The Workhouse often evokes the grim world of Oliver Twist, but its story is also a fascinating mix of social history, politics, economics and architecture, buildings, inmates, staff and administrators, even its poets.
So writes historian Peter Higginbotham in his extensive website devoted to the history of workhouses. But the workhouse as an institution is both earlier - and later - than the 19th century versions immortalised by writers such as Dickens, their origins going back to the early 17th century and their abolition not coming until 1930. Their 'hey-day' (if such a word is appropriate for these truly inhuman establishments) was the 19th century. As Peter Higginbotham continues:
State-provided poor relief is often dated from the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign in 1601 when the passing of an Act for the Relief of the Poor made parishes legally responsible for looking after their own poor. This was funded by the collection of a poor-rate tax from local property owners, a tax that survives in the present-day council tax.
No physical evidence of Llandeilo workhouse exists any more. For some time after 1930, though, the building continued to be used for much the same purpose, but now under the control of the local council instead of the Poor Law Guardians. With the eventual closure of buildings, documentation relating to these places often disappeared and what scant records remain in county and other archives usually leave us with a fragmentary and incomplete picture.
Still, sufficient records remain for Llandeilo workhouse for us to piece together a tantalising glimpse into the long-lost world of this quintessential Victorian institution. The geographic area served by the Llandeilofawr workhouse was extensive, consisting of eleven parishes extending as far south as the Amman Valley, and including a population of 15,1614 in 1831.
The History of Poor Law Unions
Early workhouses were mostly set up within individual parishes. Parliamentary reports in 1776-7 list almost 2,000 parish workhouses in England and Wales - with approximately one parish in seven running one. However, the setting up and operation of a poor-house or workhouse often proved beyond the resources of many individual parishes, so various schemes were devised for groups or Unions of adjacent parishes to do this jointly.
England and Wales before 1834
An early model for the Union was the London Corporation of the Poor, which was established in London in 1647 and continued until 1660. In 1696, a local Act in Bristol incorporated the eighteen parishes of the city and included the provision for the setting up of a workhouse run by paid officers. Two buildings, one previously used as the city's mint, were converted for the purpose, with much of the effort involving the housing and training of pauper children. Within a few years, Bristol's example had been followed by a number of other cities, including a re-establishment of London.
England and Wales from 1834
Under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Poor Law Commission was given the power to unite parishes in England and Wales into Poor Law Unions, each Union being administered by a local Board of Guardians according to the directions issued by the Commission. According to the Act, relief was only to be given to able-bodied paupers through the workhouse and central to the formation of a Union was the provision of a workhouse building.
By the time of the Poor Law Commission's fifth annual report in 1839, a total of 583 unions (covering some 95 percent of parishes) were operating in England and Wales.
After the Government reformed the Poor Law in 1834 workhouses were built to house the destitute in appalling conditions. Fathers, mothers and children were separated on entering the workhouses and no one outside the workhouse system was allowed relief. For the poverty-stricken the options were stark: to enter the workhouse or starve. In Carmarthen for example, it was noted by The Times newspaper that prisoners in the town's jail were better fed than those in the workhouse. As a result workhouses were both feared and hated in equal measure by those forced to enter them or who lived under the threat of ending up inside their walls.
One day in June 1843 the workhouse at Carmarthen was stormed by the 'Rebecca Rioters' who, in 1842-43, carried out a campaign of protests across south-west Wales, mainly against the high charges at the tollgates on the public roads. There was a tollgate for every three miles of road in Carmarthenshire, with tolls exacted every time a farmer and his produce passed through them, and the Rebecca Riots resulted in hundreds of these tollgates being demolished in daring night-time raids. But attacks were also made against a number of workhouses in the area as protesters expressed their hatred of the new Poor Law of 1834 and the means by which paupers were being treated.
After the attack on Carmarthen workhouse, The Times newspaper sent their leading reporter, T.C. Foster, from London to cover the events. Travelling by train to Bristol, then boat to Cardiff and finally stage coach to Carmarthen, Foster was able to detect the resentment to the Poor Laws in just the 36 hours his journey had taken. His first report, written from the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen, and published in The Times on June 26th 1843, remarks:
In Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire the Rebeccaites traverse the country from end to end and level the tollgates and commit other outrages with perfect impunity, added to which the whole country is suffering from the effects of the new poor law, against which there appears to be universal feelings of detestation
On 19th June 1843 protestors had entered Carmarthen to lay their grievances about the tollgates before magistrates. However, possibly diverted by local unruly elements, a large crowd converged on the workhouse instead where the Master was forced to hand over his keys. The mob then rushed into the courtyard and entered the buildings where they smashed furniture and broke windows. The riot continued until the arrival of the 4th Light Dragoons who charged on the workhouse, finally bringing proceedings under control and taking sixty prisoners.
