Oral History

A man who now lives in Hinckley who was born in a Workhouse in Christchurch in 1927

Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood

Interviewed: Name withheld on request until his death

Date of Interview: 17th October 1985

Workhouses between 1939 - 1943. I was actually born in a place called Christchurch in Dorset. From there I went to a children's home which was only just across the road. Now at the age of twelve in 1939 I was sent to a workhouse; all boys at the age of twelve to sixteen were sent to workhouses all over the country. My first one was at a place called Alresford near Winchester.

Now I understand that people are interested in what went on in those kind of places years ago. They were not very pleasant places to be in I for instance you had trouble with the men who were there. Our job was to clean up after them; they used to have very bad habits - spit on carpets which were made of matting. We would have to scrub them every day and hang them out' to dry, or dry them in the boiler house so they could go down quickly. We used to clean all the rooms that they used, the dining room and what they called the rest room. It had a very large table down the centre of it, chairs round the side of it and all-round the room was armchairs for the old people to sit in. Now this was the male side, we did not see much of the women's side of it as they were in what was called the Hospital Wing'. It was joined on to the actual hospital, where most mothers of poor families went in and had their children. I had six other brothers, as well as myself, we were all in the same home, children's homes. Now in the workhouses there were long, long corridors, the same as a big hospital. The walls were always yellow and they got very dirty.

Our job was with what was called Black Soap, which was like a cream soap in a big tin, and you were given a cloth and a bucket of hot water. You would have to clean all these walls from one end of the building to the other. The dining room had to be scrubbed, which was wooden white floor boards. Six boys in a row would kneel down on kneeling pads and scrub the floor, and if you did not overlap your opponent's patch it used to leave a black mark on the floor. As punishment you were given a toothbrush to scrub the floor boards for two to three hours. Your fingers were literally cramped and you were crying in pain.

That was not the only thing that was wrong in these workhouses. They had what was called a "tramps entrance", and at night a tramp would arrive who had walked from the previous town. He would have to be bathed by one of us boys, deliced with Derbac soap and a Derbac comb, which was a steel, very thin-toothed comb. Once his hair was dry, you had to make sure there were no bugs in his hair or on his scalp. If there were, you would have to scrape them out with your finger-nail and get rid of them in the water; it was a very unpleasant job. A lot of them were very rude to us and we had indecent assaults made upon us many times. Now, I had palled up with another boy my own age, and we'd had enough of this kind of treatment so we ran away. This went on from one workhouse to another because each time we got that kind of treatment. I was a very small boy at that age, very thin and you would have actually taken me, I would imagine, for a boy of roughly about seven years of age. But the things that went on in the workhouse, the porters and the people that actually ran them knew what was going on but nothing was ever done about it. It was a waste of time reporting anything to anybody. If you said you were going to report it to anybody, you could, of course, end up with a nice broken arm or similar because the men used to ill-treat us very badly.

Now what puzzled us then, in those days, was the payment for doing the work that we had to do. We were given ounce of sweets and a packet of ten Woodbines (cigarettes) and a box of matches per week - this was for boys from twelve to sixteen. This was the allowance for all men and male patients, and you were classed as a male and you got this allowance whether you smoked or not. I did not smoke so I used to swop some of my cigarettes for somebody else's sweets ration. That would last me nearly all the week until the next time we got our cigarette allowance and sweet allowance, which was usually paid out on a Friday morning.

The kind of treatment that went on in those places, I'm afraid you wouldn't believe, but it did, and there was nothing us poor boys could do about it. In the end I had actually ran away from twenty-four workhouses during the course of those four years. The last one I landed up in was at Andover, there the same kind of treatment was dished out, the same abuse was made on our bodies by the patients or the male population of the workhouse. This kind of thing never happened in the children's homes, there were twenty-four of us in the boys' homes.

As I said, the last workhouse I landed up at was Andover and there I palled up with another lad. It was said we were a pair of nuisances, either one or the other was the ring-leader of the trouble that was being caused at these workhouses, but that wasn't true - we were not old enough to cause a lot of trouble. They had a rather nasty stick with a wire right the way through it, so that you could actually bend this stick and touch end to end. When they let it go it swished making a very nasty noise, and if you felt that on your backside you would soon know that you didn't want any more. So you kept out of trouble as much as possible. I only had it on two occasions the whole time.

We first ran away from Andover and we walked all the way to Brighton, hoping we could get a job in a local hotel as page-boys or something of that sort. Entering the town we were stopped by a policeman on a bicycle, he was a sergeant, and he asked us where we were going at that time of the morning. Though we did not know the time it was roughly about five o'clock and we naturally said we were going to work. You had identity cards in those days and he asked to see ours and of course we didn't have one because they kept them at the home. You would only get that after you reached the age of sixteen when they could no longer keep you, and you would then be allowed free. They did not bother to find you a job or anything like that, they just opened the gates and issued you with a suit, which was of course a workhouse suit and everybody knew where you came from, because you had it on. We never got to that stage.

