, Catalogue Reference: MH/12/14018/33