“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.”
The rhyme is a précis of the fate of many who entered the Gatehouse arch of the Ripon Union Workhouse, which has stood on the site since 1776.
Inside, is almost a self-sufficient world of its own, with garden, laundry, chaplain, doctor, teacher, infirmary, cookhouse, and “Death House” which contained the coffins that for many, was their only way out of a life of degrading and grinding poverty.
It was interesting to note, that it was not only labourers who entered its gates. There were numbered among its inmates, a former master wheelwright, a former gentleman servant, farmers, a master shoe-maker, and many more who had either migrated en masse from rural areas or from Ireland to escape the Irish Potato Famine to the towns, or simply found themselves in old age, or having been widowed, in a similar predicament to abandoned children, vagrants, tramps, prostitutes, and sundry undesirables that society would see out of sight.
The museum is the former Male Vagrants building with a Receiving Ward with 14 cells where the unfortunate down and outs were locked in for the night.
Vagrants were many, and were housed in a separate block of buildings where they were given temporary lodgings for the night and a meal in return for the completion of a designated task. It had nothing in common with the youth hostels of today.
Vagrants were kept on the move – hence tramps – and the Unions collaborated to fix routes along which they traveled, which helped keep track of them for sanitary reasons.
They were given tokens, which they exchanged for food at bread stations along the vagrant routes. Sometimes, these stopping-off places were police stations, but more often they were shops, trusted by the authorities to exchange tokens for bread and not alcohol. The shops recovered their money by returning the tokens to the workhouse.
The workhouse kept a restraining chair in a room to control those who became violent or deranged, and its own van to transport lunatics to asylums elsewhere if they were deemed out of control and a threat to public order.
The workhouse system was the answer to the classic doctrine subscribed to by the social reformer and political moralist Jeremy Bentham: that people would do what was pleasant, and would tend to claim relief rather than working.
This, together with Bentham’s principal that the success of any idea could be measured by whether it secured the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, was what underpinned the drive to discourage people to claim relief, by making the workhouses act as a deterrent by making them as unpleasant as possible.
There are some who feel that Bentham’s doctrine of utilitarianism is alive and well today. It was Bentham’s theory that reformed the country’s poverty and relief system to become The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, with its infamous provision of “less eligibility” – that the situation of able-bodied paupers (read those in receipt of benefits) was to be inferior to that of the poorest worker.
The new Poor Law created controversy then as does the austerity measures does today. The greatest hostility was in the north of England, who said: “We will not live on water and gruel . . . and we will not endure the idea of men rolling in luxury, prescribing to us the most extreme line which can keep body and soul together.”
The importance of the Poor Law declined with the advent of the Welfare State in the 20th century, and the installation of the National Assistance Board acted as a relief agency.
We can see in the implementation of austerity measures, similar solutions applied to the same problem. The benefit system of these modern times is seen as self-defeating, removing the pressure of want from the poorest in society while leaving them free to live a life of leisure and increase their families with help from the State, thus leading to an unsustainable drain on resources and undermining the living standards of those in work.
Ripon holds a special significance for me, but this my first visit to the Workhouse. It is altogether, a harsh insight into the reality into what real poverty was like and what it meant to be poor in Victorian England.