Ripon Workhouse

“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.




Funky Living

They say Yorkshire isn’t just a place. Like New York, it is an attitude of mind. Anyone can achieve it. As Jimmy Cliff once musically said: ‘You can get it if you really want. But you must try’. It’s not a unique thought. The Yorkshire outlook has been around since the invention of money.

Yes, happiness is getting what you want and people pursue it with as much vigour as a dog worries a sock. But the key is not wanting too much. Above all, be careful what you wish for; it might be a bit rubbish. Get this thought into your mind and you have already found your Shangri-La.

That rather blinkered view notwithstanding, my favourite place to live in all the world would be Harrogate. For me, it is the perfect town. I know it well, because I boast to all that will listen, that I used to live there. And you can’t beat that!

It is not only said to be the happiest place to live and a fine place to visit, it is too, one of the most expensive. The flat where I use to live – just off the main Stray in Lancaster Road – at around £5 a week (admittedly over 50 years ago) has just been sold for an eye-watering £300,000. Have people taken leave of their senses? But lets move on.

These days, lofts in Harrogate have found their proper function as the perfect living space for top executives and professional money-types to spend what little leisure time they have, when not driving themselves into an early grave, feeling superior and self-regarding.

Other kinds of real estate in this perfect Yorkshire spar town is simply too expensive – even for them. Welcome to what the glossy property brochures in Feather, Smailes & Scales calls: “Funky Living” (for tossers). My words in parenthesis, not theirs.

This is not the quite the same idea as living in the loft with fibreglass lagging, a redundant Christmas tree, and broken old train set; my own fortress of solitude in the loft; or like those bohemian Parisian gaffs of yester-year, where avant-garde artists of the 1920’s lived in virtual squalor. Oh no. These lofts are described as ‘the ultimate in cool contemporary living.’ It’s a snappy phrase that should really catch on. There were no such marvels as ‘a cinema kitchen’ (whatever that may be) in the 1920’s, or a ‘shower pod’, either. Whatever did they do without them?

They are clever these Estate Agents with their sleight-of-mouth huckster charm and snake oil. Luckily for them, the people with the kind of money who buy their wares are not. As the brochure explains to those to whom it needs explaining, you are not so much buying a loft as an ‘attitude’ – something to set you apart from the dull conformity of conventional living with its disciplined order and different rooms for specific purposes. Why cook in a kitchen when you can do the same thing in your living room? It’s much more romantic, and redolent of the bohemian decadence of Paris.

It’s not quite as funky as a loft, but garden flats too are being snapped up as the last word – or the second word, lofts being the first – in funky living.

While talking to a lady a few months ago outside the Oxfam shop in fashionable Montpelier, where I like to park myself while my wife hits the charity shops, she explained to me that when the yuppies moved to Harrogate in their droves driving the house prices up, the developers followed in their wake like Yankee carpetbaggers.

These days, far from being a cheap alternative to buying a semi, loft living has become de rigueur and more expensive to buy per square foot than what I would consider regular living.

And that’s not the half of it. What with everybody wanting a funky life style, there is hardly an unoccupied loft or garden flat to be had in Harrogate. Folks are so desperate to ape each other, they have taken to doing up abandoned former cotton mill factories that have gone out of production because of cheap Asian imports, and had been converted into fancy art galleries, on the incorrect assumption that they will never be used for their original purpose again. I’ll take that bet.

The knock-on effect of that, is that the supplanted art galleries, have had to move their crap out of the former factories and display it in the trendy Harrogate pubs and wine bars, driving the rich but thick, non-cognoscenti drinkers, who don’t know a Rembrandt from Picasso, to drink in their own homes, be they lofts, garden flats, or ex-factories.

A backlash seems inevitable. The pub landlords will strike back and buy up the remaining housing stock to convert into as pubs to lure the punters back. This in turn, will exacerbate the housing shortage and drive the house prices up even further and out of reach of everybody but the super rich and the banks will foreclose on the factory dwellers, who can no longer pay their mortgage.

Meanwhile, the South-East Asian economy, that has been having it too good for too long and making a mint by using cheap labour and poor wages, will find that the people will get sick of being treated like . . . well, like Asians, and will demand more money and better working conditions like the whites.

Their economy will take a dive because the people in the UK will not be able to buy their goods, but will have instead, re-open the factories as cotton mill sweat shops as in the days of the Industrial Revolution, employed the people who use to live in them but have been evicted by the banks, and beat the Asians at their own game.

Britain will occupy India again, which idea will be frowned upon at first, as it goes against our world renowned sense of decency and fair play, but will later be seen as a good thing, because most people will be Asian here anyway and it will bring down the price of curry which will be no bad thing.

Maybe by then, I will be able to afford to live in Harrogate once again.