The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Workhouse Life at Christmas

THE last few weeks I think every famous chef in the world has been appearing on television telling us how to cook our Christmas dinner.

Wednesday, 18th December 2019, 10:00 am
Old Workhouse: This picture of the old Staincliffe Hospital in Healds Road, taken over a hundred years ago, was built on the site of the old Workhouse. Although the building is still in use by the NHS, many older people continue to refer to it as the old Workhouse. During World War One, it was used as the base hospital for wounded soldiers.

But the one who interested me most was Yorkshireman Brian Turner who admitted he couldn’t remember ever getting a toy at Christmas, but he did get a tangerine.

I don’t think his colleagues on the show believed him, but I did, because going back 60 or 70 years, there were many children didn’t get toys at Christmas, and never expected to.

The only one I can remember getting was a little toy kitchen set which my brother brought me back from Germany where he was doing his National Service.

Margaret Watson.

I treasured it for years.

Toys were never top of the agenda for many families, but food was, and the poorest of the poor always managed to have some kind of a Christmas dinner.

Ironically, Christmas was the time which poor people looked forward to most because many charities provided them with festive fare. Indeed the poor and destitute in Victorian times were very well-looked after because it was the time of year when their fellow men always remembered them.

Here in this district there were many churches and charitable trusts which held Christmas dinners for the poor, sick and elderly in their parish.

The Workhouse at Staincliffe, where something like 500 paupers were housed, also celebrated Christmas in fine fashion with the inmates being treated like kings.

Even the Guardians of the Poor turned up at the Christmas dinner to act as waiters for the day and helped serve up the finest of food for the poor wretches in their care.

The normally austere building was trimmed with gay decorations, huge bunches of holly hung from the rafters, and there was a giant Christmas tree in the centre of the main hall.

The coal fires burned brightly and carols were sung, and for at least one day, life was good for the paupers housed in our local Workhouse.

The following report in an old Reporter file for 1887 gives us a glimpse of what Christmas day was like at the Workhouse.

It read:

“In accordance with the good old custom of Christmas, the inmates of the Dewsbury Union House have been feasted right royally.

“Besides the never to be forgotten roast beef and plum pudding, there were many other substantial and succulent feeds to enjoy.

“There was quite an array of waiters, made up of the ladies and gentlemen working at the Workhouse, including several Guardians.

“The children were presented with a sixpence each, sent by the Mayor of Dewsbury, Alderman Mark Oldroyd, and the Ex-Mayor, Alderman T.B. Fox, and the hearts of the children were gladdened with other presents of toys.

“Capital entertainment was provided by senior scholars from Christ Church School, Staincliffe, upwards of 80 in number, who sang most beautifully.

“It was generally agreed among the older inmates that of all the Christmas treats held at the Workhouse in the past, that had been one of the most pleasing and enjoyable.

“The sick, who happened to be in hospital at Christmas, were remembered too, for neither patients nor members of staff at the Infirmary were forgotten this festive season.

“Turkeys, geese, hares and rabbits were served for Christmas dinner, there were toys for the children in hospital, and handsome cards for patients, as well as a handsome Christmas tree and fruits.”

But it wasn’t only the inmates in the Workhouse and patients in the Infirmary who were kept well fed at Christmas, but also children from poor families living in the district round about.

That same year, the poor children of Westtown, Dewsbury, were well provided on Christmas day as the following report in the Reporter showed:

It read:

“The Christmas dinner for the poor children of the neighbourhood of Westtown was given in the large schoolroom on Christmas day.

“About 120 children were present, and were given a real Christmas dinner, consisting of roast beef and vegetables, followed by an ample supply of plum pudding.

“Tea was always in readiness, and during the evening, oranges, nuts and the contents of the Christmas tree were distributed.

“The little ones also enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and highly appreciated the performance of the waxwork show which was presented for their amusement.

“Many games were indulged in, and a spirited snowball match with balls made of paper, concluded an evening which will be remembered for some time.

“The materials for the treat were supplied by a large number of friends, so that the funds for the planned soup kitchens were not touched.

“The following additional subscriptions were received for the soup kitchen: Mr Teale, five shillings, an anonymous donor, ten shillings, and Mark Oldroyd, two pounds.”

The picture on this page shows the old Staincliffe Hospital in Healds Road, Dewsbury, which was built on the site of the Workhouse I am writing about today.

The Workhouse was a place feared by those who became destitute in those days and were forced to go live there.

Families were split up with husbands and wives living in separate parts of the building, and their children having to live in the Cottage Homes, across the road.

Those days are long gone, and hopefully will never return, but it is good to remember them, if only to make us grateful for what we have today.

May I take this opportunity to wish readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

○ Send your memories of past times in the Dewsbury area to me at [email protected]