To the Workhouse

This originally appeared in the

June, 2003 edition of Pembrokeshire Life.

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'Please sir, I want some more.' These are the words that spring to the minds of most people of all ages when the word Workhouse is mentioned. The image of the orphan Oliver Twist standing before Mr. Bumble the Parish Beadle timorously asking for a second bowl of gruel is perhaps the strongest of so many memorable ones that have come down to us from the pen of Charles Dickens. Yet, for people say of 65 or more, there is another, equally bleak, memory that comes not from the pages of literature, but from history.

Workhouses became technically a thing of the past on 1 April, 1930, when the Boards of the 643 Poor Law Unions in Wales and England were abolished, and their responsibilities were passed on to Local Authorities. When the last remnants of the Poor Law were at last swept away in 1948 by the introduction of the National Assistance and National Health Service Acts, that was officially the end of the old ways. But former habits and memories die hard, and there are still many people who think of old council or health service buildings as 'the Workhouse'.

The old poor law may be said to have had its origin as far back as the fourteenth century, when in the wake of the Black Death legislation was passed formalising what was called 'outdoor relief', and giving the former county hundreds legal responsibility for helping the 'impotent poor' - the aged or infirm - in a material way. At this time also the concept of 'settlement' - effectively trying to tie the labouring classes to their home area - was introduced. The next half-millennium saw refinements to this legislation, until it was replaced by the far-reaching Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This was passed following mounting criticism of the cost of 'outdoor relief', and was aimed at helping only those who really needed it. This assistance was to be centred on the new workhouses, administered by 'Boards of Guardians'.

 

These were appointed to make decisions on behalf of groupings of the fifteen thousand or so parishes which formed the 634 Poor Law Unions in England and Wales. The underlying concept was simple - only the seriously destitute or the desperate would go into the new workhouses. These were to be run on the principle that their conditions should never be better than those of 'an independent labourer of the lowest class'.

The prospect of entering one of these grim, unwelcoming institutions was meant to, and did, deter the able bodied from seeking parish relief. Writers like Charles Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell did much to make memorable the inhumane conditions prevalent in workhouses. Nevertheless, they were to be the mainstay of social relief for more than a hundred years, and the second quarter of the nineteenth century saw a rash of building of these edifices. Very often they were large, significant structures in their area, and symbolised an important part of the relationship between officialdom and the ordinary people.

One such building was the workhouse of the Narberth Union, one of three Unions covering Pembrokeshire - the others were based in Haverfordwest and Pembroke. The newly-elected (it was only set up in that year) Narberth Board of Guardians did as many of the other Poor Law Unions did and decided in 1837 to erect a purpose-built workhouse a mile or so south of the town. This was intended to replace the three parish poor houses that had previously served a population of more than twenty thousand. The Board chose as their architect William Owen, whose design for Haverfordwest Union Workhouse was already under construction.

Work did not proceed smoothly. There were financial disputes with the building contractor, J. Thomas and Sons, and these eventually led to the company's dismissal. The perimeter walls had to be completed by another builder, William Morgan. More significantly, the Hosts of Rebecca tried to burn down the new building in 1839, necessitating the employment of Special Constables to guard it. Nevertheless, the building, known as Allensbank, was completed early in 1839 and the Board of Guardians was able to have its first formal meeting there in June, 1839. The building was designed for 150 people (not all resident inmates) in a layout of three parts, based on a square pattern.

In the north wing one of the rooms was a small windowless punishment room, to be known as the 'black hole'. Male and female wards - the sexes were segregated, even in the case of married couples - were used to house the inmates. Rebecca rioting started again in 1842 in Carmarthenshire, quickly spreading to Pembrokeshire and the industrial western part of Glamorgan.

Before long it was to reach as far west as Milford Haven and as far north as Rhayader. The main targets of the mobs were tollgates, but Justices of the Peace and their property, landlords, and workhouse masters were also threatened or attacked. The Narberth Workhouse was again singled out for attention and in 1843 several hundred Rebecca Rioters attacked it. The Castlemartin Yeomanry had to be called out to quell the angry crowds.

Censuses started in 1801 and have been conducted every ten years since, with the exception of 1941. The 1891 census, like the others (although only individual records from 1841 survive) provides an interesting snapshot of Narberth Workhouse at that time.

There were then 56 resident inmates, and a single resident officer, Mariah Thomas, the institution's schoolmistress rather than its matron. These were more or less equally divided between males and females (29 male and 27 female). Young people aged 15 or less accounted for nearly half the workhouse inmates, but of the 17 people that we might today think of as working age (16-64), only six were males. Three of these were starkly described as 'idiots', and there were nine 'idiots' in all - quite a high proportion of only 56 residents.

Places of birth are recorded in the 1891 census. As would be expected Pembrokeshire dominates here, with 40 so recording their origins in the County. There are though, quite a number from other parts of Wales (11) and even four from England. The odd one whose birthplace is not given is Martha John, an 'idiot' of 19 years old. She is one of the few adults for whom no employment is stated. Even some of the children - the youngest was Alfred Smith, aged 8, quoted as a 'farm servant' - had an occupation registered. Martha must have cut a sad figure.

Places of birth offer a tantalising glimpse of the stories behind the dry records. The two McKree children, one born in Cornwall and one in Devon, may have been born to itinerant workers from Ireland: at any rate their parents were not present. This is true also for the four Morris children born in Treherbert between 1877 and 1884 - were their parents dead by 1891 and how did they come to be in Pembrokeshire? Where was the father of the two Narberth children probably born to the unmarried Harriet Duckfield? There is a story behind every one of the 56 records.

In 1910 the 'Master of the Workhouse' was one Samual (sic) Flook. This sounds a gloriously Dickensian name but it must be remembered that in all ages the harshness of the regime was sometimes tempered by individual human kindness. In 1930 the administration of the Poor Laws was transferred to Local Authorities, and Narberth Union Workhouse later became a residential home for the aged. Many of the people who were admitted there in advanced years must have harboured the idea that they were going to spend their twilight days in the workhouse. But the World moves on. In 1965 Allensbank was sold into private ownership and it later became used for tourist accommodation. How many of the holidaymakers knew of its earlier history and that it was twice attacked by Rebecca Rioters? Not too many, probably. We should be grateful for that.

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