Woodcuts bring the workhouse back to vivid life

Cruikshank's illustrations from Cottage Politics
Cruikshank's illustrations from Cottage Politics

I am reading Bridget Gubbins’s new book, The Mysteries of Morpeth’s Workhouse.

I already knew a little about it from working on the Memoirs of Dr Robert Blakey, Mayor of Morpeth and bitter opponent of the New Poor Law of 1834.

The Morpeth Board of Guardians was set up in 1836. With no workhouse in Morpeth, they used an existing one at Bedlington. It was not large, so only those clients – then called paupers – with nowhere else to go were sent there. The remainder got outdoor relief, i.e. weekly cash payments.

Beginning in February 1837, the Mayor published letters in the Newcastle papers, accusing the Board of starving and neglecting the poor, detailing 15 cases not counting dependents. He was answered by George Brumell, Clerk to the Board,

Sir John Walsham, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, and Sam Donkin, a farmer at Bywell, near Felton, who was as committed to the New Poor Law as Blakey was against it.

The exchange of letters went on until April, and in May Sam Donkin replied comprehensively in Observations upon the Nature of Parochial Relief. Even this did not end the dispute. Later that year Blakey reprinted the whole correspondence in a book called Cottage Politics, illustrated with satirical woodcuts. Newcastle Central Library has copies of both.

The woodcuts are undoubtedly by George Cruikshank. His tiny cartoons of the dandyish Sir John Walsham, of Sam Donkin squaring up for a fight, and the guardians smoking and drinking, all speak for themselves, and require no text. The master-stroke is the picture of the meeting of the Guardians following Blakey’s exposures. Cruikshank depicts them as farmyard geese.

I was particularly interested in three incidents that took place in the workhouse after it opened. All three were made public by Robert Blakey, but he was not always careful with his facts so I wanted to see what Bridget made of them.

Two were raised at a meeting in Morpeth Town Hall and reported in the Northern Liberator of March 2, 1839 – a newspaper owned by Blakey himself.

“William Hunter, an elderly person, became infected with a bowel complaint. Dr Shute ordered Port Wine and Sago; the Port was considered too dear, and Gooseberry Wine was given. The consequence was that the poor man was carried off quickly.

“The next case was that of Ann Thompson, aged 27, who died on Friday last. She … was taken from her father’s house, crammed into the workhouse, and compelled to live upon the ordinary slop of the place. She was half starved; and many of the poor people in the house had to give a share of their own miserable portion of bread to satisfy her hunger.”

The third case was even worse:

“The town was thrown into a great excitement on Tuesday evening last, by the discovery of a little boy, an inmate of the house, named George Smailes, having been most shamefully beaten by the master of the Workhouse, Henry Fryer. It appears that the little fellow, only six years old, attended the Borough School, and when he got out he had gone to see his grandmother by whom he had been, till recently, brought up.

“The fellow Fryer got to learn this, and on Monday evening took the boy upstairs, in the Workhouse, stripped him naked, and beat him to such a degree, with a thick stick, as to make nine distinct and large wounds on his back and arms! The poor creature was sent in this condition next day to the school, with a special message that the mistress was not by any means to let him out of school, and he went immediately to his grandmother, and made her acquainted with his lamentable condition. … public fury was so intensely excited that had Fryer made his appearance there is no knowing what would have been the result.” (Northern Liberator, May 2, 1839.)

Being interested only in Blakey, I looked no further into any of the cases. But Bridget searched the National Archives at Kew and found official reports on all three.

Of William Hunter, Brumell wrote: “Port wine was supplied, but Hunter was not able to take it. And when he was dying, Fryer, who was then Master, gave him a little Gooseberry Wine for the purpose of moistening his mouth. The Gooseberry wine was Fryer’s own, and was not given him on account of being cheaper, but because the dying man preferred it.”

In the second case, “Isabella Thompson was a poor woman residing with her father at Meldon Park Corner ... (She) was often seen by the relieving Officer. She never made any complaint and appeared to have everything necessary for her comfort.” (Mysteries of Morpeth’s Workhouse).

Sir John himself reported back on little Thomas Smailes. Blakey again had the name wrong, though there was in fact a George Smailes in the workhouse as well, probably a younger brother.

Thomas was illegitimate and had lived with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a shoemaker, thrashed him with a leather strap, but he was ‘refractory’ and still ran back to them. The grandfather then asked the Master to beat the child. Fryer reluctantly did so, but admitted at the Board of Inquiry that he lost his temper with the boy completely. In view of his previous good conduct he was allowed to resign. Sad for him, but even sadder for two little boys with nobody to love them.

A book to make you think.

Mrs Gubbins’s book can come uncomfortably close to home. My grandmother died at Hillcrest Hospital in Leicester in 1956, on the day of her 80th birthday. It was more than a quarter of a century since workhouses had ceased to exist, but everybody knew that Hillcrest had been Leicester workhouse.

The reasons for my grandmother being there were much the same as today when people need geriatric care, not helped by the fact that she was very deaf. My mother was in full-time work and in any case had no taste for sick nursing.

My grandfather coped as long as he could, but eventually had to take the decision that his wife should go into Hillcrest.

Auntie Alice, who was a jolly soul, organised a tea-party at our house the day before, for what she called Granny’s going on holiday.

My mother and I went to see her. The ward was bright and cheerful though institutional, and the nurses likewise seemed to be cheerful and competent. I remember my grandmother remarking that they changed the bed at regular intervals, even if you hadn’t wet it. An old lady nearby murmured, “It isn’t my baby, doctor.” As one of the aunts said, there must have been a story there.

They moved her into a private room just before she died. I never saw it, but I think it must have been rather like the way they drape marquees for wedding breakfasts nowadays, all white with flowers. One of my aunts said it was a beautiful place to die.

Not bad for a former workhouse.