Why did Philemon Bancroft die in the Workhouse?


Mealtime in the Workhouse

I have recently come across a rather interesting and disturbing report in the Leeds Mercury newspaper of November 1860 which reported on the sudden death of Mary Bancroft, the wife of Philemon Bancroft, and provides some answers to questions I had wondered about for a long time….I’ll start at the beginning.

Mary's husband, Philmon Bancroft, was born in the Lightcliffe area, near Halifax in 1808, the son of James and Sarah Bancroft.

Philemon & Mary's marriage record

He married Mary Sucksmith in 1832 at Halifax. Mary was heavily pregnant at the time,and was the daughter of James Sucksmith, a farmer from Norwood Green near Halifax and his wife Frances. There is some confusion in the records about Mary's surname, as some of the internet records show it as 'Lucksmith' rather than 'Sucksmith', although it seems more likely that 'Sucksmith' is the correct surname.
Philemon and Mary went on to have at least ten children……so the question is.... why did Philemon end his days alone, and without the support of his family, in a workhouse in the village of Clayton near Bradford?

Looking at the census records, it would seem that Philemon had a variety of occupations throughout his life. 1841 showed his as a farmer in Lightcliffe, while by 1851 he and his family had moved to Raistrick near Halifax and he was then shown as a woolcomber.
By 1861 he has moved again to Cleckheaton and is now an Agricultural Labourer and shown as a widower, and was now living alone. The same census year shows eight of his children living at a separate address in North Bierley…and that where this story takes a nasty turn!
The Leeds Mercury newspaper of 15th November 1860 had printed the following article:

Leeds Mercury Article
Philemon must have been a rather unpleasant character as far as his family were concerned as he appears to have started a six month prison sentence shortly before his wife died at the early age of 46 years because he “inhumanly treated” her. One can only speculate whether her early death was due to having ten children and then the cruel treatment at the hands of her husband.

Mary's Death Certificate


As can be seen from Mary’s death certificate, the cause of death leaves some unanswered questions. The Coroner is the informant, and gives her cause of death as “ Sub Acute Bronchitis…evidence not sufficient to determine if death was accelerated by ill treatment”

Anyway, Philemon eventually ended his days in the North Bierley Union Workhouse in Clayton near Bradford, and the 1871 census lists him there as "Pelam Bancroft" an inmate, together with several hundred other  unfortunate individuals. He is shown as being of sound mind and body, unlike some of the others there, who are described as "imbecile or deaf and dumb" etc, and he is shown as a Labourer from Hipperholme.

Former Clayton Workhouse Entrance

The North Bierley Workhouse at Clayton was built in 1855-8 to accommodate the rapidly growing city of Bradford, which was starting to have to deal with  large numbers of poor people, and was designed to accommodate up to 400 inmates. The building still exists today, although it has been greatly enlarged over the years. It was converted to a hospital called "Thornton View" in 1948, and eventually became a private girls school in 1991. Interestingly from 1904 onwards, the address given for all birth registrations was
'1 Highgate Road, Clayton' to protect children born there, from the shame of being registered as being born in a workhouse, so as not to stigmatise them in later life.

I wrote an article previously about life in another local workhouse at Keighley, describing the soul-deadening drudgery of daily life for anyone unfortunate enough to end up in one of these establishments. It can be read by clicking here


 The following copy death certificate shows, he died of gangrene on 24th January 1873. Interestingly his name is mispelt as “Pelian” on the certificate. I had always though that his listed occupation at the time of death as a schoolmaster must also have been a mistake, and that it possibly referred to the informant who was the Workhouse Manager, but on further investigation it would seem that this was correct, because a few years later his son Edwin lists his deceased father’s occupation as this on his marriage certificate. Perhaps Philemon was a changed character after his time in prison and reformed his ways in later life!
Records show that Philemon was buried at Lightcliffe Cemetry near Halifax, which is where his parents James and Sarah were also buried.

Philemon's Death Certificate

For anyone interested.... Philemon is a biblical name.'The Epistle of Paul to Philemon', usually referred to simply as 'Philemon', is a prison letter to Philemon from Paul of Tarsus. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian Church.

I am grateful to Peter Higginbottom, and his website www.workhouses.org.uk for some of the information in this article.

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