Earth closets

I spent a pleasant few hours in the archive room today – I was making my way through a huge tome that was the minutes of the meetings of the Board of Guardians of Blean Union Workhouse from 1883 to 1886. It really is a magnificent book, about 18 inches tall and six inches thick, all handwritten in exquisite handwriting (which actually inspired me to order a new calligraphy pen; we’ve really lost the art of beautiful handwriting these days!).

Each entry begins with details about the date, the purpose of the meeting (usually the ordinary Board meeting), and who was present. The accounts are detailed, and then any correspondence dealt with. These meetings were held every two weeks, and each entry consists of around four or five pages.

I found myself focusing on the Guardians themselves on this read, wondering who these people were who had such power in their hands, what they thought of the Inmates and their duties, and what type of person they were. Some names were familiar to me. Names such as Iggulden and Wacher are still known in the local town as businessmen. Prescott-Westcar, the then owner of Strode Park (the local large estate), showed up as a Guardian partway through, although he doesn’t seem to have attended the Board meetings.

They were obviously shrewd businessmen, who believed in getting value for money. I came across an ongoing argument with a firm who had repaired the cooking equipment, and put in a bill for £53. Messages went back and forth, asking them to account for the cost, and as their claims did not tally with what the Master believed had been done, instructions were given to pay £43 rather than the total price.

There were several complaints to local tradespeople (especially the baker) for inferior quality goods, ranging from bread and flour (unsuitable for use) to problems with a coffin (although later the tradesman was allowed a small sum for a nameplate for each coffin).

The plumbing was a big issue. There were three water closets, one being by the Board room, one on the Elderly Women’s landing and one on the Elderly Men’s landing, and several earth closets. During the period I looked at, arrangements were made for modifications to the building, adding a drying room for the laundry, a drying room for earth for the earth closets, and new earth closets (Moules’ earth closets) to be built on the boundary of the property.

There were problems with the building works, when the builder who won the tender with the lowest price asked for an extra £15, and was not only told no, but had the tender taken away from him, and then later when the builder in charge was slow to complete the works.

There were problems with the Medical Officer not attending to a Pauper, and various other complaints, so that he was asked to resign and a new officer found. One of the Receiving Officers died unexpectedly, and a new one was appointed – he also took on the duties of registration of births and deaths in the district, and administering vaccinations.

There were a few pieces of good news – on a few occasions a note of thanks was made to local residents for gifts of books or periodicals for use by the Inmates, and when one lady was thanked for playing the Harmonium at services, she replied that the instrument was becoming worn out. She was despatched to a music shop in Canterbury to choose a new Harmonium, at a cost of £14.

Having looked at the names of the men attending the meetings, and noting that John Collard consistently attended the meetings as their Chairman, and was elected unanimously every year, I was surprised to notice that in August 1885 he was missing. At the following meeting, two weeks later, the Board were expressing their shock at his death, and sending condolences to his family.

So it seems these men (yes, all men, as far as I could see) worked hard to ensure the Inmates received what was due to them. They claimed support from locals who had family in the Workhouse (although one man was excused when it was revealed his wife had committed adultery) and arranged for movement between Workhouses where appropriate, people being sent to their own area for support where possible.

The only direct mention of any of the Inmates I’ve been researching was when the eldest of the five orphans was apprenticed to a local builder, but it was interesting to read the reports of the papers being signed.

It’s been a long time since I last went to the library to do some research, but I do enjoy it, and I do feel these people’s stories, so meticulously recorded, deserve to be told. I really must make the journey more often.


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