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.



Back to the workhouse

It’s been a long time, but next week I’m hoping to get back to the library for some more research on Blean Union Workhouse. I started the project by researching specific people who were in the workhouse on a specific date. Having managed to get quite a long way in tracing their stories, I turned my attention the workhouse itself.

The problem that I’m having, apart from the fact that the library is nearly an hour’s drive away, is that there is so much material it’s hard to know where to start and what to pull out. There are many huge books that are handwritten minutes of the Guardians’ meetings, containing regular reports on the financial status and also correspondence and other notes. There are files of letters. I’ve already spent time ploughing through the admissions registers.

There is so much data there, but the challenge is pulling useful, interesting information from it. Bearing in mind that it’s all hand-written, sometimes difficult to read, and individual resources are not indexed, I’m reduced to reading, making notes of interesting anecdotes within the records and looking for some sort of narrative thread.

I’m trying to concentrate my search around the 1880s to 1890s, as that’s when the families I researched were there, but I’m wondering whether I should try to make it a general history of the workhouse as well. There is a thesis available on the workhouse, but that seems to concentrate on earlier times, and sets the workhouse in the context of the society surrounding it, rather than focusing on the workhouse itself.

On the other hand, what in that history is likely to be interesting and relevant to readers? I can’t imagine that a detailed record of the finances would be interesting to read, and I don’t have the ability to pull out the deeper significance of them anyway. I’m interested in stories about the people, but such stories are likely to be short anecdotes rather than a long cohesive thread.

Any suggestions would be very welcome. In the meantime, I need to find the information I need to book a desk and order a resource for next week’s planned visit.


More stories from the workhouse

As Sunday is a day off from the A-Z challenge, I thought I’d better get back to stories from the workhouse.

A reminder – I’m researching our local workhouse, the Blean Union Workhouse in Kent, and these are notes taken from the minutes of the Guardians of the Board, the locals who were charged with overseeing the administration of the workhouse. The first collection of stories is here, and searching the workhouse category on this blog will discover other articles I’ve written about my research.

In February 1879 a fire was reported in the drying closet. The firm who installed the closet were called in to inspect, and discovered that a grating had been removed that should stop clothing falling on the pipes. They made it secure and advised that when used for airing purposes a smaller fire should be kept.

Later that year, a builder, Mr S. Stupple, was accused of theft of an iron bar belonging to the guardians. Upon investigation, the accusation was found to be unfounded, and made by an apprentice whom Mr Stupple had recently discharged for misconduct.

Around 1880, issues were reported with the contracted coffin maker, who caused “serious inconvenience and scandal” when a coffin supplied was larger than ordered, the hole then proving to have been dug too small. A further, similar complaint was made a few weeks later and he was told to pay any charges accrued from the inconvenience. He reported that the confusion was due to measurements not being stated as internal or external. By the end of the year he had lost the contract for workhouse coffins, the contract instead being awarded to Daniel Stupple, who was presumably related to Mr S. Stupple (above).

In January 1880 three boys in the school were “brought before the Board by the Master, two having absconded from the workhouse by getting through the dormitory window, visiting a public house and stealing therefrom a bottle of gin, which they brought and consumed with other boys in the yard, and the other having used grossly insubordinate language to the master; they were ordered by the Board to be severely flogged and confined to the Workhouse until further orders.”

An order was put in for about four tons of flints to provide work for the able-bodied inmates and vagrants.

Parcels were opened because it was believed that money was being sent and kept by inmates. The sender was admonished and the money was “appropriated towards the paupers’ maintenance”.

In September of 1880, a year after a trial change in diet had been initiated, it was taken to the Local Government Board for permanent approval, the change having proved beneficial for the children and aged at the workhouse.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the library and continuing my research – there’s still a lot more to read through!



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.


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.


A trip to the workhouse

The main workhouse is on the left

The main workhouse is on the left

My workhouse writing has not made much progress lately; I’ve done just about all I can on the actual families, I’m on an economy drive so can’t afford the petrol to go to the archives centre for more general research on the workhouse, and I haven’t yet managed to get focused on the background reading.

I did order the death certificates for Edwin and Fanny Newing, the parents of the orphans – they both died of tuberculosis, a couple of years apart.  Edwin’s death was reported by his brother Edward, who had been present at the death in Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and records his occupation as house painter and age as 32. Fanny’s certificate recorded she’d had the disease for years, and her death was reported by her cousin, who was present at death. The cousin must have been illiterate, because the certificate shows “the mark of”.  Fanny’s occupation was marked as “the widow of Edwin Benjamin Newing, Painter (master)”.

