Lambeth Workhouse

The workhouse system provided basic sustenance for the very poor, infirm, and aged, often in return for some unpaid work. First established during the Elizabethan era, a Parish would elected overseers to provide relief for the sick, and work for the able-bodied poor, in the Parish workhouse. Parishes could provide either outdoor relief (usually in the form of food), or indoor relief in the (residential) workhouses. In 1662 the law was changed and enabled the overseers to expel any poor not born in the parish where they sought relief. Conditions varied but were generally harsh and punitive, for example on entering the workhouse an individual lost all voting rights and was subject to a regime of meager food and irksome work such as stone-breaking. Parishes often took out contracts with local businesses to run their workhouses and asylums. The Lambeth Workhouse was north of Lower Kennington Lane and east of Renfrew Road.

Around 1820 Mr Mott, a Lambeth Shopkeeper, decided that most paupers were pampered and later stated "Some rates were applied for which I thought exorbitant, which induced me to investigate the management of the parish; and in consequence of that investigation, the rates were greatly reduced." Mott decided that he could manage the parish poor "better...and at a cheaper rate" than the parish officers. About 1831 Mott secured the contract for "maintenance of the poor of Lambeth, at 3/11d per head - men, women and a few children, - able bodied, decrepid, impotent, all included."

There were on average 700 indoor paupers in Lambeth and it was said by the Lambeth Vestry that the contract system had saved them �3,000 a year. Mott had found the Lambeth workhouse scales half an ounce out when he took over: half an ounce in favour of the paupers; due to an accumulation of dirt on the scale that took the weights. So he had the scales scrubbed and adjusted "with nicety"; annually by a scale maker and daily by the people who used them. Mott was adamantly opposed to what he called: "The a constant increase of diet and accumulation of comforts from the interference and influence of humane but mistaken individuals." The example he gave was of a county magistrate who had distributed some small parcels of tea to several of the old inmates at Lambeth and had recommended an allowance for the "comforts" of tea and sugar to the elderly paupers. Mott remonstrated with the parish officers, but to no avail. Ever since they had "allowed ninety-five old inmates 6d each week in addition to their allowance of food" and this had cost the parish over �125 a year. "Humane individuals rarely calculate upon the tendency or aggregate effect of such alterations", Mott complained. The extension of this indulgence, however, was checked by the contract system. "But had the workhouse been under the old management, the probability is that the indulgence would have been extended to the greater proportion of the inmates". He considered that most paupers were pampered.

At one stage he became a 'Guardian of the Poor for the parish of Lambeth' as well as being a contractor to the same Guardians! Under his influence the Lambeth Parish sent their 'lunatics' to Mott's Peckham House Lunatic Asylum. This asylum also took in people from about 40 other parishes.

Residents of Mott's etablishments would have a meager diet, for example dinner, on alternate days, at Peckham was officially "meat, potatoes and bread" and "soup and bread" ("The soup is made from the liquer in which the meat for the whole establishment is boiled the previous day, together with all the bones, with the addition of barley, pease, and green vegetables"). The seventh day was "Irish stew and bread". The quantity of meat used was not stated. But there were numerous complaints of short measure, poor quality, fraud and false accounting. In October 1829 an official inspection found "the pea soup distributed to the paupers to be sour, of bad quality in other respects, nor do they conceive the bread which they saw given with it was in sufficient quantity". In 1830 the kitchen was "extremely dirty " wholly insufficient in size " the persons employed in it " slovenly and the utensils bad."

These findings did not stop Mott from becoming an Assistant Commissioner of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 and setting up yet more establishments. Mott's houses were seriously overcrowded, with poor equipment and facilities, the staff were poorly trained and managed, the death rates were high and there were complaints of physical abuse.

