Social History...

Landmark on the road to the Welfare State

(This article, although not referring to Wicklewood Workhouse does seem indicate the conditions in such an institute- TE)

Before the Appointed Day Landmark on the road to the Welfare State
In the thirties the Guardians of the Poor sat monthly at the Institution, which many people still called the Workhouse. On the Appointed Day the Institution became a “Home” in the twinkling of an eye.

ALMOST a generation has grown up under the Welfare State. Just as it seemed impossible to believe that the Appointed Day in July, 1948, was going to change so many things, so now it is difficult to realise how lean and difficult were the days before.

In the 'thirties’ the Guardians of the Poor, though they were then officially a Guardians' Committee of the County Council, met monthly at the **** Institution, which some people still called it the Workhouse. It was a formidable barrack-like building, with ostentatious turrets, set far away in the fields in the 1850's, for the policy of the Poor Law Commissioners was to put their establishments in thoroughly unattractive and lonely surroundings.
How hated were the Boards of Guardians established under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, They were elected by the ratepayers, with a sprinkling of magistrates, and it was the farmer-guardians' stacks which were burnt first in the early days of discontent.

Guardians were reviled for their stinginess. The amount of food given to the inmates of the new workhouses was less than that allowed to prisoners, and perhaps most unpopular of all, married couples were separated.
Outdoor relief was supposed to be withdrawn. In practice this could never be enforced, but the amount given was less than that earned by the lowest paid man in employment. Nevertheless the workhouses were crowded with the destitute, the disabled, and the infirm of all ages.

The Guardians themselves were a cross-section of fairly influential people. As the decades passed, they became much more humanitarian. One of them, in the early years of this century, was a tall parson, who used to walk from his palatial rectory the seven miles to and from the Workhouse — almost as far as the tramps who sought a night's lodging there.
The doctor at the Workhouse at that time was a sympathetic man. who would gossip endlessly with the inmates, and take the old people sausages for tea.

By the 1930's, the Guardians' Committee consisted of representatives of local authorities and co-opted members. It sat in a fine high room at the Institution, with a big window facing south, and looking over the front door of the building. The chairman was a tactful woman historian, who had occupied that position for years, and meetings were friendly and well-conducted.

Two members of the committee used to inspect "the House" in turns, and make a report. With the master and matron (husband and wife) they threaded the incredible labyrinth of deep narrow passages with stone floors. The inmates sat in sparsely furnished rooms, wearing ill-assorted clothes. The only bright thing was the big coal fire which burned behind the high guard — so much more cheerful than the invisible heating of today.

Two callow young Guardians, on their first inspection, suggested a number of alterations and improvements, including the use of the board room by residents, except on the monthly meeting day. Their report was listened to politely, but ignored. By this date the children had, mercifully, been taken from the "Workhouse." and put in an old rectory, in the neighbouring village, under the care of a kind couple. Apart from the main block of the building, was the infirmary for the old and bedridden.

It was to the credit of Guardians of former times that, up to 1930, they had administered 94,000 beds for the sick-poor, and the Local Sanitary Authority, which had been empowered to do this, coped with only 40,000, and those were mostly for infectious diseases. A proud old woman in the infirmary asked a guardian where she was. "In a Home" was the tactful reply. But a loud voice came from another bed," No, she's not, this is --- Work-house"

After the general meeting, the Guardians' Committee split up into two groups and, assisted by the relieving officers, dealt with application for outdoor relief. Half-crowns and small sums were awarded weekly, and "liable relatives" had to be considered in those days. The chairman once asked a personal applicant what were his special expenses. "I keeps a bicycle, Sir.” mumbled the fellow.

The chairman, a dour Scotsman, was not amused.

Many of the Guardians (arriving in their motor cars, for which no mileage allowance was paid) had deep sympathy for the very poor, but little vision of a different society. To them the immemorial cleavage looked unbridgeable; some people were ordained to have the whole loaf, and others but the crumbs. Their "Institution " was far better than it had been a generation before, when it was officially a "Workhouse."

They felt proud of it, as they went chatting into the sunshine after the meeting.

Then, at last, the Appointed Day came, in 1948, and the Institutions were Homes in the twinkling of an eye. Some were designated as hospitals, and others closed their doors for ever. Thus ***** Institution ceased to be. There it still stands, in a countryside little changed in a century. A wit has put up a notice near the gate, “***** Palace.” Indeed, some parts of the building have been adapted and occupied by families. It is a forlorn place, but in spite of all the suffering it has harboured, it stands as a landmark on the long road to the Welfare State.
Jane Hales