Poor Fanny. A widow and mother of five children at the age of 28, already in ill health, and dead by the age of 30. She’d already been in the workhouse for a few weeks before her death, with all the children, whose ages ranged from 14 to 2. They all moved back out for a while, then the children were back in and Fanny presumably went to stay with a cousin, where she died a few weeks later.

I decided it was about time I visited the site, so this morning I walked out that way with a camera. It’s about 15 mins’ brisk walk from home along the main road, and as I walked I found myself wondering if Philadelphia ever walked that route; it would have been vastly different then. No busy traffic, just the occasional horse and cart, or other walkers maybe. The route is lined by a hedge and horse chestnut trees on one side; I wondered whether they had been there back then, whether the children ever picked the blackberries or collected conkers. Maybe, just maybe, one of the children planted a conker at the side of the road and it grew into one of the trees that are there now.

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

I walked along what had been the main entrance track to the workhouse, looking at the the buildings and trying to tell the old converted buildings from the new buildings that had blended in so well. The original descriptions of the workhouse say it was built in a quadrangle with an enclosed courtyard (“Build poor men’s houses, but instead of having one long street, bend it into a quadrangle, which forms also a prison,” said the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for the area), and that extra, separate wings were added later, for nursing infectious patients – stables and a carriage house, with a fever ward over, reports one source. There are accounts of the bell between the fever ward and the main building not working, and repeated notes from the medical officer that it should be fixed. Reports also tell of draughts in the women’s ward, with requests for something to break up the windflow so the patients did not get so chilled.

Even later in its history, further wings were added as the building became a home for “difficult” women and then a hospital for the chronically sick.

Now the whole area has been turned into housing, with some houses converted from the original building and others built either free-standing or adjoining the existing buildings. I visited the place once, when it was a hospital, but have only very vague memories of it. It’s not a tall building – only two storeys – but sprawls over a large area, and looks very peaceful and pleasant – a far cry from when the sewage flowed freely only yards from the windows!

From the other side of the old entrance

From the other side of the old entrance

I really want to find out more about the building and the people who lived in it, so I think the next stage for me is to start looking at the notes from the Guardians’ meetings. I’ve no idea how specific or detailed they are: at worst there’ll be very brief summaries of each meeting, and at best detailed accounts of issues arising from specific inmates.

That’s when I get settled with income again and can justify the expense of the petrol to get there. In the meantime, it’s writing up the notes I have about each family and carrying out general research.



A workhouse holiday

rear view of the building showing garden and red brick building

The rear view of the Red House Museum – a lot more welcoming than I’d expected!

I went away for a week recently with my family, and I just had to do a little bit of work while away, so we visited the Red House Museum in Christchurch, Dorset, an ex-workhouse that’s now a local museum.

The Red House was built in 1764, and the building was really not at all what I had expected. The Blean workhouse was built only thirty or so years later, in 1791, but the buildings look nothing alike. This made me focus on what I imagined the workhouse to be like, and I decided that most of my ideas probably come from Oliver Twist and the few photos I’ve seen.

I guess I imagined a large, dark, cold building with high ceilings and plenty of space for people. Instead, the Red House was small, with low wood-beamed ceilings and small rooms – it was hard to imagine that a large number of people would have lived there at a time. I was sorry that there was so little information about the workhouse itself; there was a display of the fusee chains, the tiny watch chains that the people – including children – would have sat making for hours at a time, and there were a couple more displays, but the museum covered all aspects of the area’s history, not just the workhouse.

The study room within the museum

The study room within the museum

At this point I started to feel indignant that those who lived there were so unrecorded, but at least the workhouse stands in their memory. In fact research is encouraged, with a small room in the building itself devoted to local study. Still, I’m glad that I’m researching our workhouse, and I’d like my work to stand in memory of the poorest amongst us, the problems they faced and their fate.

Children were encouraged to explore the museum, with activity packs designed to help them learn more about the life of a specific child, or about the master of the workhouse, and I read these with interest. I had always assumed that the life of the children would be similar to the lives our children lead now, but according to their records the children had about ten minutes of schooling a day and the rest of the day would be spent working, particularly on those tiny chains that I would strain to see properly, let alone assemble into watch chains.

The yards were divided into men’s yard, boys’ yard, girls’ yard and the laundry yard – presumably the women spent their time working on the laundry rather than marching round the yard exercising. The gardens are very pleasant to walk around and sit in now, but I wondered just what they would have been like in workhouse days – did they do any work in the garden? did they grow their own food? did they get to play games out there?

The master's desk

The master’s desk

Another feature of the museum was the master’s desk. He originally had his own office, but when the poor law came into effect and the board of guardians needed somewhere to meet, his desk was moved to the half landing, where I admired his collection of books and papers.

