Monday, 1 October 2012

Quietly to die, untouched by workhouse hands

"Old Betty Higden fared upon her pilgrimage as many ruggedly honest creatures, women and men, fare on their toiling way along the roads of life. Patiently to earn a spare bare living, and quietly to die, untouched by workhouse hands — this was her highest sublunary hope." 
OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, by Charles Dickens, Book 3 Chapter 8

Many of our ancestors will have shared Betty Higden's desire to escape the workhouse but sadly, too many will have failed in this hope.

A "workhouse" was first opened in Gedling in Nottinghamshire in 1787, following the Gilbert Act of 1782, or rather a "poor house" as the act only allowed for the admission of the elderly, infirm and orphans.  Gedling, like all other parishes, was still required at this time to provide relief outside the poor house - "outdoor relief" - for the so called "sturdy" poor who were able to work.

© 2010 Stephen Jones Creative Commons Licence 
The Gedling poor house was built in association with 6 other local parishes on 8 acres of pasture land on Stoke Lane close to the river Trent.  The poor house had a garden of 1 and a half acres and cows were kept on the pasture to provide for the inmates.  As it was a poor house and not a work house no employment was provided.  By 1834 the poor house was home - if it can be called that - to 53 people; 11 men, 21 women, 10 boys under 7 and 11 girls under 15.

Gedling's poor house was subject to much criticism in the 1834 poor law commission.  The commission noted that the poor house and the 5 local gentlemen who managed it were not inspected or scrutinised by the parishes who were paying for it.  In turn the commission concluded that "the buildings are constructed without the means of proper separation consequently the poor are intermingled without regard to the personal comfort of the guiltless, the punishment of the sturdy or the  moral improvement of the young."

Whatever its limitations, the Gedling poor house did provide some care within the village for those who could not provide for themselves and those living there were not completely isolated from the rest of village life.  Those men and boys able to, for example, attended church every Sunday at Gedling's parish church of All Hallows.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which followed the poor law commission changed all this.  Henceforth, anyone in Gedling unable to provide for themselves would be required to enter the work house and this would not be the small establishment in their own village but a new work house provided by over 30 parishes who combined in the Basford Poor Law Union.  Most importantly the new work houses were intended not as places of care but as deterrents to unemployment and it was mandated that conditions should be worse than those of the poorest working labourer.

All the poor of Gedling who could not support themselves were now meant to go to the new Basford Union workhouse which was 6 miles away in Bulwell.  (The site on Highbury Road is now used as a hospital).  Despite the intentions of the act, it appears, at least from the snapshot of census records listed below, that it was the "guiltless" elderly, orphans and widows of Gedling who ended up touched by the hands of the workhouse:
1861: Charlotte Bennett 10, John Bennett 7, Charlotte Brown 29, John Deabill 65, Thomas Oldknow 62, John Alvey 12 
1871: Cornelius Allen 72, Richard Buttler 73, John Cowlishaw 74, Hannah Monks 38 
1881: Joseph Bennett 76, Arthur Colishaw 79, William Seapers 39, William Palethorpe 78, Mary Crowther 69, John Eggleston 63 
1891: No one
1901: Thomas Cottingham 72 
1911: No one

The elderly of Gedling who ended their days in Nottingham's workhouses may not all have been "ruggedly honest creatures" like Dicken's Betty Hidgen but it was a terrible finale for those who had toiled all their working lives in Gedling to be torn from the care of the village at their very end.

Please feel free to link to your own posts on workhouses via the linky below:

I highly recommend Peter Higginbottom's excellent website as a starting point for anyone wanting to research work houses in places their British ancestors came from.  You may also be able to find details of poor houses in your areas of research in the poor law commission.

I searched census records with "Gedling" as a place of birth and "inmate" as a key word to find workhouse residents from Gedling.  This did produce some confusing results in the 1851 census where a large number of people living in Gedling with people other than their family were recorded as "inmates".  I am currently researching whether these were actually boarders or whether they provide an example of areas of Nottingham - which had a record as England's most radical city at the time - contravening the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and continuing to provide "outdoor relief" to the unemployed poor outside the workhouse.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that this post is listed on today's Fab Finds list at

    1. Thanks for the listing Jana. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Great post! Thank you for the link for further research. I will definitely check it out.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

    1. Glad you liked the post Theresa and great to discover your blog. Interested to know connection between Nottingham England and Nottingham Pensylvania

  3. After reading this article, I'm left feeling so sorry for those poor people who were "required to enter" the workhouse. They had a roof over their heads, at least, but at such a high cost to their dignity.