Workhouse woes

ONE of my earliest memories was watching Dad set up a little bed at the back of our living room for grandma.

She had suffered a stroke and Mam and Dad felt she shouldn't be left on her own.

In those days families did this kind of thing despite not having enough room for themselves.

There were nine of us living in a house which had just one room downstairs and two upstairs and we didn't have a bathroom.

How we managed with grandma's bed standing where the sofa had been I'll never know but we did and I can't remember anyone grumbling.

It wasn't uncommon in those days to see elderly, sick people living with their children and it usually meant they had to sleep downstairs.

Long-term sick people were referred to as bedridden because they never got out of bed, but they were never regarded as sick enough to go into hospital.

Grandma stayed with us some months, but when her condition deteriorated, our doctor said she should be admitted into Beech Towers, a residential home in the grounds of Staincliffe Hospital.

The name of Beech Towers sent a tremor of fear through the entire household because it was a place that would forever be linked with the workhouse which had once stood in the grounds.

Dad, being her eldest son, was the one who had to make the final decision and to sign the papers admitting her, and he felt ashamed about that.

She died soon afterwards, and Dad said he'd have to live with that for the rest of his life, and he did.

The workhouse had been the refuge of the destitute and homeless, paupers and tramps, and it was memories like this which had haunted people like grandma.

It had been built at the top of the hill where grandma lived and she grew up in its shadow, fearing all her life that she might end up there one day.

She had seen whole families who had fallen on hard times being evicted from their homes and sent there. Husbands, wives and children were separated.

When we went to visit grandma we realised Beech Towers was not in fact the workhouse but a nice, airy, modern, home where residents were well cared for and well fed.

They had the freedom to come and go as they pleased, and the men were allowed to smoke their pipes and didn't have to work to earn their keep as they once had in the workhouse.

But, to those who had never been inside, Beech Towers would always be regarded as the workhouse, and nothing could convince them otherwise.

GREAT social changes were taking place in Dewsbury when grandma entered Beech Towers, for the war had just ended and the National Health Service had been launched.

A new welfare state was beckoning and for the first time ever, residential homes for the elderly were being built in locations all over the borough.

Grandma's admission to Beech Towers was a defining moment for us all, for the new welfare state promised to look after our every need and we wouldn't have to pay a penny.

For the first time ever, families were able to abdicate from responsibilities they had always felt were theirs, like looking after their sick and elderly.

Society was changing and changing fast.

Memories of the workhouse were revived for me this week when a photograph appeared on my desk showing a group of sad-looking children.

It had been found among old papers and documents, at Dewsbury and District Hospital and staff wondered who the children were.

There were no details on the back and the photograph looked about 100 years old, and I immediately thought it could be workhouse children.

Why else should a photograph of children be in an old hospital file? It surely couldn't be a school photograph. If it was, why was it in a hospital filing cabinet.

The hospital where it was found was built on the site of the old workhouse, and perhaps the picture could be of children from the Cottage Homes across the road which was run by the workhouse in the early days.

There is great sadness on the faces of the children and I felt that some were reluctant to be photographed.

And why do the children look as though they have just been lined up, as if on parade?

I think it was taken for hospital files and there are a number of things which make the children look as though they could have been in an institution.

The children are all wearing practical knee-boots which would be regarded as hard-wearing and value for money.

They are also highly-polished, which reminds me of an old friend who was in the Cottage Homes 70 years ago and his job was to polish the children's boots every night.

This could indeed be a rare photograph of children in the workhouse, but I could be wrong.

It is a sad, sad photograph, and whenever we start condemning the Welfare State, we should remember this photograph, and thank God none like this will ever be taken again.

If this picture turns out to be a school photograph, the same applies. No child should ever look as unhappy as this.

JUST to give you an idea of what conditions were really like in the workhouse in the 1890s, I found this in an old newspaper.

Working hours for male inmates were reduced from ten hours a day to nine hours. Their jobs included chopping wood, grinding corn and working in the garden.

Another improvement was allowing children to have an ounce of treacle with their rice pudding on Sundays and half an ounce of butter or dripping on their bread at night. Previous to that it was dry bread only.

Approval was also given that year for five houses (Cottage Homes) to be built near the workhouse for the children of inmates.

Also under consideration was the idea of giving parents in the workhouse permission to visit their children one hour a week on Saturdays.

It wasn't the good old days for them, was it?