Monday, 2 April 2012

Chorlton's workhouse ...... part 1

The Stretford Road workhouse was in the heart of Hulme just over three miles away. For any of our people from the township this must have seemed a forbidding place. On all sides and stretching out in all directions the area was a collection of closed packed terraced houses punctuated by timber yards and cotton mills.

All of which was a long way from the fields and woodland of the township. Here the prevailing sound would be that of the many machines engaged in ceaseless noisy activity and the ever present pall of smoke from countless domestic chimneys and boiler houses.

The isolation from all that was familiar was reinforced by the harshness of the immediate surroundings. The workhouse was not meant to be a comfortable resort. For both sick and healthy inmates the regime inside the institution was bleak and austere. The segregation of the sexes extended from the young to the old and from the sick to those judged to be lunatics. In all there were twelve exercise yards for the 300 inmates each dedicated to a particular group where behind tall walls no man or boy could gaze on the opposite sex. This was not a new policy and was followed by the Manchester workhouse before the new poor law.

The policy of segregation was particularly hard on elderly married couples who may have spent their entire adult life together but were now forced apart. Of the 17 couples in the work house in the summer of 1841 most were in their sixties. But it was no less hard on those with young families seeking help. They too were split up. Boys were accommodated next to the old men and girls beside the old woman while the younger men and women were housed beyond the infirmary at the back of the workhouse bordering Devonshire Street.

Twenty-four children in our workhouse had been admitted with their mothers. These mothers were mostly in their thirties or forties were there without their husband or partner and most had entered with two or more children and as we shall see they would be separated from the children they had brought into this world.

What constituted a child had been set down in the original classification back in 1834. This specified that females under 16 were girls, while males below the age of 13 were treated as boys, and those under seven were regarded as a separate class. In certain circumstances a child under seven could be left with their mother and even share her bed. Other than that mothers were supposed to have access to the child. This was easier if the child were in the same workhouse and only a possibility if it were in a different institution. As to the length of the interview this depended on the Guardians.

In all there were 66 under the age of 16 of which a full 42 were there on their own. Their ages ranged from just a few days through to 15. Some were there with siblings but most had no one except the friends they could make.

They would have arrived in many different ways. Some would be orphans, or deserted children, while others might be illegitimate and yet others abandoned due to a range of disabilities. Once inside the Guardians might decide to retain an orphan under the age of sixteen if they determined that on release the child was in danger.

Well might they have abandoned all hope for in a real sense they were lost to all but the officials of the institution and even those charged with their welfare may not always have been diligent in promoting their needs.

So it was with young Mary “Penny” in November 1841, who had been abducted from a nurse girl in Hulme, left with another child a few streets away for a penny and ended in the workhouse on Stretford New Road as an orphan where she languished for eleven months. The admission book showed no record of the baby’s entry into the workhouse and the official position was that such events were improbable. This may well have sealed her fate, but the persistence of her parents combined with the testimony of an inmate resulted in the baby’s release. It is a bizarre and unusual story but one which points up more than a hint of what could happen to those with no voice or influence.

Extract from Chorlton-cum-Hardy, A Community Transformed

Picture; The Workhouse in Hulme from the OS 1842-44

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