During the later part of the 1830s and early 1840s the Poor Law Commission attempted to abolish all out-door relief, sending the able-bodied as well as the sick to the workhouse. This was very unpopular and many deserving cases preferred to suffer at home rather than go into the workhouse. Consequently the total numbers claiming help dropped and Mott is reported to have said "The Poor Law Amendment Act may indeed be called an act of renovation, for it causes the lame to walk, the blind to see and the dumb to speak"

In the early 1840s another of Mott establishment (Haydock Lodge) was found to be:

  1. Grossly overcrowded
  2. afflicted with dysentery and diarrhoea
  3. lacking adequate supplies of water for baths
  4. lacking sufficient blankets
  5. serving poor food including liquid diets two days running
  6. taking in too many seriously ill patients
  7. physically ill treating patients
  8. have a very high death rate
  9. slow in acting on the recommendations of visiting inspectors
  10. maintaining inadequate accounts

Because of Motts position it appeared to many that the Poor Law Commissioners were, among other things, running an asylum and permitting the ill treatment of patients. This caused a major scandal and Mott was sacked in 1842.

From the 1870s the discipline was relaxed and orphans would be placed in smaller institutions or with foster parents. By the end of the 19th century workhouses had become more specialized serving the functions of hospitals and asylums.

The above text has been compiled from various web sites particularly Peter Higginbotham's Workhouse site and Andrew Roberts' England's Poor Law Commissioners and the Trade in Pauper Lunacy website.

Lambeth Renfrew Road administrative block and Master's offices, 2002. Image Source :Peter Higginbotham

Extract from The London Medical Gazette 1837-8
Editorial - Inquest on boy flogged at Lambeth Workhouse.

A remarkable Inquest was held at Norwood in Surrey on 26th January 1838, on the body of a boy named Henry Bailey.

The gist of the case may be comprised in a small compass. The boy, whose age is not stated, had been in Lambeth Workhouse, where he was flogged by a Mr Rowe, with such severity, that the body, when viewed by the jury, bore evident marks of blows, the back, thighs, legs and arms, being nearly covered with black marks, there was also a bruise on the forehead. Bailey had been removed to the House of Industry at Norwood, for the infant poor of the Parish of Lambeth, on the 13th January 1838, and died there on the 19th January 1838. Now as it appeared that on the post-mortem examination there was a disease of the lungs, it would be difficult to say that the punishment had absolutely caused the death of the child, but must have accelerated it.

This fact did not escape Mr W Street, a surgeon of Norwood, who gave evidence. He was not conclusive on the situation of the death conceding that it was a "very nice legal point" Surely this is sad stuff. The severe whipping which would cause "much constitutional disturbance" in a child labouring under disease of the lungs, must inevitably hasten death.

The perpetrator of the deed was beyond all human censure, having died on the very morning of Bailey's removal to the house at Norwood. The question should also be considered whether the inflictors knew that the child was seriously ill when they so misused it ?

If they did, it is clear that they were guilty of manslaughter, not to say of a graver crime. If they did not, under what kind of inspection, medical or other, are the children in the Lambeth Workhouse ?

The deceased, with his father and brothers, being homeless, had been received into Lambeth Workhouse, but were turned out again to shift as they could, and slept several nights in a stable. This had occurred in the very cold January of 1838. The verdict finally given was that the deceased died of disease of the lungs.

This, inquiry, if it can be called one, was badly managed in many particulars. A juror wished to examine the father and brother, who. however, were not called.

In such a case as this it was imperatively required that the professional witnesses should not only be free from all local partiality or bias, but from all suspicion of it; and therefore the services of some distinguished London surgeon should have been procured. Mr Watmore, indeed, the Clerk to the Lambeth Board of Guardians, stated not only that this inquiry was instituted at their particular desire, but that they had directed a post-mortem examination by two most eminent surgeons. Neither their names nor their opinion, however, are to be found in the report.

Source: The London Medical Gazette 1837-8 Vol 21 1053 pp p 741 3rd February 1838

A Night in a London Workhouse

All you that dwell in Lambeth, listen for awhile, To a song to enlighten and amuse you,In the workhouse only mark, there's queer doings after dark. And believe me it is true I now tell you; It's of the ups and downs, of a pauper's life, Which are none of the best you may he sure sir. trange scenes they do enact, believe me, it's a fact, n Lambeth workhouse among the casual poor, sir. Oh my, what a rummy go, oh crikey, what a strange revelation, Has occurred in Lambeth workhouse a little while ago, and through the parish is causing great sensation.

Now a gent, with good intent, to Lambeth workhouse went, The mystery of the place to explore, sir, Says he, without a doubt, I shall then find out, What treatment they give the houseless poor, sir. So he went through his degrees, like a blessed brick,Thro' scenes he had never seen before, sir, So good luck to him, I say, for ever and a day, For bestowing a thought upon the poor, sir.