What did happened to me was that we got taken that morning to the police station and they found out that we had ran away, so they rang Andover and the next day they came and fetched us back. We were immediately put to bed, my clothes folded up neatly on the bed which we used to have to do. We also used to have to make thirty-six beds per boy before breakfast. If they didn't have hospital' corners on them when they were finished and made up ready for a patient to get in, the whole lot, not one, would be stripped off and you did them again. Now if you hadn't finished by the time the breakfast bell went, you never had any breakfast. This was their form of punishment. Most ways they punished you was by sending you to bed early; we had to sleep in dormitories with the older men. The same kind of thing used to happen in the fields as in the workhouse and most boys did run away from such places during the war.

I suppose I was fortunate in one respect, when I ran away from Andover and was brought back, the head man in charge who walked with a walking stick, came to talk to me after I was in bed, but instead of talking except to say: "oh, you don't like it here? Well, perhaps this will make you like it a bit better", he started to hit me with his walking stick. I could not stand any more of the pain on my back and if I'd turned over I would have had it on my stomach or chest. In the end I made an effort, while his arm was up in the air, to turn over, bring my knees to my chest and kick out, kicking him over the other side of the bed which was next to me. I then jumped out of bed, grabbed my clothes and shoes and ran into the toilet, got dressed, climbed out of the window down the drain pipe and ran away again This time, of course, I was on my own as my other friend slept in a different dormitory. I do not know from this day whether he got the same treatment as I did, but I was actually stopped by the same policeman that had stopped me three days previously and when he saw me he said, Just come along with me', and of course I went quietly.

I was very quiet and when we got to the police station he wanted to know why I had run away again. I merely pointed to my back. They helped me off with my jacket and shirt, lifted my vest up and dropped my trousers so that they could see the marks upon my body, then they knew why I had run away. They contacted the workhouse who stated that they did not want me back as I was nothing but a nuisance. Well, of course, people in those kind of places had quite a lot of authority and they were always believed before anybody else so it did not matter really what you said. You were telling a pack of lies, they were telling the truth! I was commonly known as a trouble maker and that was it. The police told them that they could not keep me unless there was a charge so they said they would ring back, and after about two hours they rang and said they were charging me with stealing clothes that I was wearing, as they were workhouse property. There was nothing I could do. I was left completely on my own, I was put in a cell but the cell door was never locked. The policemen were very kind to me, which was the first kindness I had known since leaving the children's home.

I had to go to what was called a Juvenile court. There were three people sitting in a row at a table and I had to sit or stand if they spoke to me. The people from the workhouse had come down to give me a bad report, they said I was violent and everything else. After talking between themselves, it was decided there was no other choice but to send me to Winchester Prison for a week until they could work out what to do with me. I was fortunate actually the day I went there because as I went in there was a gentleman signing out and he turned round and looked me up and down, then asked the constable that was with me if he could see the sheets. The constable must have known who he was because he handed him the sheets of paper - my file as I call it now. He read it through and said he would come back at approximately seven o'clock that evening to see me, in the meanwhile I was not to be put in a prison cell but sent to the Hospital Wing and the door was not to be locked. That is what happened, and at seven o'clock he came back and we had a long discussion. I told him what had happened right from the day I left the children's home and how many workhouses I'd run away from. You never went to school again, by the way, once you went into a workhouse. You were there to work and you worked very, very long hours from morning till night, with very little sitting down or pleasures. There were no games like bar cards or dominoes, but seeing as I could not read very well or write, figures and such things did not mean a lot to me. I could not have played those kind of games, nor could most of the boys because they could not read or write. They even managed to send one boy to a mental colony which I believe was in Fareham, and to this day I expect that lad is still there if nobody has bothered to let him out. Because he could not read or write he was classed as mentally deficient - we used to call it M.D. in those days.

Now going back to as far as this man was concerned, I found out that he was a psychologist. He said I would be out by the morning and I was very happy to hear this news, he said the door would have to be locked at night time for my own safety, but I had very bad nightmares because the door was shut. I did not sleep very much that night, but just walked round and round the bed. He did come as promised the next morning with a car and I was taken to Winchester Remand Home for Boys. The court, who must have been notified what had taken place, gave a week's extension, so.

I had nearly a fortnight at this remand centre. I was put in the kitchen which I liked very much because I was always interested in that sort of thing, when I went to Court again; I was given a very good report from the remand home, that I was a well-behaved boy, well-mannered and so forth. Then this doctor gave his report and made the court a suggestion that I would be sent to what was called in those days an Approved School. Now an Approved School in those days was not like Approved schools of today, it was where unwanted children of a certain age, or children who had been thieving, went to. You were taught to read and write and other things. You have to remember the war was still on and I was sixteen. I was sentenced to stay there until I became eighteen when they would find me a suitable job anywhere I wished to live. That, I was hoping, would be my last day underneath the care of what I called 'The Local Authority'.

Note: This article is an edited transcript of a tape recorded for D.J. Wood (Name has been withheld on request until after his death.

Officially the workhouse and Boards of Guardians had been established by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The 1929 Local Government Act abolished the Boards of Guardians and most of their functions were transferred to county councils. A 1930 Poor Law Act ruled that only aged and infirm could apply for workhouse care. Clearly the practices of the workhouse did continue in many respects after this date. It was not until the Beveridge Report of 1942 and post-war reforms based upon it that the 'shadow of the workhouse' was finally removed.