In November, 2019 Louise Ryland-Epton gave an engaging talk entitled ‘By Pity and by Terror? A Contrary View of Workhouses’ at the M Shed, Bristol as part of the UWE Regional History Centre series of talks.
As I had read and examined reports on shocking victimisation, neglect, exploitation and dehumanising treatment of later workhouse inmates I was intrigued to hear about an alternative, pre 1834 Poor Law Act, workhouse erected in Westbury-on-Trym. We are all familiar with the many indignant accounts detailing punishment and deprivation that were inflicted upon pauper men, women and children across the British Isles for hundreds of years. I was interested in the earlier workhouses, and to understand the little known, and often over looked, Gilbert’s Act of 1782. Otherwise known as the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, 22 Geo.3 c.83.
Ryland-Epton’s view was that due to the parish endorsing Gilbert’s Act, the parish of Westbury-on-Trym (hereafter referred to as Westbury), decided to build a new workhouse next to the parish church to better care for the aged infirm and orphans. The new workhouse probably opened during September 1804. The speaker stated that the workhouse at Westbury-on-Trym was entirely different. One historian in the 1960s declared, ‘even today it would be unlikely for an old person in a geriatric ward to receive such good treatment’. While this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the treatment of inmates at Westbury was meticulously planned and administered with the ‘comforts’ of the poor in mind. A few examples of a caring house were given, such as the purchase by the Guardians of many iron frame beds and good quality mattresses along with the storing of food provisions.
The speaker went on to give an interesting and detailed account of the earlier poor houses in Westbury, where there were in fact two poor houses. One was on the north side of the church, part of a once monastic college, which was endowed as alms houses at the time of the Reformation. The second, being known as Long Entry, a building which served as a poor shelter was demolished in 1838. The account of the building of the subsequent Westbury workhouse gave a description of the many paupers tramping into the city via Westbury seeking work, and how this consequently alarmed the authorities in Westbury. However, her assumption that the workhouse was built out of kindness to paupers, as reflected in Gilbert’s Act, needed more evidence than was on offer.
For example, because the master of the workhouse decided that, during wet weather, resident paupers would not be forced to work in the vegetable gardens, but be permitted to work in doors unpicking oakham, this was an act of kindness!. In reality unpicking oakham was an unpleasant job, which could make the hands bleed, was mind numbingly boring and draconian in nature, because of the targets that needed to be met.
Mention was given to the ‘kindly matron’ Mrs Player, wife to the master of the Westbury workhouse. Mrs Player was matron for 33 years and apparently was a kindly and devoted lady. I can report that in the Bristol Times and Mirror, upon her death in 1831, a notice was placed reading ‘At the poor-house, in the parish of Westbury-on-Trym, aged 77, Sarah she beloved wife and Mr John Player, Master of this establishment for the reception of the aged and impotent poor, the duties of which station, in the office of matron, for the space of nearly 27 years, she had actively, faithfully and with general satisfaction performed’. However, that this would be said about Mrs Player in her death notice, which was probably placed by her husband. It could of course have been indeed a true account of her life, but it does not substantiate her character as mistress of the workhouse. Mr and Mrs Player were appointed Master and Mistress of the new house on 21 March, 1803 at a yearly salary of £30 for their united services. A doctor was also recruited by the name of Mr Pountney on 24 April, 1801 at probably the lowest wage possible.
It must also be pointed out that there was next to no independent inspection of workhouses at this time being under the control of semi-autonomous powers administrated by vestry members. However, under Gilbert’s Act the recording of expenditure, settlements and rates collected in the vestry accounts were inspected annually by county magistrates, who were only required to keep a check on expenditure and not the welfare of inmates.