Probably the part I found most interesting was the kitchen, being forced to consider the practicalities of feeding such a large group of people efficiently. The workhouse at Blean was criticised for its poor diet, with the meat being mostly fat and gristle, and recommendations being made for improvement of diet, but I can’t imagine it would be easy to feed so many people. The kitchen at the Red House was fitted out with all sorts of Victorian paraphernalia, and I tried to imagine the groups of people rushing around preparing meals – did they have a rota? did the people cook for themselves, or did someone come in to do it? I gathered they were in charge of doing their own laundry.

large fireplace with victorian artefacts

Fancy catering for large numbers on this?

I’ve reached the point where the research on the inmates is going well but I really need to start focusing on the workhouse itself, and on life generally in those times, to get a better idea of what conditions were like, what happened on a day to day basis and what their lives would have been like inside the workhouse and outside.

Some new software is helping me to organise my research and notes into something resembling a book, so I’m starting to feel I’m really making progress. Now I need to transfer the information that’s in family tree form into text and start playing with it and working out how to make it interesting for the reader, and to start the more general research. I also want to get back to the archives and continue my work there. Next time I’ll be taking the laptop, as I’m starting to want to record more than pencilled notes. I’ll also look into paying for a camera licence for the day, so I can keep pictorial records as well as written records.



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.


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!


In the workhouse – getting more specific

I think I’ve decided on an approach for my book – I’m going to look at five people or groups of people, choosing a range of situations, and look at the people themselves, what their lives were like and why they might have been in the workhouse. While doing so I’ll take a look at life in the workhouse more generally, and what life and available support was like for people in their situation, so having a general look with a very specific group of people in mind. Comments on that welcome!

So my five groups are:

  • The orphaned Newing family – five children who went in the workhouse after both parents died. In fact my research shows that they went in with their mother a year or so earlier, after the death of their father, were discharged with their mother and then were back in shortly after when she died as well. So what killed her and her husband, who were both in their very early thirties? What fate awaited orphans? How did they escape from the workhouse and what sort of life could they make for themselves?
  • The elderly Goodwins – both in the workhouse at the age of 74. Both died in the workhouse. Was this a typical end for an elderly couple? What can I find out of their life before the workhouse? Was it successful up until then or were they, like some other families I’ve found, frequent visitors?
  • The lunatic John Hearnden – a single man, never married, working as a labourer and a hawker, in the workhouse at the age of 49 branded a lunatic, and moved on to Kent Lunatic Asylum. What was actually wrong with him? How was he treated?
  • The single parent family the Curds – this is the latest research I’ve been doing, and involves Emily Curd, an unmarried domestic servant who at the age of 25 went into the workhouse with two children and left a few months later with three. The youngest died before reaching the age of 2 (possibly on a return visit to the workhouse for the whole family). Emily then married Brice Kemp, who was either the father of her children or adopted them, as he is listed in later censuses as their father, and had three other children.
  • The single lady Sarah May, who wormed her way in by dint of appearing so often in the admission and discharge register, heading in every few weeks, staying a few days and then leaving again. At the time of the 1881 census she was listed as unmarried, 57 and a charwoman by trade.

What I’m finding interesting now is that for tomorrow’s research session, unlike previous sessions where I’ve gone in to see what I can find out generally, I’m going in with specific questions to answer:

  • Can I find the record of the birth of Emily’s baby in the workhouse?
  • Did she die in the workhouse? If so, can I find the entry of her death?
  • Who was listed as the father? Can I find out anything about the father of the other two girls? Was Brice Kemp their father or did he take on two illegitimate girls alongside his new wife?

I also need to find out what sort of records I’ll have access to regarding births, marriages and deaths – I’m not sure whether the only way to see the full records is to order copies of certificates, which will incur costs, or whether it’s possible to read the entries for myself.

I have a microfilm prebooked for me tomorrow. I can’t actually recall what it was, but I have details written down of the resources that I would find useful. Two that I really want to look at are the punishment book and the medical officer’s book, as they might give me more specific ideas of what life was like in there.

I’ve also got books on the workhouse that I purchased but haven’t read yet – I need to get stuck into those, to see what more general information I can find out.

I sent a message to someone on this morning, the first time I’ve made the effort to contact someone who looks like they’re researching the same tree, because not only does it look very certain that it’s Emily Curd’s tree he’s researching, but he actually has a photo of her! It was very strange to look at the photo of this lady standing in a doorway and think that it’s one of the actual people I’m finding out more about via old records.


