|The Rotherhithe Workhouse in 1820. By George Yates.|
Workhouses were, crudely, buildings owned and administered by the state, in which impoverished people lived and for whom work was provided in return for their keep. They are an 18th and early 19th Century phenomenon but they had been a long time coming. The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor put the care of the poor firmly into the hands of parishes, who funded their poor relief by imposing a poor-rate tax on property owners. In its earliest phases the sort of assistance that the poor could expect was usually in the form of hand-outs of essentials like food, clothing and fuel with which to cook and heat their homes. However, the concept of the workhouse gradually began to evolve as a means of improving efficiencies both in terms of cost and the administration of relief. Intentions were good, and these early forms of workhouse were successful.
|Darton's 1817 map shows the location of the |
workhouse (highlighted here in red).
The workhouse is first mentioned in the Vestry Minutes on April 29th of 1722 when the proposal to establish a workhouse was put forward. Nothing was actioned at that time and it was only in 1728 when the proposal resulted in a workhouse on Deptford Lower Road (since 1888 simply Lower Road, opposite today's Neptune Street).
|An example of a work room in a London workhouse.|
From Pyne and Combe's book (1810) "The Workhouse"
The Rotherhithe workhouse continued to remain under the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Parish, and its Vestry until 1836. From 1836-1869 the workhouse was placed into the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Board of Guardians. Boards of Guardians were bodies who were responsible, by law (the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) for the management and administration of workhouses and related buildings. Those serving on a Board of Guardians were elected by the owners of the properties that were liable for the poor rate, a tax gathered by residents in order to provide provision for the disadvantaged. The board was elected annually.
|This illustration from the Police Illustrated News gives|
an idea of the light in which the workhouses were regarded
|Weller's 1868 map of Rotherhithe,|
showing the workhouse (in red)
sandwiched between Lower Road and
Southwark Park. Rotherhithe was
becoming increasingly busy.
"On the 9th of July 1864 I took office, as head nurse, in Rotherhithe Infirmary, where I had 50 patients sick and infirm; with this number I found I was really able to personally superintend the actual nursing, which is as much as one paid nurse can do with any satisfaction to herself or those by whom she is employed. For this number of patients I had four pauper nurses, all of whom were old and inexperienced; two could read but neither could write.
Of the four nurses allowed me three were all I could expect them to be; drunk only when they had the means or the chance of getting anything to drink; the fourth was a confirmed drunkard, so much so, that I was in constant fear of her doing bodily harm to the sick patients. She would beat them till they were black with bruises, more especially those who were unable to help themselves and friendless; and I found, by the patients, that they lived in fear of her, and only by giving her their beer, or other nourishment, could they feel themselves safe to ask for the most trifling thing to be done for them.
I complained to the matron and assistant master, and was told she had always done very well till I came there; they supposing she did not like a paid nurse over her. I must therefore do the best I could with her, as there was no one in the house she could put in her place.
I then complained of the dirty state the patients were in, when the matron said I must get used to all that, as workhouses were not like hospitals.
Dinner at Marylebone workhouse
When I had been there about four months, I had a pauper sent to the sick ward from some ward up at the workhouse. I understood this poor creature had been in the house for some time, she was an imbecile. This poor patient I believed sensitive to all her sufferings and yet she was the victim to the most cruel treatment from this inhuman pauper nurse.
This state of things went on till one morning I sent for the master to come to the infirmary. Immediately on his coming, I told him he must that moment remove the sick ward nurse, or I would go and bring in the guardians to see what could be done in the shape of finding me another nurse; the master, fearing I should do so, very reluctantly ordered what he thought a model nurse to the body of the house.
I do not think I am wrong in saying many a poor creature went to their home long before the time, by the hands of this inhuman nurse. It was my firm impression that when patients had got bad and troublesome she gave opium, put them on the left side, and so they passed out of this world as natural deaths.
Respecting things for the use of the patients, there was an insufficiency of everything throughout the whole infirmary.
As regards the sick diet, I considered on the whole it was insufficient; the mutton broth and beef tea were only mockery, the meat was more often than not one lump of fat, and nearly cold, so that a patient very ill could not eat it. Milk in the sick ward was never heard of till I asked the doctor to allow it with arrow-root; then the master made a great fuss about it. I had forgotten to say nightdresses were not allowed for the sick patients, with the exception of three or four of the union blue, made out of the skirts of worn out dresses. Patients were allowed to wear their own if they could pay for the washing; and I found they often had to sell their nourishment to do it.
On the whole, it did not seem to me that a pauper's life was regarded in any other light than the sooner they were dead the better.
I left Rotherhithe workhouse 16th April 1865."
23 April 1866"
|"The elderly at the workhouse" by Hubert von Herkomer|
Although it had included an infirmary of its own, the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 required that infirmary accommodation be separate from workhouse buildings and a separate infirmary was built next door in 1873.This will be covered in another post.
Residents of the Rotherhithe workhouse were employed in a number of tasks, many of which were directly related to the local shipping industry. In the early Nineteenth Century a rope manufacturing operation supplied new rope to ship builders and owners. Stephen Humphrey says that in 1836 it turned a profit of £592 2s and 2d (with thanks to the National Archives Currency Convertor, £582 2s 2d would have the same spending worth of around £25,670.98 - very impressive). Another of their tasks was the creation of oakum. Old ropes and cables ("junk") were chopped into manageable lengths and these were in turn picked apart to reduce them to their component fibres. These were then tarred and used as packing ("caulking") to fill gaps in wooden planking of ship hulls and decking. It was a laborious job, and was commonly assigned to workhouse inmates.
Failure to comply with workhouse rules resulted in severe punishment. Stephen Humphrey gives the example of four girls who were housed in the women's block in 1835 who were threatened with deportation to Tasmania.
The workhouse closed in 1884, but the separate infirmary continued to operate until the 1970s, and will be described on another post. In 1889 the workhouse was still standing because the Minutes of the Board of Guardians state that it was "dilapidated and unused."
Today, the land where the workhouse used to be located is covered by the residential estate on Ann Moss Way. Although there are remains of the infirmary that survived the demise of the workhouse, there are no extant remains of the workhouse itself.
|Ann Moss Way|
With thanks to Stephen Humphrey's book "The Story of Rotherhithe" for untangling much of the history. For more about workhouses and their history see Peter Higginbottom's fascinating and comprehensive Workhouses website.