Corporal punishment was frequently carried out by masters of workhouses, along with other punishments; the withholding of food, the minimal provision of medical care, lock-ups for solitary confinement, children not being permitted to see their parents, all being common place. In the case of Westbury workhouse we do not know anything of the treatment of inmates as the records do not exist. However, it does not mean that because no punishments were recorded in the surviving records of the house that they did not occur. According to Moss (1968), the master and mistress are only mentioned in the records when they were thanked and paid a £5 bonus, although we do not know why. Also, a brief note was made in the records that their salary was raised from £30 p.a. in 1804 to £70 p.a. in 1834. On the other hand according to Moss, the inmates were only paid one sixth part of the work they produced and furthermore this was only paid to them in order to encourage them to further industry.
As in all workhouses, as their name implies, work was to be untaken by all who were capable of work; young children, the elderly, the feeble, the infirm, and the hours would have been very long at six days a week. Therefore, with no objective primary evidence existing that this workhouse was in any way more compassionate than any other, it simply cannot be assumed that upon its conception the house was exclusively based on the philosophy of Gilbert’s Act. The Act stipulated that workhouses should only house children until they could be put out to service, or to be bound in apprenticeship, to reduce future burden on the poor rates. This could be from the age of 12 years. According to Samantha Shave (2008), schooling was administered in an ad hoc manner in other Gilbert workhouses.It is on record that the master, Mr Player, received the sum of £2.2s for the apprenticeship of a Henry Jenkings, pauper, to Samuel and Mary Swadle ‘to bring him up as a Twine Spinner’. This would have been the situation for all children who entered Westbury Workhouse. It was usual for the master to receive a disbursement on the farming out of children, and thereby taking them not only off the parish and, also if possible to be settled in another parish. By removing children from the parish of their birth it was anticipated that if the child required relief in the future they would be the responsibility of their newly settled parish.
There are a few examples of model Gilbert Act workhouses in other parts of the country. But by all accounts their effects were very minimal. For example a Gilbert’s workhouse in west Kent ordered that the elderly in particular were to be given provision only.
Thomas Gilbert believed quite rightly that the old parish workhouses were defective in their management; that they were ‘dens of horror’, that they were places of confusion, disorder and distress, as he reported. Gilbert published a pamphlet in 1781, Plan for The Better Relief and Employment of the Poor, declaring that the ‘vulnerable’ poor…aged, infirm and young only…should be accommodated in the workhouse. But the able-bodied would not, however, be permitted to reside in the house. The new institutions were to be placed under the management of a Board of Guardians. His views eventually led to the passing of Gilbert’s Act 1782, which allowed parishes (some combined as Unions for the first time) to build independent workhouses for the housing of the most vulnerable only. The Act stipulated that those who were to be in the workhouse to be employed in doing ‘as much Work as they can’ inside the workhouse. The Act was non-compulsory legislation and it only required the majority of the parish ratepayers to agree to adopt the legislation, but in fact very few parishes did. Many records are missing but it is believed from varying estimates, including a return from the Select Committee on Poor Relief of 1844, that 68 Gilbert Unions (1,000 parishes) and only 3 Gilbert autonomous parish workhouses came into existence.
Shave (2008), offers a meticulously researched example of the founding and management of a Gilbert parish workhouse. The parish of Alverstoke, which contained the growing navel port of Gosport in Hampshire, adopted Gilbert’s Act in 1799. The parish rector, overseers, churchwardens and ratepayers decided that a property was required to find proper employment for the poor. A new workhouse with a purpose built factory within would produce revenue ‘the profits of which may lessen the expenses of their [paupers] maintenance and to change the situation of the present poor house to a more convenient one’. It was believed that a model Gilbert’s Act workhouse was necessary in order to have a new workhouse approved by local magistrates. It was purposely stated that in the provision of the aged poor they would be ‘’comfortably lodged’ in a detached hospital ward for their further care’. During a severe winter of 1808 the Board decided ‘that the old people were obliged to have fires in their rooms – which have caused greater expenditure of Coals than unusual’, [at the higher price]. Extra tea and sugar was to be allowed to the elderly and infirm if the medical officer of the workhouse felt in his opinion should be indulged medicinally. These ‘kindnesses’ were a stipulation of Gilbert with magistrates required to authorise new workhouses based on such provision and to review the annual accounts. The Act specified that the numbers of poor persons, distinguished by age and sex, how they have been employed, and most importantly, how much money has been earned by the labour of the poor should be recorded.