These same Light Dragoons would undertake another and more famous charge just eleven years later in 1854 when, as part of the British army's Light Brigade, they rode to their deaths at Balaclava during the Crimea War. The target of their charge this time was 20 battalions of infantry of the Imperial Russian army supported by over fifty artillery pieces, quite a different proposition from the unarmed peasantry of Carmarthen eleven years earlier. Their action, described as heroic or stupid depending on which historian you read, was imortalised by Tennyson soon after in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. "Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die, Into the Valley of Death, Rode the six hundred" was Tennyson's own, ambivilant, conclusion.
Although there was some periodic reorganisation of Union boundaries, with existing Unions being dissolved or merged, most notably in London, the majority of the Unions set up under the 1834 Act continued in operation for almost a century. The end came at midnight on Monday 31st March 1930, when a new Local Government Bill abolished all the Poor Law Unions and their Boards of Guardians, their role passing to county councils and county boroughs. Responsibility for the destitute then passed to new local Public Assistance Committees, before the creation of the welfare state after 1945 took everyone under the wing of today's social security system.
Llandilo (or Llandeilo) Fawr Poor Law Union was formed at the Cawdor Hotel on 16th December, 1836. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 20 in number, representing its 11 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):
Carmarthenshire: Brechfa, Llandifeisant, Llandilo Fawr (4), Llandybie (2), Llaneggwad (2), Llanfynydd (2), Llangathen (2), Llansawl (2), Llanvihangel Aberbythyrch, Llanvihangel Kilfargen, Talley (2).
The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 15,614 with parishes ranging in size from Llanvihangel Kilfargen (population 69) to Llandilo Fawr itself (5,149). The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1834-36 had been £5,653 or 7s.3d. per head of the population.
The Llandilo Fawr Union workhouse was erected in 1837-38 at Ffairfach, about half a mile to the south of Llandilo. Intended to accommodate 120 inmates, its construction cost was £2,243. In addition to the permanent inmates there was also accommodation for tramps and vagrants. The building was designed by George Wilkinson who was responsible for at least eight other workhouses in Wales. Its location and layout are shown on the 1907 map below.
The workhouse design was based on the popular square plan where accommodation wings for the different classes of inmate (male/female, infirm/able-bodied) radiated from a central supervisory hub. From here the Master and his staff could reach any part of the building quickly, as a spider at the centre of a web can reach its trapped prey. The area in between the wings formed segregated yards where the inmates could take exercise. An entrance block at one end contained a porter's lodge, boardroom and offices.
The former Llandilo Fawr Union workhouse building was demolished in the 1970s.
Although there are plenty of records surviving from Llandeilofawr workhouse, the picture is still fragmentary. The Poor Law Act laid down strict guidelines on how each workhouse had to be run, though the regime in individual cases was determined in some degree by the Masters in charge, who ranged from outright sadists to more enlightened people, but conditions in all of them were harsh.The numbers of paupers had grown alarmingly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and the old system of parish relief could no longer cope. This is what the new Poor Law of 1834 was supposed to address, the plan being for the new workhouses to replace parish relief. As a historian of the period has asked:
How could the parishes be relieved of their able-bodied poor? Simply, so the theory of the new Poor Law said, by ending their parish relief (for which at least the community had got some useful work out of them, on hedging and road-mending, for example) and giving relief to them and their families only in the workhouses where they would repay it in honest toil.
(And they blessed Rebecca, Pat Molloy, 1983, pages 79-80)
The reality, however, couldn't have been more different - or more wasteful. Instead of a husband doing useful work in return for his parish relief, the entire family - husband, wife and children - were locked away in near-prison conditions, and forced to do work, much of which was completely pointless and about as far from honest toil as it was possible to be. The 'honest toil' for an able-bodied man in Carmarthen workhouse consisted of breaking stones, a daily quota of a ton and a half of large rocks that had to be broken into pieces small enough to pass through a grill, thoughtfully provided in the cell where the man was locked away for the day. Refusal to work on the stone-breaking brought the offending pauper before the magistrates where he would be sentenced to a tread-wheel in the local gaol for a month or two, an exercise even more pointless than breaking stones.
