Stories from the workhouse

Just to remind you of my workhouse project: I’ve been researching our local workhouse, Blean Union Workhouse, which was in the north of Canterbury, particularly around some of the inmates who were present for the 1881 census. Previously I’d been looking at the admissions and discharge registers, the death records, and the Medical Officer’s book.

Last time I visited the archives, I started looking at the minutes of the Guardians’ meetings. The Guardians were local men who were responsible for attending meetings and ensuring the workhouse was running smoothly. Meetings were held sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly. The minutes were written by hand in large ledgers, which must have been around 18 inches by 12 inches, and a good 4 inches thick (this is me looking back and estimating; I must remember to take a tape measure with me next time!). I started with the book that covered 1878 to 1882, and by the end of the day I’d managed to read about three-quarters of it, so there’s still a long way to go! There were 13 previous volumes, covering earlier years, and several that followed this one.

Each meeting recorded the names of those present, gave figures about the workhouse, and then recorded any other issues that had to be dealt with, or letters received, and these proved fascinating reading.

One of the first things I read was a report furnished by members of the committee who had attended the Kent Lunatic Asylum at Chartham (later St Augustine’s Hospital) to check on the welfare of the 26 inmates who were chargeable to the Union. There were 10 men and 16 women, of whom all but two were recorded as chronic and incurable cases. The committee inspected the facilities and domestic arrangements and were satisfied that “in their opinion the Establishment is efficiently and carefully conducted and reflects credit upon the Staff concerned in its management.”

Some of the entries concerned applications for transfer of inmates between different workhouses, either returning them to their home area or accepting them as the Blean Union’s responsibility. This would be done either by mutual agreement if they were satisfied as to the inmate’s area of residence, or by obtaining an order if there were any dispute. There were also issues with family members who were asked for money to help support a relative in the workhouse.

Another big issue was staffing.

Questions were raised over the medical officer, who was in trouble for non-attendance at a patient, delayed vaccination forms and illegible writing. He was also at one stage instructed to find himself an assistant, as he claimed he was struggling to fulfil all his duties.

In October 1878 the porter was summoned and warned over his disobedience of orders, insobriety and general neglect of duty. In June the next year he left, with no notice, and the post was advertised for a single man between the ages of 25 and 45, at the sum of £20 per annum. A new man was employed shortly thereafter, and a letter was received from Canterbury workhouse asking for a reference for the former porter, who was now employed there. The reference was given stating that they had no fault to find with the character or conduct, but that his duties were not always carried out as well as they would like.

It was only a few months until the new porter was reported absent from his post for three days and then being insubordinate, so he was sacked and the post was vacant again. It was offered up for the same £20 per annum, with furnished accommodation, and was duly taken by a man from Chartham. He did not last long either, and in fact the porter changed several times over the period I read. At one point it became known that the man currently in the position was married, and he was called before the board, where he explained that they had been separated for two years. As he had otherwise discharged his duties satisfactorily, they agreed to overlook the deception.

In 1879 the schoolmaster was admonished for the way he was failing to see to the industrial education of the boys at the workhouse. Shortly afterwards, following an inspection of the school by HM Inspector of Workhouse Schools, he resigned, and  the current industrial teacher, a Miss A.T. Hewlett, was allowed to take up the higher post of schoolmistress, at a wage of £30 per annum. A new industrial teacher was advertised for to teach the girls, at £20 per annum. This was advertised as suitable for a single woman or widow, and included accommodation. Two applications were received, one from Kent and one from London, and their third class train fare was paid to attend for interview, from which one was unanimously chosen.

All posts made to the workhouse were sent to the Local Government Board for approval, and this was the only example I came across where they did not simply approve without comment, for they demanded figures as to the numbers of girls at the workhouse, and their ages, and then declared that there were not enough girls to make her appointment worthwhile, and she was given notice. The post of industrial teacher was instead given to a man, who was a tailor and could pass on his trade to the boys. He was employed at a rate of £30 per annum. I believe that around this time a small extension was built to the workhouse to include a tailor’s workroom.

There were problems finding a new Chaplain for the workhouse, until eventually one was found who was willing to take on the post, at a salary of £60 per annum, on condition of the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury being received. For this money he was expected to “perform Divine Service once on Every Sunday, Christmas Day, and Good Friday between the hours of 10am and 4pm, and [to] pay at least one intermediate weekly visit to the workhouse, to examine the schools and visit the sick.”

I also found stories about behaviour issues and issues with contractors, but I’ll save them for my next post. I can’t wait to get back to the archives and continue reading! It was amazing to think of the men whose discussions were recorded, and the hours that must have been spent painstakingly writing up the minutes – I’m not sure how many people could write that much by hand with few or no corrections these days. I know I couldn’t. Another skill that’s being lost.


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  1. Rosalie Raftis

     /  April 5, 2015

    Thank you for this my great great great grandmother, Mary Daws, was an inmate in 1871 until her death in 1872. She had been the turnpike keeper at Selling for many years taking over that position from her mother who died in 1847. One daughter lived in Essex and her son in Australia so she was very much alone, how sad. I think her brother Benjamin Bedo died there too in 1874. I was able to visit Kent last year and saw the Workhouse on our travels. It was so wonderful to see where my forebears lived.

    • Thank you for your comment. I want to get back to my research as soon as I get a chance. I’m happy to look out for specific names if you want! I’m reading through the minutes of the guardians’ meetings at the moment.


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