The Workhouse Medical Officer’s Report

My latest visit to the archives centre focused on two areas: I went through the admissions and discharges for the workhouse again, looking for extra information, and I took a first look at the Medical Officer’s reports.

The extra information I managed to find were the birth and death dates for Alice Curd, a baby who was born in the workhouse and died in the workhouse, although she did leave it for a short while. Without getting her death certificate I’m not sure there’s any way of knowing why she died, but I’m intending on the next visit to look for her in the births register, which might give her father’s name. What I do know is that shortly after the Curd family left the workhouse for the second time, Emily Curd married Brice Kemp and all the surviving children took his name. This seems to have been a successful marriage, so I think there’s a chance he was the father of her children.

I also looked into Sarah May in more detail – I said previously that she came to my attention because of the number of times I saw her name in the admissions and discharges register, and going back through confirmed my first impression. Between 1872 and 1883, the dates for the registers I looked at, she went in at least 21 times, and as there are some records missing I’m sure there are even more. She wasn’t the only one though – the same names regularly cropped up, each time with a few days or weeks in the workhouse followed by discharge at own request, and then a short time later they would be back again.

I left the microfilm reader and moved on to the Workhouse Medical Officer’s Report, a big old book with blue pages divided up into boxes, each labelled with a different heading. such as Defects in Nursing Care, Defects in Diet, Other Concerns. Not every page is filled in every box, but it appears the Medical Officer visited every few weeks and noted any issues that he found.

I found one mention of an inmate I was researching, when in April 1879 he records an issue with an outbreak of scarlet fever among the boys causing concern. Later in the month another outbreak led to the death of at least one boy and also affecting the children of the master and matron.

On the 7th May 1879 his entry reads:

I am glad to be able to state that the fresh cases of scarlet fever have recovered since my last report and that those who have suffered are all recovering favourably. The nursing has been most efficiently performed by S.A. Bates (sp?) and Sarah May. The former is most particularly deserving of commendation, as although suffering severely from the disorder herself she never relaxed her vigilance and recommenced her duties with the frail return of strength.

He also recommended that the children be given extra bread until their diet can be improved as they are all weak from illness.

I found no mention of John Hearnden, the lunatic, but I did find a few entries relating to similar issues:

3rd March 1869

Emma Erdenden (sp?), an inmate of the workhouse suffering from mental disorder has become much worse during the last few weeks. She is now so troublesome & excited that I beg to suggest her removal to an asylum as soon as practicable.

11th August 1869

James Clark, an inmate of the workhouse suffering from idiocy, is troublesome & the accommodation is not sufficient for his proper care and treatment. I therefore beg to suggest his removal to an asylum.

8th Sept 1869

With reference to James Clark, an idiot who on 11th August I suggested should be removed to an asylum, I now beg to report that I have since given orders for him to be employed as much as possible with some light occupation & to have daily outdoor exercise. Should this arrangement prove satisfactory & advantageous to him, I shall await the visit of one of the Commissioners in Lunacy before taking further steps in this matter, as I have some slight doubts as to the expediency of removing him to a lunatic asylum as long as he can be accommodated & properly cared for in the workhouse.

5th May 1870

James Clark, an idiotic inmate to whom I called your attention on 11th August 69 also on 8th Sept 69 has lately become more unmanageable. He is placed in the old men’s infirmary & those who attend to him have frequently great difficulty in getting him to take his food, wine (?) or medication. The old man Stephen Gummings (sp?) who has charge of the infirmary now wishes to be relieved of the responsibility of his care. I do not think the arrangements that can be made for him in the workhouse are sufficient for his proper care and treatment and am therefore of the opinion that his removal to an asylum is necessary.

I see from these entries that the Medical Officer does consider the needs of the inmates and where they can best be met. It also seems to have been a long-term commitment, as there was the same signature under Medical Officer throughout.

The other inmates that I found out about indirectly were Mary and Edward Goodwin. They were the couple who were in the workhouse at the age of 74. Mary died in 82, while Edward died in 84. I have been unable to find the date they were admitted to the workhouse, but the Medical Officer has comments to make about the nursing care and the situation on the wards:

There are constant reports of problems with drainage and ventilation, including reports of flowing sewage nearby and sewer gas bubbling up and causing an unbearable stench that is carried in the windows of the workhouse. 

On 1st January 1880 there is a report that sufficient attention is not paid to the personal care of the aged, bedridden and infants.

On 30th June in the box labelled Defects in Regard to Nursing of the Sick, he observes:

More attention might be paid to the aged, infirm & paralysed patients. Some of them ought to be assisted out of bed more frequently. Suitable beds for paralysed & bedridden patients are required. A chair on wheels for the paralysed would be a great advantage.

On 4th January 1882 the report reads:

There is no fixed arrangement for the systematic bathing of the adult inmates & I frequently find the skin of the aged long residents inmates (?) dirty about the feet & legs. 

Infirmary and Sick Wards:

Temperature is very uneven & frequently too low. More attention might be paid to the personal cleanliness of the sick & bedridden.

Recommendations:

That each adult inmate be provided with a bath or some other means for thoroughly washing the whole surface of the body and head once a month & the feet & legs at least once a fortnight. That more coal & less coke be used as fuel on the sick wards.

A swinging door be placed on the north end of the passage leading to the hospital preventing strong currents of cold air would keep the temperature of the sick wards more even and add much to their warmth and comfort.

Remember that Mary Goodwin died January 24th 1882, so this almost certainly describes the conditions of the ward where she spent her last days. Maybe the issues were fixed quickly?

No chance – in July 82 reports showed that the bathing and cold air issues had still not been sorted. and even years later, on 28th July 1886, there were reports of temperatures still cold, limited fuel and temperatures recorded of 48 in the middle of the day – assuming this was in Fahrenheit, this gives 8C.

So this research has filled in a little of the background, showing me some of the people involved in the care of those in the workhouse, and their attitude towards the inmates. I definitely feel I’m becoming more efficient at searching for information, have a better idea of what to look for, and am starting to flesh out the lives of these people who lived at least part of their lives in the workhouse up the road from my village.

One thing I found very strange was sitting at a desk, reading carefully the entries made so long ago in pen, and then copying them into my notebook. So many years separated those two writings. I have indicated where I was unable to make out the writing, or was unclear of the meaning, but generally I found it fairly easy to understand what was written, and I find I’m getting much more used to reading the handwriting. One particular set of entries in the admissions book has my admiration, as it’s beautifully written copperplate. I’m just grateful that the Medical Officer’s writing was much easier to read than his standing as a doctor would suggest!

 

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