Remembering the Workhouse

I’ve lived all my life in South Leeds. During school holidays I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, as both of my parents worked. My grandfather and I went for walks on most fine days.

Ripon Workhouse
Ripon Workhouse Museum. Photo: Martyn White

One of the places that we sometimes used to pass was the site of the old workhouse at the bottom of Beeston Hill at Lane End Place. My Grandfather hated the place. He was born in the 1890’s and as a child knew someone who had finished up there.

The Workhouse was set up as a place for the very poor, homeless and out of work. It was feared by many. People lived and worked there, not as families, but were split up. On entry people were stripped, bathed and issued with a workhouse uniform. There was often a feeling of doom. Work was the operative word. The government, terrified of encouraging “idlers” (lazy people), made sure that people feared the workhouse and would do anything to keep out of it. Though it was better than living rough.

Women did “housework” such as laundry, sewing etc. Men did hard work such as breaking rocks. Oakum picking kept people busy, but was hard on the fingers and hands. Children could find themselves “hired out” (sold) to work in mines and factories. Dr. Thomas Barnardo felt that workhouses were the wrong places for children and from 1867 onwards led the way in setting up proper children’s homes.

The workhouse system slowly died out, many of them were put to other uses, the one at Lane End Place was still in use as “social housing” for many years. Some of the buildings still exist. The Medical Museum at St. James’s Hospital used to be a workhouse.

If you want to see what a workhouse was like, then Ripon Workhouse Museum is worth a look.

Hush-a-by 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

Would it work these days or would there be too much of an outcry from the “do gooders”? Not as rigid and harsh as the workhouses featured in the Charles Dickens book Oliver Twist, but a more humane, gentler system.


This post was written by Martyn White using our Create an article for South Leeds Life page.

2 Replies to “Remembering the Workhouse”

  1. When I first came to work as a teacher in Leeds I taught at the old St Luke’s Primary school in the Infants departments &amp my old ‘blue’ register became so full of names because of children coming and going from South Lodge, as the women’s section of the workhouse was called then. The children were very poor and often turned up without shoes, but we kept a supply of old ‘black pumps’ to give them. Beeston St Luke’s Primary is now on the site of here.

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