Due to various economic depressions, enclosures and mechanisation of farming practices, hundreds of thousands of families (perhaps millions) found they had no alternative but to offer themselves, including their children, as cheap labour in the growing new capitalist factories in the towns and cities, such as Bristol. Vagrancy was and still is illegal. In fact the Bristol City authorities had a very harsh way of dealing with such people down on their luck. John Gee wrote of Bristol in 1729, ‘As soon as any of them [vagrants] are espied in the City they are taken up and whipped.’ As late as August 1748 ‘It is agreed that a pair of stocks and whipping post be set up at Downend’.
Historically parishes around the country had before the 19th made some provision for the elderly infirm to be housed in small alms houses, also known as poor houses. This was paid for out of a rate levied not on income but on the area of land owned by farmers and the landed gentry. The rate was originally introduced under Elizabeth I’s Poor Law Act of 1601. Such a parochial system was unsustainable and led to poor relief rates becoming higher and higher during the 18th century causing continual calls for the system to be abolished. It can be argued that small farmers were distinctly disadvantaged by this system as they paid a large percentage of the rate. However, they found ways to reduce wages paid to their labourers through low wages being subsidised from parish relief, which the same land owners had contributed to.
Parish poor houses were described as appalling slums in most parishes and the earlier poor houses in Westbury were a good example. The socio-political poet George Crabbe described his own poor house in his parish of Aldborough. He wrote of; walls of mud, broken doors, putrid vapours, heartbroken matrons on their joyless beds, forsaken wives and mothers never wed, dejected widows and unheeded tears, the moping idiot and madman gay, the cold charities of man to man, whose laws indeed for ruined age provide. Documented evidence survives of Westbury poor house being in very bad repair. In 1796 a committee was set up to examine the state or repair. Richard Spencer, surveyor, presented the committee with his report in July 1796 stating ‘I am of the opinion that the whole of the buildings in question are so bad and defective as to render it essentially necessary to take down and rebuild the same’. The description is clearly stating that the present building on the site was only fit to be demolished. However, it was not until four years later in 1800 that the parish was to consider once again the dreadful condition of their two poor houses. A second surveyor, Mr Forester, stated that the buildings were in such a bad state of repair by 1800, that only a very elaborate rebuilding plan would in any way render them serviceable. He reported that nearly all the walls of the houses were out of the perpendicular, that much of the timbering was rotten, and that ‘The whole of the building to be taken down and a new building be erected’. This time it was considered that the parish might build a new larger poor house that would prove to be an economy as only the aged destitute would be given relief.
Another consideration for the parishioners was the rapid rise of poor rate costs as mentioned in the vestry minute book of 1801. ‘and relieving the Parish from part of the heavy burden to which they are now subject’. At the same time it was also noted in the surveyors’ report of 1800 that there was an ‘Increase of the Poor’. It had been argued at the time that where larger parish poor houses had already been erected some paupers came off parish out-relief due to the fear of being ordered into the workhouse, therefore keeping the poor rate down.
Also during this time there were many uprisings across the country which included discontent among local landless labourers. In the Bristol region usually due to low wages and a general lack of employment, there were violent riots. The Napoleonic Wars had caused much hardship with high grain prices and enclosures (capitalistic privatisation of previous common lands), were forcing the landless labourer off the land and families into the towns. Furthermore, prominent radicals were agitating in the countryside putting the ruling classes on high alert with the threat of working class uprisings in other parts of the countryside and most alarmingly in nearby parishes. The vestry Book for Westbury states during 1796 that:
‘Whereas inflammatory hand bills have been distributed in the parishes of Henbury and Westbury tending to make the labourers dissatisfied with the present prices of labour and persuading them to enter into a combination [union] not to work under such prices as mentioned in the said handbills, it was there unanimously proposed and resolved by the persons then present that the Parish of Henbury and Westbury do jointly united in prosecuting the distributors’.
