More research – and hitting jackpot!

I decided this week that it was about time I headed back to the history and library centre to see what other records were available regarding the workhouse. I drove through rain and sleet to get there, and this time parked in the railway station car park, which allowed me to stay for longer in the day but provided a short walk through the foul weather. I paid £10 for the privilege of taking photos of the records as I worked, but sadly the copyright rules prevent me from publishing them at this point, as the licence is for personal research use only.

Apprenticeships and employment

My first request was for a set of books that promised records of apprenticeships and visits to children who had been found work from the workhouse. The first only contained three entries, and left me feeling rather disappointed, but the second had a few more records and the third was much more useful still, containing not only details of children who had been found employment but further information; I was touched to learn that someone, probably around 1900, had carried out their own research into the children, and had recorded details of what had happened to them. Entries ranged from “died at sea” through “did exceedingly well at apprenticeship but died of consumption shortly thereafter” to “Did well during apprenticeship and went on to Australia, doing well there when last heard of.”

Here I found some important information about Edwin Newing, the oldest of the orphans – aged 12 at the time of his parents’ death, at the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a builder in Eddington, Herne until the age of 21. Next to his name the note said “Left apprenticeship and went to America – married Mary Curtis. Did well – returned to England and is doing very well indeed as a Painter etc.” I was interested in this casual mention of his wife, and was rewarded a couple of pages later with an entry for Mary Curtis herself, who was employed in a private household in Kensington, her note saying “Did well and stayed some years afterwards going to America got married to Edwin B Newing returned and keeping lodging house Herne Bay & doing well.” A quick check revealed that in fact Mary Curtis was in the workhouse at the same time as Edwin during that 1881 census, so although they apparently married in Canada they had already known each other since childhood.

I was, however, curious about Edwin leaving his apprenticeship, since he was already in Canada by the age of 20.

Punishment book

My next request was for the Punishment Book. This proved to be a wonderful source of information, if not for “my” people then for life in the workhouse generally. The one person I was familiar with who did show up a few times was Sarah May, the charwoman who seemed to have spent her entire life in and out of the workhouse. She was recorded with transgressions such as obscene language, indecent behaviour in the wash-house, and going to a ward where an able bodied man was at work contrary to orders given by the matron. Punishments tended to be withdrawal of butter for the day and substitution of bread or potatoes for the main meal. I found this quite amusing until I realised that she was around the same age as I am now and was being punished like a child. I also learned that she had a teenage daughter in the workhouse with her, as at one point they were both in the punishment book together, with an entry that appears to read “striking her mother”/ “striking her daughter”.

John Hearnden (the lunatic) was also in the punishment book, for leaving the premises without permission instead of going to work in the garden, or staying out longer than permitted – in fact this seemed a common transgression, particularly amongst one or two of the men, who were regularly reported as returning late and drunk, occasionally returned by the police!

At this point, from 1860ish to around 1880ish, punishments seemed to be mainly withdrawal of food and/or free time, but there are very few punishments recorded in the 1880s and there appears to be a sharp change in the 1890s onwards with punishments recorded including caning, birching and solitary confinement, or a specific “disorderly diet” for 24 hours.

At this point in my research I headed for lunch in the small cafe round the corner, and returned refreshed and ready to tackle the next set of documents.

Emigration records

Knowing that some of the Newing children had journeyed out to the States and Canada, I had requested what was listed as emigration records, and discovered this consisted of a large but slim envelope containing various papers. The first couple of papers were records showing agreements to transport various children, dated around 1862, including information on what dietary allowance would be made for them and assurance that they would be given a place to sleep no smaller than 6ft long and 18 inches wide. All very interesting, but not directly related to my orphans, so I held out little hope as I turned to the next document, a small handwritten letter. I was getting used to deciphering handwriting by now, so the words “little Newings” jumped out at me. Checking records when I reached home confirmed my first belief – this letter, written in 1892, was from the couple who ran the boarding house where Charlotte and Nathaniel Newing were recorded as living in 1891, and was addressed to the clerk at the workhouse, confirming that Mrs Heaven would be happy to escort the little Newings up to London. I had to laugh at this – the “little Newings” were 13 years old (Charlotte) and 15 years old!

Having transcribed this letter into my records, I turned to the next document – and that’s when I found myself unable to believe my eyes: it was a letter written by Edwin Newing himself! The oldest of the orphans, he had travelled to Canada and was now writing to the clerk of the workhouse asking for his brother and sister to be sent out to him so he could care for them. Here I discovered more about this failed apprenticeship, as he said in his letter: “We are orphans, and was brought up in the Blean Union Workhouse until I became old enough to earn my own living, when I was apprenticed and owing to ill treatment on the part of my master, I absconded before I served my time and went to live at Wallington, Surrey where after being out of work for a long time, I made an application to the Croydon Guardians for assistance in emigrating to this country, which after due consideration they awarded me £5 which I understood came from the government grant, awarded annually for assisting emigration. Since I have been in this country I ordered my little sister and brother’s discharge then inmates of the B. Union, and have paid for their maintenance ever since, which has been a very great strain on my purse, so much so, that I cannot afford to continue it any longer. If I had them out here, they could live with me, and the expense for their maintenance would not be an inconvenience to me.”

This, then, was the cause of the letter from the Heavens arranging escort, and the rest of the folder was taken up with a series of memorandums from passenger, shipping, insurance, commission & general agents in London, arranging for transport for the Newing children up to Liverpool and then onto a ship over to Nova Scotia. It appears they had to travel second class, as the ship would not carry steerage due to problems with quarantine for cholera, and 15 shillings was paid to the stewardess on board to take care of them on the journey. They duly boarded the Carthaginian on October 25th 1892.

A copy of an emigration document explains: “These children will be met by their older Brother on landing at Halifax in which Town he resides and is an assistant station master on a Railway. He will maintain the children at his own home until suitable situations are provided for them.” It provides an account of the expenses involved, a grand total of £7.

At this point it was time for me to head for home, through brilliant sunshine, taking a detour to avoid the motorway where a 15ft deep sinkhole had opened in the central reservation since I had travelled up on it this morning. Remember that rain?

I’ll be going back to the library next week, to continue my look through the archives. I’ve now learned that what looks promising sometimes isn’t, while treasures can lurk in the least likely of places, and I’m getting much more of a feel for the people who lived there and those who were responsible for their care.


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