The Leeds Union Workhouse: How it changed lives for the working class

by Olivia Gordon

Photograph taken from outside what was the Leeds Union Workhouse, and is now the Thackray Museum.

Photograph taken from outside what was the Leeds Union Workhouse, and is now the Thackray Museum.

The history of the Leeds Union Workhouse

The newly refurbished Leeds Union Workhouse was opened in the centre of Leeds in 1861 and was built to accommodate and supply work to those who were unable to support themselves financially. Prior to being the Leeds Union Workhouse, the building was originally known as the Leeds parish workhouse, which was known for providing both awful working and living conditions. The 1834 Poor Law; commissioned the improvement of the workhouse within Leeds and set out to improve both the conditions of the building, and the lives of those who resided there. The workhouse was newly built to house up to 784 working paupers, but by the 1880’s the building became a focus for medical treatment of the lower working class rather than training and work. The Leeds Union Workhouse initially acquired a “fearsome reputation” amongst the working class during the nineteenth century.[1] Workhouses were initially built to try and implement the 1834 New Poor Law to “fundamentally change the poverty relief system in England and Wales”, yet were still considered a last resort in the eyes of the working class.[2] Being forced to work for subsistence and potentially being segregated from their families worried the working class, and the ever-looming fear of the workhouse became a real problem for the lower working class of the early nineteenth century.

Photograph taken from outside what was the Leeds Union Workhouse, and is now the Thackray Museum.

Photograph taken from outside what was the Leeds Union Workhouse, and is now the Thackray Museum.

The workhouses were often segregated into men, women and children, so the correct job could be allocated to each person and to make residing there even less pleasant. All were issued with a “distinctive uniform”, this signified that those in the workhouse had accepted pauperism, and made it visible to the rest of society.[3] The poor remained inadequately treated within Victorian Britain, and the workhouses have been criticised for continuing this hardship, or even making it worse. Simon Fowler has argued that the middle class workhouse guardians who lived alongside the paupers in the workhouses, made life increasingly harder for the poor as they would give themselves “six times the amount of food given to a pauper”.[4]

Due to the lack of food, clean living conditions and mental health, early workhouses became a sanctuary for disease and pests. Many workhouses, including the Leeds Union Workhouse, had separate “’itch wards’” for inmates who were diagnosed with skin diseases such as measles and scabies.[5] Due to the declining sanitation and morale within the workplace, the Leeds Union Workhouse became more focussed on the pauper’s health than their financial troubles. In 1876, the Boards of Guardians in Leeds set up a “Hospital Management committee” to administer the infirmary “separately from the workhouse”.[6] It is this transition that shows how the Leeds Union Workhouse turned from an abhorred institution into the first ‘hospital’ that focussed on the working class within Leeds. The workhouse went on to become part of Leeds’ biggest hospital, St James’ University Hospital, before being transformed into what it is today – the Thackray Museum.

The museum displays advances in medicine throughout the Victorian era and showcases the fantastic display Leeds 1842: Life in Victorian Leeds. The walkthrough display exhibits how the working class were faced with a multitude of life threatening problems in everyday life. These troubles ranged from fighting off infectious diseases, to being injured in factories and mills, or even lacking essential supplies, like food and clean water. The Leeds Union Workhouse and its general infirmary was built to support them, and to reduce their risks of disease and work-related trauma. Tony Gardner has praised the realistic display as it shows the “harsh” but true “reality of the conditions faced by the Victorian poor” and the “difficulty of obtaining medicine” and medical help before the Leeds Union Workhouse created its own infirmary.[7]

What was the New Poor Law of 1834, and how did this affect the Victorian working class?

The New Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was set out to totally recreate the system for the relief of poverty in England, to minimise the poor abusing the relief system and to make caring for the working class cheaper for the government. Thomas Malthus, a scholar influential in political economy, pushed the idea of the “iron law of wages” which became a popular concept in Victorian Britain.[8] He believed that a flexible minimum wage was the best way to keep the working class as happy workers, rather than them “tend[ing] to claim relief rather than working”.[9] The New Poor Law was intended to “curb the cost of poor relief”, and stop the labouring poor “abusing the old system” by claiming relief rather than working. Instead, they would be sent to workhouses in which they would earn a very low, but better than nothing, wage, be given clean clothes, food and water, and most importantly a place to live without the constant fear of paying high price rent.[10] The Act was passed by a large majority in parliament, as the idea of positively influencing the working class to work, whilst keeping the relief cost low, seemed both socially and economically more beneficial.

However, to many of the working class people who were forced into the initial workhouses, it was not an improvement at all. The cramped conditions, poor sanitation, low wages and lack of food demoralised the poor people of Victorian Britain. Nahja Durbach recently examined the exact products, and distribution of such products, that were provided to the workers in the workhouse. The inmates were limited to cheap, and flavourless, foods, and were “prohibited” from being served roast beef and certain fresh fruits, such as plums.[11] This was not because of the government cuts on what the workers were allowed, but rather the “cultural politics of what exactly a pauper was allowed to eat”.[12] It was only when the government started to notice that not all within the workhouse were able-bodied enough to work, that they were expanded into schools, chapels, and in Leeds’s case – general infirmaries. Whilst many of the working class were still compelled to work by the workhouses, they also became a place of care for those within the working class who were sick, disabled and old. This relieved the pressure on this large section of the working class as they were no longer looked down upon as a bad worker, but rather were given sympathy and help as they physically could no longer work.