Tellingly the Westbury Poor Order Book recorded on 24 April, 1807 ‘It appeared to this meeting that the Tything of Stoke Bishop having become extremely burthensome (sic) to the Overseers by reason of three fields in the said Tything adjoining the City of Bristol having been converted into several streets of houses amounting to near 160, it is this day agreed (under the approvation of the Magistrates) to divide the aforesaid Tything into two divisions’. A growing population in Bristol, due to urban expansion was causing great concern to the Parish, and the possible effects on the poor rate. By the adoption of Gilbert’s Act the parish would only be obliged to offer the house to the most in need, such as orphans and the elderly infirm , with the able-bodied unemployed being only handed the most rudimentary out-relief. The vestry members were sending a clear message to the landless poor that they were not welcomed in their parish if not in gainful employment. In January 1801, the vestry started making proposals to build a new workhouse in order to save money and control the provision of poor relief in their parish, thereby excluding interference from the long established neighbouring Bristol Corporation. It was recorded in the vestry minutes on 14 January, 1801 ‘That in erecting any new building for the use of the poor, the parish adopt the provisions of an Act commonly called Gilbert’s Act’. Further to this on 24 March, at a public meeting, ‘the Provisions, Rules, Orders and regulations and comply with all the requisitions prescribed in the said [Gilbert’s] Act’.
I would argue that the vestry were under very considerable pressure to build a new workhouse in part due to the present house being effectively condemned for a second time. Also, because they were experiencing a rise in the number of people applying for relief, and as a consequence pressure was mounting from landowners to curtail the rise in the poor rate. In a report presented to magistrates when applying for permission to open a new workhouse, mention is given to an ‘Increase of the Poor’, which is an indication that the numbers of paupers inhabiting the parish was rising steadily. Another aspect to be considered is that as the poor rate was rising rapidly at this time pressure was being asserted at both national and local government level to find innovative ways to reduce the cost of growing unemployment among agricultural workers. (Eventually this was to lead to the New Poor Law Act of 1834). Gilbert’s Act would give more power to the land owning farmers, who were the main source of work in parishes and with them being the payers of the poor rate. The Act gave ‘the principle of the right to vote according to the amount of property occupied’. Therefore, land owning farmers were able to exercise their control and take advantage of the poor relief system because they often paid low wages, with out-relief supplementing the income of their workers.
Thomas Gilbert campaigned for seventeen years for humanitarian reform of the Old Poor Law system of relief. However, Gilbert’s Act was in reality only a minor act and any ‘positive’ impact was minimal at best. The Act was repealed in 1871. Inmates of Gilbert workhouse’s may have been treated with more respect, given shelter, food and warmth with a uniform to wear, but at the same time inmates were compelled to undertake forced labour such as domestic work, crafts, oakham unpicking and gardening in order to make an anticipated profit, although in truth this ambition was never achieved. In addition, although during the early years the workhouse did maintain unusually low expenditure I would argue this is yet another example that conditions may not have been as declared. By 1820 Westbury workhouse was considered too expensive by the vestry and cuts were made, although it is not recorded which aid was withdrawn, but perhaps food and coal provision were the focus. Furthermore, Moss (1968), states that an entry in the records of 1822 states that the population of the parish had nearly doubled in the last thirty years.
Ryland-Epton offered the principle during her talk that the vestry members wanted to be seen as benefactors of the poor through kindly provision and needed to justify the expense of building a new workhouse to parish rate payers. However, it can also be argued that Westbury parish was adopting Gilbert’s Act to justify the building of a new workhouse to exclude the expanding power of the Bristol Corporation from acquiring control over the parish. Under Gilbert’s rules, in reality the reason behind building a new poor house was to lower the rising local poor rate, and to dissuade paupers and vagrants soliciting relief. It was these factors; measures to deter the poor from asking for poor relief from the parish in order to keep the rate down which was probably the more likely incentive to build a new poor house in Westbury rather than compassion for the poor and unemployed. Overall I felt that there was lack of evidence to support the argument that this was a newly improved workhouse practising progressive, kindly care for the landless poor. During this time Westbury-on-Trym was a parish feeling increasingly threatened by the expansion of Bristol and also experiencing an increasing rise of the needy poor during an age of huge economic growth for some and economic destitution for the many.
