Peter Higginbotham is the author of the richly comprehensive workhouses.org.uk/. Peter became interested in workhouses while researching his own family history, since then he has visited ‘hundreds of former workhouse sites across the British Isles, from Truro to Thurso, and from Dover to Donegal.’ He has written many books and articles, as well as contributing to radio and TV programmes including the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?. In 2015 he was awarded the Society of Genealogists’ ‘Certificate of Recognition’ for his work compiling extensive store of information about workhouses and children’s homes.
In January 1928, under the title ‘On the Road’, the Western Gazette began the weekly serialization of the diary of a man (unnamed) who had recently spent five weeks tramping around the south-west of England in a search for work. The route he followed was largely dictated by the locations of the region’s workhouses, whose causal wards had provided his overnight accommodation.
Over the next four months, the articles presented a depressing picture of the accommodation, food and treatment that was provided at most casual wards. Inmates frequently experienced a lack of privacy when bathing, cold and previously used bath-water, shared towels, dirty nightshirts, stale bread, unheated and verminous sleeping quarters, no lights or access to a toilet at night, and arrogant, small-minded staff. Sundays were particularly difficult, with inmates locked up all day with no reading matter or other recreation available. According to the anonymous poor-law official who contributed his own views to the Gazette in an article following the diary of the series, such treatment could be a matter of unofficial policy at individual workhouses – an easy-going regime being thought likely to make a place popular and lead to overcrowding.
The picture was not totally bleak, however. Sympathetic treatment was occasionally forthcoming from workhouse officers, especially for an inmate who was unwell. Members of the public also proved generous on occasion, giving wayfarers lifts, money or food. A butcher at Ringwood on being asked for two-pennyworth of ‘block ornaments’ presented his customer with three slices of steak.
Apart from his own discomforts, the writer describes his encounters with a number of young work-seekers whom, he suggested, could quickly be worn down by their treatment in the casual ward, and driven into crime. Life was also challenging for the many ex-servicemen who ended up ‘on the road and who were frequently very sardonic about the ‘land fit for heroes’ that they had been promised by Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1918.
As publication of the articles progressed, the paper was able to report some ‘remarkable results’ from their appearance, with the various Boards of Guardians clearly taking considerable interest in, and reacting to, the reports. In at least one Union, conditions which had caused severe discomfort had been improved while in another, apparatus for fumigation had been installed. Several Unions publicly expressed their appreciation at the appearance of the articles, while others were disappointed that their wards had not been visited.
The series ended with an article contributed by the indefatigable Mary Higgs, by then in her mid-70s but still an active campaigner through groups such as the Vagrancy Reform Society and Friends’ Vagrancy Committee. As well as improvements to the casual wards themselves, she proposed the provision of training camps where young casuals could be directed. They would be properly fed, supplied with decent clothes, given health and other checks, and provided with training in work such as land reclamation, with an eye to emigration to one of the British colonies.
Later in 1928, a sequel to ‘On the Road’ was published in the form of a pamphlet chronicling the experiences of two men who had travelled on foot from Reading to York. The pair mainly stayed in casual wards but also sampled a number of common lodging houses in towns en route. The author of the diary was not named, writing under the pen-name of ‘Investigator’.
In some instances, such as Oxford, the casual ward was rated as ‘decent and comfortable’. In others, the experience was grim. At Aylesbury, for example, the pair were not given a bath or nightshirts and spent the night lying on boards in a bathroom, unable to sleep because of the cockroaches running over their faces and hands. The men’s journey was undertaken at a time when there was a resurgence of smallpox in the country and particular criticism was directed towards the often cursory nature of the examinations of casuals carried out by workhouse medical officers.
Although the pamphlet did not identify a publisher, its printing by an Oldham company suggests Mary Higgs’ close involvement in its production. In her preface to the work, Higgs declared that in England, ‘the punishment of poverty is worse than the crime.’ She also expressed a concern for the growing number young casuals who had ‘no hope of normal human life’. Their being ‘let loose on the country,’ she suggested, might well lead to an increase in sex crimes and crimes of violence.
Seven years later, in June 1935, the Western Gazette began publication of a new series of casual ward reports by ‘a man who has tramped the roads in search of work’. Like the original series, the six articles in ‘On the Road Again’ featured casual wards in Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset.
Despite the improvements prescribed by the Ministry of Health’s 1931 order, conditions in some casual wards seemed to have barely changed over the intervening years. Salisbury and Shaftesbury were as cold as ever, and the only toilet at Shaftesbury was outside and in the open. Bridgwater was said to be ‘the worst “spike” in England’: the search on entry was ‘one long humiliation’; there was no heating in the dormitory during the night or early morning; the bed had a lumpy old mattress, three thin blankets, and no pillow; dinner was served on old tin plates in a recess in the dormitory, with no tables or chairs; the officially required ‘additional vegetable’ at dinner-time consisted of a teaspoonful of a ‘nondescript legume’; and a work task consisted of scraping the paint off old buckets which had clearly been scraped and repainted many times for the purpose. At Chippenham, the food seemed to have improved, there was a carpet on the floor, and the porter was civil; on the downside, ‘bedtime’ was at 5.30 p.m.
The author concluded that whole system was characterised by waste — ‘of manhood, time, money, and energy. It intensifies the very state of affairs it attempts to abolish… Once on the road, you’re finished.’
The three diaries, which record visits to a total of fifty different casual wards, provide a valuable picture of conditions at a time when the whole poor relief system was undergoing change. A compilation of all the articles, together with a short illustrated history of the casual ward, is now available as the book On the Road: First-hand accounts of visits to workhouse casual wards from Somerset to Yorkshire (1928-35). Further details at www.workhouses.org.uk/books