How did the Leeds Union Workhouse minimise workplace casualties in Victorian Britain?

With many of the working class being on such low incomes, it was impossible to live properly without making the whole family work whenever possible. Children were often forced to work “almost as soon as they could walk”, whether it be working in a middle class home as a servant or working in large industrial textile mills.[13] Children, and the bottom strata of the working class, were often given the dirtiest jobs in factories, such as cleaning under machines whilst they were still running. Due to the vast number of workers, and the unsafe conditions, workplace injuries were extremely frequent, and death was not uncommon in Victorian Britain. This is especially so as there was no sustainable legislation, or child protection services, to do with workplace safety until the late 1850’s. For those who worked in the Leeds Union Workhouse, the fear of such injuries was no longer a major worry. The 1881 Census of the residents of the Leeds Union Workhouse shows us that the workhouse was for anybody who was prepared to admit pauperism and be given a second chance. Children, adults and the elderly were all given safe and manageable jobs, such as bricklaying and carpet weaving. Children were no longer forced into dangerous work, like they would be across the rest of Leeds, and instead were given small manageable jobs, such as housekeeping, alongside receiving an education. When the Leeds Union Workhouse expanded its infirmary in 1872, it created a more widely available healthcare service for the rest of the working class, whether they were inmates of the workhouse or not – making Leeds a much safer place to both work and live.[14]

Hannah Dyson’s story.

Hannah Dyson, born in 1823, was a young girl growing up in Victorian Leeds in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Born to a working class family, and living in a cramped cellar dwelling, Hannah was forced into working by the age of twelve in Marshall’s flax mill with her Mother, to try and further support her family. Hannah Dyson was one of the many workers who suffered fatal injuries in the workplace. Whilst working with one of the machines within the mill, Hannah’s skirt was caught in one of the running gears, her leg was drawn into the machinery and crushed, causing immense pain and suffering for the young girl. The Leeds Union Workhouse, which was currently in the process of being improved, was situated across the street, and she was carried on the back of a mill cart in hope that the built in General Infirmary would be able to do something to save her. Her leg was amputated successfully, one of the first to be recorded and observed by other medical professionals, and she was able to live for another two weeks before she sadly passed away due to infection. Despite her death, this created a huge step for workers within Leeds. Due to the unsafe working conditions of factories and mills in the Victorian era, the Leeds Union Workhouse was seen more as an ulterior option for the working class, as they were able to provide safe jobs and medical attention whenever it was needed. However it remained ultimately undesired by the working class as they did not want to admit pauperism. The general infirmary at the workhouse also gave medical attention to workers who did not reside in the workhouse. It was these accidents that gave the Victorian doctors and surgeons in the Leeds Union Workhouse infirmary more practice, further advancing their knowledge in medical science, and ensured that more patients would be able to recover from similar accidents.

Further Resources:

This word cloud shows the most used words on the Leeds Union Workhouse Residents Census. As you can see, the most popular jobs held by the inmates before entering the workhouse were house servants, and weavers. It also shows the backgrounds of the inmates, such as where they were born and their marital status. This word cloud straightforwardly shows that people from all backgrounds fell into pauperism and entered the workhouse and were given new opportunities to improve their lives.  Made on https://www.wordclouds.com/ 1881 Census: Residents of Leeds Union Workhouse:

This word cloud shows the most used words on the Leeds Union Workhouse Residents Census. As you can see, the most popular jobs held by the inmates before entering the workhouse were house servants, and weavers. It also shows the backgrounds of the inmates, such as where they were born and their marital status. This word cloud straightforwardly shows that people from all backgrounds fell into pauperism and entered the workhouse and were given new opportunities to improve their lives. Made on https://www.wordclouds.com/ 1881 Census: Residents of Leeds Union Workhouse: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Leeds/Leeds1861.shtml

[1] Drife, J. (1997). Pain, pus, and blood. BMJ, 314(7085), 984-984. doi:10.1136/bmj.314.7085.984

[2] Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. (N/A). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poor_Law_Amendment_Act_1834

[3] Fowler, S (2007), Workhouse: The People: The Places: The Life Behind Closed Doors, The National Archives.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The National Archives: West Yorkshire Archives. (N/A). Hospital Records Database: St James’ University Hospital Leeds. Retrieved from https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/hospitalrecords/details.asp?id=1212&page=58.

[7]Memories sought for workhouse history days. (2013, Mar 21). Weekly News Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/docview/1318536239?accountid=11526.

[8] Spicker, P, British social policy 1601–1948, Aberdeen: Centre for Public Policy and Management, 12-13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. (N/A). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poor_Law_Amendment_Act_1834

[11] Durbach, N. (2013). Roast beef, the new poor law, and the British nation, 1834–63. Journal of British Studies, 52(4), 963-989.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Victorian Era England facts about Queen Victoria, Society & Literature. Victorian Children in Factories. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from http://www.victorian-era.org/victorian-children-in-factories.html.

[14] The Workhouse: The story of an institution, retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Leeds/

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