Monday, December 31, 2007

Back To The Workhouse

I used to work with a chap called Jim Seddon. Jim was a great character who could tell a story like few others. I was young and just starting out, Jim was old and approaching retirement. He would tell me about his working life which had taken him from being a nurse to being a Senior Lecturer in Management Studies. However, his first job, he would tell me with great pride, was as an Assistant Taskmaster in a Workhouse. I never knew whether to believe him or not - you could never clearly identify the boundary between truth and invention in his stories : but that was half the delight of them. I always intended to check up on this story when I got the time an opportunity - could anyone have worked in a Workhouse in what would have been the mid 1930s?

This morning, my wife Isobel had a hospital appointment and I went with her. In addition to providing company and moral support, I had a reason for making the journey as the appointment was at St Lukes' Hospital Bradford. This is the hospital where I was born some 59 years ago and - to the best of my knowledge - I hadn't been back since. And just twenty years before I was born there it had been Bradford Workhouse. The building has changed little - the above photograph was taken just a couple of hours ago - and as soon as you enter the hospital gates you know that this was built as a serious institution.

According to the excellent, the Bradford Workhouse in Little Horton Lane was built in 1852 at a cost of £7,000. Designed by a celebrated firm of Workhouse architects it had that severe, institutional look of all such buildings. However, shortly after it was opened it was described as "a spacious, handsome, and admirably arranged building. It has room for about 350 inmates, and attached to it is a spacious infirmary". Within the next thirty years it must have expanded somewhat as, at the time of the 1881 census, there were 725 residents listed. Reading through the 1881 list you get a true feel of the tragedy of such places : women and children living their lives out in poverty and shame. The full list (which can be found on the above mentioned site) also provides a clear indication of why people ended up in such places. It is made up of three main groups : widows or unmarried women with children, the old and the disabled. The census list records the "disability" : the largest group being "inb" (or "imbecile"), but there is also a fair smattering of "deaf" and "blind" as well. Further research reveals that the workhouses themselves came to an end in 1930 when the various Boards of Guardians were abolished by the 1929 Public Health Act. But many of the institutions continued as "Public Assistance Institutions" with few changes right up until the National Health Service was introduced in 1948 (the same year, and indeed the same month, that I was born in St Lukes).

So the answer to that question which has been at the back of my mind for the last thirty years is "yes", Jim could well have started his working life in a "Public Assistance Institution" or workhouse. Indeed, had I have been born a few weeks earlier maybe I would have been born in the workhouse! Looking back at that list of 1881 inmates, looking back at that list of deaf, blind and disabled people, I feel a kind of bond with them. In a way it's part of my roots : a part I am quite proud of.


  1. Anonymous10:59 PM

    wow i have been looking into my mums background, she was in a home on park road near the hospital but insists she was in a workhouse on rooly lane not far from st lukes x

  2. That would have been what became known as The Park old peoples home.


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