Pauper Prisons, Pauper Palaces

On Saturday 22 November Keele hosted a conference organised by the British Association for Local History on the topic of Victorian workhouses. This was the latest in a series of annual conferences deriving from a Lottery-funded project at the National Archives, to calendar a portion of the contents of the vast collection of documents in classification MH 12 and to analyse them for local studies.
MH 12 comprises 16, 741 volumes of letters exchanged by the poor law unions of England and Wales (established by the New Poor Law of 1834) and central government. The letters are arranged chronologically by union but were not indexed at the time of compilation; therefore they contain a mass of fascinating, unique, but unsorted data. Lottery funding has enabled local groups of volunteers to be trained in the art of summarising the contents of a small minority of volumes, to open out their use by historians of the poor law and by historians of different places. The papers delivered at this year’s conference amply demonstrated the range and potential use of the material, many of them revealing stories about the poor inhabitants of north Staffordshire.

The first paper by Julie Bagnall, for example, a former student of Keele’s Certificate in Local History, concerned the allegations of immorality leveled against the porter of the workhouse in Newcastle under Lyme in 1857. Ambrose Taylor was accused of having fathered triplets on Sarah Hand, a previously respectable townswoman: he had not married Sarah, and both she and all three of the children died soon after the birth. Taylor had committed no crime, but the question arose of whether the poor law union should allow him to continue in post when he had displayed such evidence of immorality. The result of debates between the Newcastle union and the Poor Law Board was that Taylor was reprimanded but not dismissed, a telling instance of the sexual double standard for men and women in Victorian England.

Vagrant ward Stoke workhouse

Plan of the vagrant ward in Stoke on Trent’s workhouse, built in 1842

In another case from Staffordshire, Alun Davies who holds the Keele MA in Local History examined the death of a vagrant in the Newcastle workhouse in 1841. James Smith died on 15 February aged just 35, having been discharged from the workhouse the same morning. Smith was starving, as was proved by a subsequent post mortem, and there were initially calls for a charge of manslaughter to be brought against the workhouse officials: but where did the blame for Smith’s death lie? With the workhouse master and matron who were nominally in charge, with the porter who admitted and discharged vagrants, with the absent medical officer, or with the Poor Law Commission which promoted a policy of ‘less eligibility’ which meant that conditions for paupers must be worse than for the poor in their own homes? No-one was prosecuted for Smith’s death.
Other speakers discussed the disruptive disagreements that could break out between workhouse staff, the political machinations around the definition of poor law unions, emigration of paupers to the new world, and the difficulties faced by relieving officers and medical officers in judging their mediation between the union’s elected guardians and the poor in their care.

If you are interested in the having a look at some of the results of the project, you can access the summarised contents of sundry places for free via the National Archives website: see
and then search for poor law unions where the contents of volumes have been described in full, for example letters to and from Wolstanton Union in north Staffordshire.