New books, old books, so many books

I headed into Canterbury just before lunch today, and started by wandering around the city. I bought a cute notebook from Paperchase that’s two books in one, one half plain paper and the other half lined paper, and then I ended up in the Costa Coffee in Waterstones, making up stories about the people I saw in the city and admiring the number of books. There are loads of books. All looking very readable. All written by authors eager to have people read them. And those are just the books that make it to publication by publishers who sell them to bookstores. There are far more books available that never even make it as far as hard copies, and they’re all looking for readers.

Are there too many books and not enough readers? Or is it a case that in this new world where it is so easy for anyone to publish their own book the market for bestsellers, read by many people, is dying out, to be replaced by a market where many people each publish to a much smaller audience? But do we have more creators than consumers? Can the market survive in this way? Will there always be a place for a few high quality products, or is that being replaced by the many of possibly lower quality? Or can you maintain the quality while increasing the variety? And if so, how do you choose, if there’s not the gateway of the established publishers to go through, but just an online catalogue where everyone screams out, “Pick me! Pick me!”?

The world of reviews is becoming more and more important, I feel, as people add their views of books to places like Amazon and Goodreads, and help others to pick through the choices available, and this has the dual role of making readers just as important as writers, and then of making those readers writers in their turn, as they express their opinions of what they have read.

I’ve been pondering for a while what right I have to feel I have anything worth saying in print, any idea that’s worth the effort of making available to readers. In short, what point there is in me adding to the many many books already available. At this point in the coffee shop I was beginning to feel there was little point in even trying.

Then I headed to the Cathedral in the middle of the city, via a very pleasant walk along by the theatre and river (must go on a river tour by boat sometime in the summer!). I made my way to the Cathedral Lodge, a very imposing building in the Cathedral Precinct that serves as a hotel and conference centre. There I joined with about 20 others who had booked for afternoon tea and a tour of the archives.

Smoked salmon sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, fruit cake and tea or coffee were on offer, along with a very pleasant chat with some of the other visitors and the Cathedral Conservator, and then we made our way through the Cathedral itself to a room through a mysterious door. This proved to be a very long room full of bookshelves, which was the collection of a previous Archbishop, I do believe – a typical Victorian library with bibles and prayerbooks mixed in with books on natural history, the abolition of the slave trade and many other topics that we were told were the standard Victorian gentleman’s fare.

Set out on display in that room were some real treasures – a charter signed by William the Conqueror and Queen Matilda, for a start, plus books and other charters dating from around the 11th century onwards. We admired these for a while and heard about some of their history, and then moved on through the reading room upstairs to the conservator’s room, where we saw some of the projects she was working on and heard about some of the work she carries out to help preserve the ancient documents and books that form the library. Apparently there are enough books in the archives that if the bookshelves were laid in one line they would reach 2 kilometres – I can imagine that distance from parkrun, it’s a lot of books!

So my musings about the books available these days were mixed with musings of all these ancient books, and what they contain, and how often they are looked at, but the focus on the tour at the cathedral was definitely on the hardware rather than the software, so to speak – preserving the documents themselves and their historical significance, rather than the information they contain. It was a very interesting debate between preserving and restoring documents, between their content and their physical presentation, and made me think of both the flimsy design of modern paperbacks and the difference between preserving physical books and their electronic equivalents.

So did I come to any conclusions? I think what I decided in the end was that it was the act of creating that matters. That someone at some point considered them important, so the books and documents came into being. As for my own writing, it’s no good writing because I want to sell lots of books. I need to write because I love it, because I want to get my own ideas down. If I get something worth printing at the end that’s a different topic altogether, but it should never be the first focus.

Oh, and I came to a decision about my workhouse book, I think, at least for now. I’ll be picking groups and individuals who are maybe archetypes of the workhouse inmates, exploring their lives and using them as illustrations for life generally for them and the role the workhouse played in their lives.

I’ve got the Newings, who ended up in there as orphans (although they went in previously with their mother, but that story is for another day), there’s John Hearnden, who went in there as a lunatic, but was in and out of there in the decades preceding the census as well, there’s the Goodwins who ended up in there for their final years, and there’s two more groups to start researching: the Curds, who ended up in there as a young single mother with children, one of whom was born in the workhouse, and Sarah May, bless her, whose name cropped up so many times in the admissions/discharges book over the years that she kind of wormed her way into my heart and so the book.

Altogether it was a fascinating afternoon in the cathedral archives, with lots of food for thought, even though we got to see a very small part of the massive store of resources they actually possess. And now it’s up to me to continue my search through archives to pull a story together from what I find, to preserve that story for generations to come. That project, at least, I am confident is worthwhile.