History Society Report

The Swansea Workhouses

This month’s speaker was Mr Bernard Lewis of Cimla, a noted local historian and author. His topic was to follow a day in the life in the Swansea Workhouse in the nineteenth century.  He began by noting that our perception of workhouses was the portrayal handed down by Charles Dickens in novels such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, yet this only gave half the story. The grind of the Dickensian novels belong more to the Poor Law which had been in force since the days of Elizabeth the First. Under the Poor Law each parish was entrusted to look after its poor, providing Poor Houses and alms to the poor and impoverished including medical care and burial. The level of care depended largely on the wealth of the particular parish and varied immensely .However, the revised New Poor law of 1834, the brainchild of Edward Chadwick gave the system a better organization and structure.

Firstly, under the Act, local parishes were combined to form Unions or Workhouse Trusts. Each Trust or Union would have a Clerk and Commissioner who acted as paid professional officials. The idea behind the Workhouse was one of deterrence and therefore they were far from pleasant places, with sometimes whole families forced to enter the institution. The original workhouse in Swansea was situated next to the Castle, but after the formation of the Swansea Workhouse Union it moved to the Bathing House, and re-titled a “House of Industry”. The residents were kept busy doing mind numbingly boring and repetitive tasks such as “picking oakem”, which entailed untangling hemp ropes. The residents also slept in wards; similar to what you would expect in a hospital .The next workhouse in Swansea was opened in 1863 at a cost of £16,000 in what is now known as Mount Pleasant.  It remained a workhouse as late as 1949, when it changed roles to become Mount Pleasant Hospital.

Workhouses were regularly inspected and the description of the residents was graphically unkind. They were described as “lunatics” and “the dregs of society. Notice was also drawn to the fact that there was little opportunity for exercise and the water supply for 200 hundred completely inadequate and insanitary. Lighting was exclusively by candlelight, sexes were separated and the toilets very rudimentary. In order to make life even harder in the workhouse, during the 1860s when the numbers in the Swansea workhouse increased to 235, the authorities responded by pushing the beds closer together! If there was no room in the workhouse for “in-relief”, younger people would receive “out relief”, in form of a dole or chit which they would be able to exchange in local shops for food.

Entrance to the workhouse was entirely voluntary, so long as the Master of Guardians agreed to your application. Others were directed to the workhouse if they had fallen on hard times or were destitute. Sometimes, Unions would exchange residents. Mr Lewis gave examples of Swansea residents being returned from Bristol, a process known as “removal”. The workhouse would provide medical care and treatment, though as was stated earlier the emphasis was that this was far from being the easy option.

One aspect of the administration of the records was that meticulous records were kept as to how long the residents had been in the workhouse. Routine was similar to a prison with the one important proviso that you could leave whenever you liked. The master and the matron were often colourful characters with former soldiers often fulfilling the role. Several of these key figures were dismissed by the Board of Guardians owing to misdemeanours including drunkenness and sexual dalliance. In addition, a positive aspect of the regime was that the “pauper” children were educated by the workhouse and remarkably for the period corporal punishment was not encouraged.  In addition, sometimes the workhouse would pay for the children to be educated in local schools.

Mr Lewis then gave an outline of the typical day in the workhouse which began with prayers at 6:00 am, followed by breakfast at 7:00. Work periods ensued until midday when dinner was served.  At six o’clock work finished for the day, and this was followed by a supper of bread and cheese. The diet was also regulated with a variety of set meals supplemented with gruel. It should be noted that the residents made no financial contribution and indeed they benefitted from the doctors’ fees which were sometimes rather hefty and were also buried in paupers graves, should the need arise. However, any bad behaviour by the residents was punished rather harshly.

Mr Lewis finished his talk by alluding to the contribution of Edward Chadwick to the public life of the UK during the nineteenth century. Indeed, despite being rather unpopular with his fellow politicians, who deliberately pensioned him off at one stage, his contribution to the society in which we now live is obvious. He was instrumental in the introduction of Death Registration (1836), the County Police Act (1838), the Public Health Act and also the Civil Service Examinations of 1971.

Following a question and answer session, Trefor Jones thanked Mr Lewis for a most interesting lecture and noted that our present social security system certainly owes something to the philosophy of the Workhouse.


Trefor Jones