At the beginning of the eighteenth-century workhouses like the one in Bradford, Yorkshire were set up mainly to cater for the adult and able-bodied poor but increasingly catered for young children, orphans, old men and women and the mentally ill. The Bradford workhouse catered for up to seventy inmates and at times conditions could be deplorable. The harsh system of the workhouse became synonymous with terrible conditions, forced child labour, long hours, malnutrition, beatings and neglect.
If you were a young child and your mother was unmarried and had been disowned by her family then the workhouse may have been the only option for the two of you. You may have travelled the countryside, slept at the side of the road and begged for coins but eventually hunger and possibly sickness would have taken hold and you would have no other option than to seek out the workhouse.
When you first arrived, the workhouse master would sit you and your mother down and interview her to find out your circumstances then you would be housed in a probationary ward until the Board of Guardians summoned you to their weekly meeting. At this meeting, the dozen or so men would interview your mother and decide whether you should be allowed to stay or not.
If you were granted permission, then you would be examined by the medical officer and if he deemed you to be sick or carrying an infectious disease then you would be separated and placed in the sick ward. If you passed the medical, then you would both be bathed, de loused and issued with a workhouse uniform. While bathing, a workhouse officer would be present to observe you for marks, bruises, sores or wounds and report them to the master.
Children would have their hair cut short and your own clothes would be washed, disinfected and put in storage until the day you were ready to leave the workhouse. The uniform that you were provided with would be made from calico and linen course fabric and often stiffened with starch. The uniform would be the only possession and at night you would be separated from your mother and you would share a bed with one of the other children possibly in a box bed or low hanging hammock .
Although rare, there were episodes of child cruelty in some workhouses, so if you were unlucky, you may have been beaten with a stinging nettle or forced to kneel on wire netting that covered the hot water pipes. Flogging could usually be administered to boys under the age of fourteen and children over the age of twelve could be confined in a dark room.
In the morning, the bell would be rung at 6am and the master would take roll call before you would engage in prayers with the other inmates. You would be instructed to go to the dining hall where you would be provided with breakfast that other inmates had cooked. Breakfast would consist of broth, bread, cheese and ale. In some workhouses, you may have been separated from your mother all together and only allowed to see her on occasion.
After breakfast you would be put to work spinning, weaving or carding wool unless you were required to carry out other functions such as cleaning, laundry or peeling potatoes. The duties of inmates also included cleaning dormitories, sweeping and scouring floors in hallways, mending blankets and tending to the sick.
Boards of Guardians usually became guardians of children until they reached the age of fourteen where they were allowed to take up employment in domestic service or for males possibly joining the army or navy.
Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three novels:
Skulduggery- An exciting, mysterious, fictional and historically accurate adventure pulls no punches about the life and hardships of peasant farmers living on the moors of Yorkshire in 1590.
"Was excellent reading . I intended to read it over the next week but once I started I could NOT put it down . Really enjoyed it !"
Winter of Red- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the very end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642.
"A fictional, historical novel about a loving peasant family caught up in a 1642 shocking Civil War. Humour, romance, adventure and excitement are here to enjoy. A great story.
"Dream of Courage- Soon to be released!
The much anticipated story of the Rushworth family and their journey out of poverty. King Charles has been executed and England becomes a Republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. Highwaymen, thief-takers, pirates and broggers tell the story in this mysterious and bone chilling historical thriller.