It can be presumed in reality that the motive behind the building of the new Gilbert Westbury workhouse was for the following reasons; i) the poor rate might be reduced because the receiving of mainly in-relief paupers would dissuade the able-bodied destitute from apply for relief, ii) that housing and feeding all the parish aged, crippled and orphaned poor under one purpose built building was more economical and easier to plan and budget for than operating out-relief, iii) the adoption of Gilbert’s Act might dissuade vagrants and the destitute tramping in from neighbouring parishes, iv) that a rise in petty crime and riot would decrease if the poor were kept in a workhouse. v) Pauper orphaned children to be apprenticed out as soon as possible to reduce the numbers of children living off the parish. vi) Gilbert’s Act gave more power to land owning farmers, being the major payers of the poor tax. Thus, land owning farmers, who were employing landless parishioners, were able to exercise their control and take advantage of the poor relief system.
This critique is an alternative perspective as to why Gilbert’s Act was adopted in Westbury-on-Trym and offers an additional interpretation on earlier workhouse administration. My view stems from my research into Bristol workhouses post 1834, which has led me to have a very despondent viewpoint regarding the Poor Law Acts through the ages. Louise Ryland-Epton gave a thought-provoking talk, which added an invaluable and original insight into the history of Westbury workhouse.
In 1838 the Poor Law Commissioners in accordance with the 1834 Act, took over the running of Westbury Workhouse. The owners and rate payers were compensated through the purchase of the land and building. It is recorded in Hansard that there was much suspicion on the administration of Gilbert’s workhouses. Poor-Law – Gilbert’s Act. HC Deb 22 February 1838 vol. 41 cc34-9:
Mr. T. Duncombe. There were about 150 townships thus incorporated, and the Poor-law Commissioners wished the House to give them additional powers to dissolve these unions, without the consent of the guardians. The reasons why they stated they wished for these powers were, that the guardians, in the administration not only of relief, but in their own conduct, had been extremely corrupt, and that the system itself was vicious. But they were not satisfied with attributing dishonest motives to the guardians, but they wished the House to believe, that these individuals were idiots and fools….. At the last meeting of the, board of the Oswestry incorporation, when the directors again refused to dissolve, a butcher of the town was in the chair, who was himself supplying the house with meat, and the resolution was carried with every magistrate in the room voting against it.
- Bristol Times and Mirror;. Sat. 15 Jan. 1831. p.3 [Back...]
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Alverstoke Minute Book, Annual Report of 1821. Hampshire Record Office PL2/1/1. Cited in Shave S. The Welfare of the vulnerable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Gilbert’s Act of 1782. History in Focus. Institute of Historical Research. Oct. 2008.
- Poor Order Book. Quoted in M.S. Moss. The Building of and the Subsequent Running of the Westbury-upon-Trym Workhouse, Near Bristol. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society. Feb. 1968. p.165. [Back...]
- Alverstoke Minute Book. 15 January 1819. Cited in Shave S.
- Alverstoke Minute Book. 15 January 1819. Cited in Shave S. [Back...]
- Joshua Gee. Trade and Navigation of Great Britain. Gale ECCO. 2010.
- P. Jones. Making Ends Meet (Poor Relief in 18th Century Mangotsfield). Downend Local History Society. 1998. p.15. [Back...]
- George Crabbe. Selected Poems. Lawson and Dunn, London 1946. https://archive.org/details/georgecrabbepoem030397mbp/page/n9 [Back...]
- Poor Order Book 13 July 1796.
-  Poor Order Book 13 July 1796, p156. [Back...]
- Poor Order Book 13 July 1796, p157. [Back...]
- Vestry Book, June 1796. [Back...]
- POB, 14 Jan. 1801. [Back...]