Workhouse Infirmaries

The parish workhouse in the 17th and 18th century, was either a purpose built building or local houses used for providing employment for the destitute, often a private contractor would look after the parish’s poor, who would be employed by him and in return would receive board and lodging.

The workhouse infirmaries were often filled with patients from the hospitals who could not be cured. As the local authorities did not want to encourage paupers to laze in bed, the conditions were horrendous. They became so bad that only those who had resigned themselves to death would stay. The usual reason that people ended up in the workhouse was an economic change in their personal circumstances of the family breadwinner, illness and 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 living.

Although workhouses earned a reputation for strict discipline and cruelty, there were a few good things to be said for them. Men were encouraged to work harder to save their families the disgrace of becoming inmates. There were schools where children up to the age of 14 received rudimentary education. 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. Many of the elderly people at the end of the 19century, were at some time obliged to seek relief. While many ended up in the workhouse, some relief was administered to elderly people in their own homes by the more sympathetic guardians.

Usually the infirmary was a freezing cold and draughty room. There were iron beds with thin mattresses, the only furniture in the room. Nurses were usually untrained inmates, mostly over 50. 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. 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.

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. Their rooms unheated, their bedding was sparce and they were subjected to a compulsory bath on admission.

Usually Masters of the Workhouse were retired Officers and sometimes former policemen. 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 20 years 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 per year, 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 per year.

Separately a Matron`s salary would be £50, for a Chaplain £100, a Surgeon £78 and a Porter £25per year. 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 December 1844, a pauper named Timothy Daly died. An inquest was held, it was found that his death had resulted from the filthiness caused by gross neglect. The newspapers reported it, and it caused a public scandal. Miss Nightingale wrote in 1865, to Mr Charles Villiers, the President of the Poor Law Board, stating her case for the improvement of nursing in workhouse infirmaries. He replied immediately, and arranged to meet her. During their first meeting she realised it was not only the nursing which needed to be reformed, but the workhouse administration, and the treatment of the sick poor. Mr Villiers sent his principal assistant Mr H.B. Farnall, to see her, he was the Poor Law Inspector for the Metropolitan District. They decided to start the investigation in London, between them they drew up a `Form of Enquiry` to be circulated to every workhouse infirmary and workhouse sick ward in the Metropolitan district.

In 1879 Miss Twining, (daughter of a wealthy tea merchant) a Poor Law reformer, set up `The Association for Promoting Trained Nursing in Workhouse Asylums to provide better trained nursing William Bowman, a Fund Council member was on the Central Committee. Miss Nightingale did not always agree with Miss Twining, but much within the Associations aims she agreed with.

Mr Boulnoise, chairman of St Marylebone Guardians, approached the Fund for advice on nursing for the new Infirmary they were building in Ladbrook Grove. In May 1881 the Fund agreed to supply a Superintendent and a team of nurses. They would contribute to the expenses of a training school as they did at Highgate. Contributions were not to exceed £200 a year.

Elizabeth Vincent was to be Superintendent. Mrs Wardroper was not impressed with Miss Villers, who trained in 1872. She had worked as matron in Lincoln, but had to return home to nurse her sick father. She returned to work for the Fund as Miss Machin’s assistant at St Bartholomew`s. The Medical Officer appointed at the same time was Dr Lunn.

Before any nurses went to Ladbrook Grove there was much correspondence between Mr Boulnoise and Henry Bonham Carter about the plans for the new nursing home. Miss Nightingale felt that more bathrooms were needed, better ventilation and a sick room. The Ladbrook Grove Board would not authorise expenditure on nurses not required in running the hospital. The Fund was asked to assist, and they agreed to pay for the cost of probationers, but they would not bind themselves to any specific time.

A five year contract was signed with the Fund, requiring each probationer to receive board, lodging, washing and uniform. They would be under the authority of the Matron.

Miss Vincent with two head sisters, and seven ward nurses, took up their posts in the new hospital. Gertrude Wyld was training sister until 1887, when she was replaced by Miss Moriarty.

In 1883 the Fund sent nursing staff to Paddington New Parochial Infirmary, in due course it opened its own training school.

The Fund Councils interest, in Workhouse Infirmaries grew. In 1878 Sir William Wyatt came on to the Council, and in 1889 he was joined by Mr Edward Boulnoise MP, both with long experience for workhouse infirmary reform.


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