Life in the Workhouse

Hillworth Lodge [formally Keighley Workhouse]

 I was recently researching a local individual called Abraham Bancroft, who was born circa 1809 in the Oldfield area of Keighley and eventually ended up in the local Workhouse, where he ended his days in 1893. He was listed as a single retired woolcomber, and must have been left there by his family for some reason.
This research got me thinking about what life must have been like for those unfortunate enough to end up in one of these establishments.

The local Workhouse in Keighley is listed on the census for 1891 as having about two hundred ‘inmates’, both in the actual workhouse building and the nearby hospital, many of them listed as either ‘imbacile, blind or deaf & dumb’ and was managed by a Workhouse Manager, his wife and a handful of others who were listed as porters, nurses, a cook & a gardener. The last workhouse building in Keighley was built in 1858 at a cost of £7000, and still exists today, albeit is now turned into residential accommodation. A previous smaller establishment existed up until that date at nearby Exley Head, and earlier in 1777 a parliamentary report on this establishment stated that it had forty inmates.

Workhouses largely came about because of an act passed in 1601 called “The Act for the relief of the Poor” which made parishes legally responsible for looking after their own poor, and was funded by the collection of a poor-rate tax from local property owners. These funds were then used to provide unpaid work for the unemployed….with the threat of prison for those who refused!. It also set out proposals for the erection of houses for the “impotent poor, the elderly and the sick” Parish poor relief was initially dispensed in the form of money to enable people to buy clothing, food or fuel for those living in their own home in exchange for work without pay. This procedure was it seems, open to abuse, so by 1723 the “Workhouse Test Act” was passed and gave parishes the option of denying money to claimants and offering only the Workhouse.

In 1887 a local writer and bookseller called Mr CW Craven, went undercover into Keighley workhouse to try and experience what is was like first-hand, and later published an account of his experience called “ A Night at the Workhouse”….here are some extracts from it:

“I found myself in a room where a regular pauper was in charge, who at once told me to undress myself. Whilst doing this, a piece of dry bread, about 4 oz in weight was thrown onto a board with the exclamation, “ Thear’s yer Tommy”. On getting my coat, waistcoat and trousers off and discovering my underclothes, the attendant exclaimed several times “You don’t look as if you hed been on t’road long anyhow”. “No!” says I “ this is the first time”. He then told me to take my shirt off, and strip myself entirely. “Why take my shirt off?” I asked. “ Because ther might be sum o’ them thear things abaght!” he replied. “ Are there many of these things round about these quarters?” I further interrogated. “Nah, ah doan’t think there’ll be so monny, we mostly stove ‘em when we find onny” With this answer I was somewhat comforted. When I undressed myself to a state as naked as when I was born, I was told to tie my cloths up and place them alongside a series of other similar bundles laid against a wall. I was then furnished with a couple of rugs and ordered into the sleeping room and the lock tuned on me. All was dark as pitch. My bare feet slipped on what I afterwards found was the vagrant’s spittle on the stone floor, and the sensation was cold and slimy. It made me think of snails and worms, and other loathsome creeping things…...I laid myself on the hard slanting boards, with bare wood as a pillow to experience twelve hours of misery.
I did not sleep a wink all night, and kept fancying “some of them thear things” were creeping over me. By the time the welcome streaks of morning dawn appeared, my bones felt terribly sore, and I was half staved to death. At about a quarter to seven the key turned in the door, and the order was given to “get dressed and bring your rugs in here”. Seven naked forms then flitted about in search of their cloths, and commenced to dress. I found the piece of dry bread I had left untouched the night before, and told one of the vagrants he could have it if he cared to do so. He appeared exceedingly grateful and at once commenced to devour it.
Breakfast was brought in by a pauper attendant, and consisted on seven pieces of dry bread on a board, each piece weighing 8 ozs, one for each vagrant. They were placed on the stone floor. A rusty can was then brought in, containing about two quarts of cold water, which was to serve as a drink for us all. A strong feeling of indignation rose within me as I observed this miserable fare, and the contemptuous manner in which it was served.
After a sufficient time had been allowed for breakfast, we were ordered out to perform our task work. Two were relegated to some lighter labour, whilst five, amongst whom was myself, were set to corn-grinding. We were placed in a room, where protruding from the wall were six wheels with handles attached, and nothing else but the dead wall was discernable. After being ordered to grind away at these, we were locked in. some of the machines were dreadfully hard to turn, whilst others were not so bad. The most aggravating part of the affair was that none of us could observe how much work had been accomplished.
The atmosphere was very warm and in midsummer must have been nearly stifling. Being in want of something to drink,we thrust a tin through an aperture in the window, with a request for one of the paupers to fill it with water. The tin was taken away, but no water appeared, and nearly an hour elapsed before our wants were supplied in this respect, and then only because of repeated knocks and shouting. Drearily the hours passed until twelve o’clock, when we were liberated for dinner consisting of thick soup, which I could not bring myself to taste. From one till five o’clock corn-grinding was again our portion, after which the night was spent much similar to the last one. I was greatly pleased when my time expired and I was again a free man.
My impression of the general treatment of vagrants is that the system is much too severe. Making every allowance for the shortcomings of the class constituting them, I am of the opinion that the lowest of mankind deserves better treatment than that accorded to pigs, dogs, and other animals of creation. The food furnished was scarcely fit for these last mentioned, whilst about the harsh treatment, the less said the better. It is a disgrace to any civilised country.”


Thankfully the end of the workhouse system came in 1930, when the Boards of Guardians across England and Wales were abolished, and responsibility passed to the local authorities. The Keighley Workhouse site was taken over by the West Riding Council and became Keighley Public Assistance Institution. It later became Hillworth Lodge old people's home and was afterwards used by Keighley College. In 2000, the site was redeveloped for residential use. The photograph at the top shows part of the original workhouse complex, as it is today.
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