The Way We Were: Newport Pagnell Workhouse

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IN these days of recession any job is welcome, although for persons of a certain age most of those available could of course be quite happily performed by Bobo the chimp and his mates on day release from the local safari park – and for far less peanuts.

But then whingeing about employment, or lack of it, is of course as much an endearing trait of the British psyche as moaning about the weather. Yet not so long ago – in the days before the Welfare State, and ‘the world owes me a living’ culture – there really was something to whinge about, since, as touched upon in a previous article, for the destitute the horrors of the Workhouse awaited.

And so to put things in perspective it’s perhaps time to reflect upon those conditions that prevailed at the Newport Pagnell Workhouse, as told by ‘one who was there.’

“Up to recently breakfast and supper at the Newport casual ward comprised of six oz of bread and a pint of gruel.

“However, if you should at any time desire to take yourself to a casual ward don’t fall into the error of thinking you are off to a convalescent home.

“Otherwise you will soon find that a very rude awakening awaits you in the discovery that it is a place where there is a wealth of work and a paucity of food. But let me commence my rigmarole from the beginning.

“Casuals are taken in at six o’clock, and the Guardians dislike turning away any tired and hungry mortal on account of the lateness of the application and therefore admissions are sometimes made quite late.

“The first item on the programme on entering is making a record of the usual personal details – name, age, occupation, where from and to where going, and so on.

“Then comes the search of pockets for hidden treasure – lucre, tobacco, matches, and other things barred in such establishments.

“A usually by no means unwelcome bath follows, and then a newcomer gets outside his supper, after which he may adjourn to his bed and slumber away the hours of darkness in the sure and certain knowledge that on the morrow he is in for nine hours work at wood sawing, scrubbing, stone breaking, oakum picking, cleaning up, garden labour, or any general employment on hand.

“The dinner hour is from twelve to one, when work is resumed and continued till 4.30, supper being served soon after, and then follows a general turn-in for the night, so that while tarrying at the expense of the Newport ratepayers a vagrant’s life is all work and bed.

“Those due for discharge are not eligible for readmission till they have “tried their luck” for work elsewhere, and if they apply again within a month they are liable to three days’ detention, although with the more costly dietary under the new regulations the Guardians are by no means anxious for more detentions than necessary.

“On leaving each casual receives half-a-pound of bread and two ounces of cheese.

“Poor as is the hospitality at the Newport casual ward, those who are compelled to take advantage of it may derive some consolation from the more or less comforting reflection that hard as life is there it is harder in some similar establishments.

“For instance, in some places a wood bed and wood pillow is the order, with as much as 13cwt. of stones to break up; the men being detained on the second day till the task is completed, in addition to which the work is done under the superintendence of officers who are mere bullies, whereas at Newport one does fall in for a little more reasonable treatment at the hands of the Master and his subordinates if one makes a proper attack on the work.

“It seems hard that our Poor Law system should compel a man to be absolutely destitute before he can take advantage of the casual ward, and then when he does so afford him no chance of earning so much as a copper with the result that he comes out as hard up as he goes in...”

Quite a simple philosophy really; if you didn’t work you didn’t eat. Well, I suppose death by starvation was one way of keeping the unemployment figures down.