Many internal documents have disappeared and those that survive in public archives only give us the workhouse's side of the story, but conditions in these places were so bad that occasionally they reached the more accessible pages of the newspapers. This was the case in nearby Carmarthen, where the Carmarthen Journal had this to say about the local workhouse:
The germs of incipient rebellion and treason on a small scale would appear to lurk in the workhouse of the Carmarthen Union. Since the Christmas holidays there has been nothing but risings and mutinies against the stone breaking. Within the last week about half a dozen paupers were committed to prison for refusing to break them
Small wonder that only the most desperate sought relief within the walls of a workhouse. And smaller wonder still that the Rebecca Rioters in Carmarthen on June 14th 1843 switched their anger from grievances over toll charges to the workhouse instead, which by now had acquired all the infamy of the Bastille prison in Paris, the freeing of whose inmates had been the first act of the French Revolution in 1789.
The end of the workhouse
On midnight 31st March 1930 the administration of Llandeilofawr workhouse passed from the hands of the Poor Law Guardians and to Carmarthenshire County Council. For a while little changed except the name but in time the building, like many others throughout the UK, evolved into a more recognisable hospital, before it was finally demolished in the 1970s. A nursing home called Awel Tywi (Towy Breeze) now occupies the site.
This evolution of Llandeilofawr Union workhouse was typical of many of the country's workhouses, as this website describes:
From 1913 onwards, the term 'workhouse' was replaced by 'poor law institution' in official documents but the institution itself was to live on for a good many years yet. During the First World War, many Boards of Guardians offered workhouse premises for military use, mostly as hospitals but also for accommodating military personnel, prisoners of war (for example, Banbury) and 'aliens' (for example Islington).
The general depression in the years following the First World War, culminating in the miners' strike of 1926, put a tremendous strain on the system with some unions effectively becoming bankrupt. In some areas, where colliery owners also had influence with local Boards of Guardians, there were allegations that relief was deliberately reduced to break the strike. Conversely, where miners and union officials dominated a Board, there were complaints that the rates were being used to supplement strike funds.
Neville Chamberlain, Health Minister in the 1925 Conservative government, believed that that the poor-law system needed reforming and in 1926 pushed through a Board of Guardians (Default) Act which enabled the dismissal of a Board of Guardians and its replacement with government officials. This was followed by a further Poor Law Act in 1927, and in 1928 he introduced The Local Government Act which would in many respects bring about many of the measures proposed by the Royal Commission's Report in 1909. Essentially, this would abolish the Boards of Guardians and transfer all their powers and responsibilities to local councils. These were required to submit administrative schemes to end 'poor relief' as such - "as soon as circumstances permit" - and provide more specific "public assistance" on the basis of other legislation such as the Public Health Act, the Education Act, and so on. The Act was passed on 27th March 1929 and came into effect on 1st April 1930 - a day which supposedly marked the end of the road for 643 Boards of Guardians in England and Wales.
Although the workhouse was officially no more, many institutions carried on into the 1930s virtually unaltered. Objections from Boards of Guardians and councils meant that changes were very slow in taking place. Ultimately, the 1929 Act did not succeed in abolishing the Poor Law - it merely reformed how it was administered and changed a few names. Poor Law Institutions became Public Assistance Institutions and were controlled by a committee of 'guardians'. However, physical conditions improved a little for the inmates, the majority of whom continued to be the old, the mentally deficient, unmarried mothers, and vagrants.
The National Health Service Act of 1946 came into force on 5th July 1948. Even the sweeping changes that came with this had less impact than might be imagined. Institutions now came under the control of Hospital Management Committees under Regional hospital Boards but many still carried the stigma from their workhouse days. Many of these new 'hospitals' also maintained "Reception Centres for Wayfarers", i.e. casual wards for vagrants, until the 1960s.
- www.workhouses.org.uk is a wealth of information on this subject and is the best starting point on the internet for the beginner. Much of the above is from this website.
- And they blessed Rebecca, Pat Molloy, Gomer Press, 1983.
- Carmarthenshire Archive Service