Says he, when you go in, in a bath you are popt in, To flounder about just like fishes, In water that looks like dirty mutton broth, Or the washings of the plates and the dishes; Then your togs are tied up tight, to make sure all is right, Like parcels put up for a sale, sir, A ticket then you get, as if you are for a trip, And a-going a journey by the rail, sir.

Then before you go to bed, you get a toke of bread, Which, if hungry, goes a small way to fill you, And if not too late at night, you may chance to be all right, To wash it down with a draught of skilley; Some they will shout out, Daddy, mind what you are about, And tip me a comfortable rug now, And be sure you see it's whole, for I'm most jolly cold, And mind you don't give us any bugs now,

Then you pig on a dirty floor, if you can, you'll have a snore, And pass away time till the morning. Then you're muster'd up pell mell, at the crank to take a spell, Just to give your cramp'd up body a good warming. Thou see them all in rows in their torn and ragged clothes, Their gruel and their bread they swallow greedy, Then through London streets they roam, with neither friends or home, It's the fate of the suffering and the needy.

Now a word I've got to say, to all you who poor rates pay, Tho', of course, offence to none is intended Before you your poor rates pay, just well look to the way, And inquire how your money is expended; Do as you'd be done to, that is the time of day, And with me you'll agree, I am sure now, As you high taxes pay, it is but fair I say, To look a little to the comforts of the poor now.

A Night's Repose in Lambeth Workhouse

Come listen to me one and all,
Little, big, short, and tall,
While I tell you such a ball
About the swell in the workhouse.

Some gent to Lambeth did repair,
Such funny thugs he did see there,
Enough to make a person swear,
The secrets of the workhouse.

He applied for a night in the casual ward,
He did not go before the board,
Old Daddy treated him like a lord,
Now then for a night in the workhouse.

This swell to see the truth was led,
Left his mansion and good feather bed,
In the casual ward on stones lay his head,
For the good of the poor in the workhouse.

Disguised he in a carriage went,
Hoping he would not repent,
The door was open, in he went,
Booked for a night in the workhouse

"It's late." says Daddy. "Come in, old cock,
Pull off yer togs, for I can't stop,
Get into the bath, then put on this frock,"
He did not like the workhouse.

The bath was covered with fat and slime,
Like the soup in Bethnal Green,
What followed it will soon be seen,
Such funny things in the workhouse.

In his shirt across the yard was led,
With a nice blue bird's-eye round his head,
Then Daddy showed him his beautiful bed
In the casual ward in the workhouse.

Somebody in a moment spoke,
It was Daddy with a lump of toke
As black as your hat and as hard as coke,
Such beautiful fare at the workhouse.

Some gentlemen sung, and others swore,
All pigged together about a score,
And then in came a dozen more,
To fight for beds in the workhouse.

Guve us that bird's-eye one did say,
They did not ask twice but took it away,
For the morning he began to pray,
Such a long night in the workhouse.

A Mr Punch at length spoke,
With "I say my stunning mild old bloke,
Give a poor old cove a bit of yer toke -
My fellow lodger in the workhouse".

Says Kay, "In the morning if I've got luck,
I know where there's a blinding silver cup,
It will fetch ten quid - I am up to snuff"
That is what's learnt in the workhouse.

"I will have it" says Kay, the little wretch,
"I don't care a dam if I get ten stretch,
I know what the thing will fetch.
We'll have a Swearing Club in the workhouse."

Swearing, smoking, at it they went,
On flash talk were fully bent,
About toke and skilly round it went,
Such beautiful boys in the workhouse.

Such scratching and itching with these young files
The wind a-coming through the tiles,
When I thought of my treat I was forced to spend,
In an old checked shirt in the workhouse.

The morning came, I was forlorn,
Some as naked as ever born,
Some with beards that never was shorn,
Such a lot of flesh bags in the workhouse.

Put on your togs, and don't be silly,
Here's Daddy a-coming round with skilly,
Here, you can have mine, it will help fill you,
You're the best old chap in the workhouse.

Then for the skilly that smelt quite rank,
For three hours I had to crank,
While all the rest filled up the tank
For the good of the poor of the workhouse.