FOR over 250 years there were workhouses in this country.
For almost a century, from 1834 to 1930, the only officially sanctioned method of dealing with the poor in this country was by putting them in workhouses.
At that time these institutions were designed to cause misery and to deter. Conditions were deliberately made worse inside than outside, with uncomfortable uniforms, dull to tedious food and unending tasks.
Today there are just three workhouse museums in England. The only one in Yorkshire is at Ripon, where a variation on a nursery rhyme puts it all into perspective:
"Hush-a-bye baby, on a tree top.
When you grow old, your wages will stop.
When you have spent the little you made.
First to the poorhouse and then to the grave."
A grim reflection on the fact that most of those who entered knew they would leave only in the regulation coffin "with two handles, name of the person with the year of their decease inscribed". And the coffins were ordered in bulk.
Simon Fowler, editor of the National Archives' family history magazine Ancestors, has just brought out the definitive book, Workhouse, which deals with this emotive subject.
He says the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 aimed to deal with a rise in the numbers of the poor but cutting the poor rates at a stroke.
Simon says the deterrent effect worked so well that within a decade very few able-bodied poor entered the workhouse but the elderly, infirm and children did - just the sort of people who should not have been there.
He says the act was aimed at dealing with numbers of able-bodied idlers and shirkers, who hardly existed outside the imagination of the political economists.
There were 650 Poor Law Unions throughout the country and they varied considerably. Richmond in Surrey or Belford in Northumberland were good places to be poor, Brixworth in Northamptonshire and London's East End places to avoid.
Conditions could be very bad indeed. In 1845 at Andover in Hampshire starving paupers were found to be eating rotten marrow from bones they were meant to be crushing.
Huddersfield gets its share of mention in the book.
In one instance, Simon says that "despite appalling conditions" in Huddersfield's town workhouse - one of five maintained by the local Poor Law Union, Huddersfield had to wait until 1862 for new premises at Deanhouse. Four years later Inspector R B Crane regretted that "so ill-arranged and incomplete a building was ever erected". A later inspector said it had been built on the coldest and draughtiest spot in the Pennines.
Scarcely happier was the visitor to Huddersfield workhouse who reported two lid-less "coppers" only about 3in apart, one boiling clothes, the other containing soup.
Says the visitor: "When the soup boiled over into the clothes I raised no objection, but when the clothes boiled over into the soup, I said I would not stay to dinner."
In 1848 the Leeds Mercury newspaper condemned the town-centre workhouse as being "wholly unfitted for a residence for the many scores that are continually crowded into it, unless it be that desire to engender endemic and fatal disease.
"And this Huddersfield workhouse is by far the best in the whole union."
Nine years later a committee appointed by the guardians lamented a lack of classification in the workhouse hospital wards which mixed "abandoned women" with diseases "of a most loathsome character" with idiots, young children and expectant mothers.
Another problem was getting rid of unsatisfactory workhouse officials. In 1848 Joseph Hesslegrave, medical officer for Marsden, was dismissed by the Poor Law Board for failing to attend two paupers, one of whom died.
But Hesslegrave successfully reapplied for his post - backed by references from prominent ratepayers!
The beginnings of the welfare state, such as the introduction of old-age pensions in 1909 helped to ease out the need for the old Poor Law.
The Poor Law itself was abolished in 1929 and Poor Law unions the following year.
* Workhouse. Simon Fowler/National Archives. £18.99