New Year’s Day in the Bedminster workhouse
Personally I reckon that it’s high time the political right started calling for the return of the workhouse. I’ll write you the script:
First, you get some think-tank to source and publish “research” that shows that by late Victorian times, the parish workhouse wasn’t nearly as awful as Dickens portrayed it a generation earlier. Then some politicians wade in to start a “debate”. Workhouses would be more “fair” to the taxpayer as every able-bodied inmate would be obliged to work for their keep. You know, they might even ultimately be cost-neutral for the taxpayer as private companies would obviously want to pay for use of a pool of cheap labour. And the workhouse would provide them with food and accommodation so the national welfare bill would be reduced. Obviously there would be initial costs in building and running them, but this can be done very competitively by the private sector on PFI contracts.
No, this would be nothing at all like Dickens, they’d say. These places would be bright and airy. There would be separate dormitories for male and female inmates, and for children. See the artist’s impressions! This place looks so nice I wouldn’t mind living there myself. Now imagine the Tory frontbencher of your choice saying “I simply cannot understand why the party opposite is so set against us simply opening a couple of workhouses, sorry, I mean Jobseekers’ Residences (no, of course they won’t be called “workhouses”; someone will come up with a much nicer name) to run on a trial basis.”
Obviously the whole thing would be catastrophic for people condemned to these places. Bullying and exploitation of the sick and mentally ill, grotesque cost over-runs by private firms under-bidding to run them, several deaths, a prison-style “king rat” culture where even the staff are intimidated, a generalised sense of hopelessness and despair … But the workhouse would serve its time-honoured function of deterring all but the most desperate from seeking any sort of help from the state. No more Daily Mail stories of scroungers and families pocketing thirty grand a year in payments.
If there was one thing the Victorians loved more than Dickens stories about the horrors of the workhouse were heart-warming stories about how the workhouse wasn’t that bad really, specially if you threw in a tale of generosity on the part of rich people who could well afford it. So here we are on New Year’s Day, 1885, and the Bristol Mercury is there with all the news that matters:
Yesterday the annual New Year’s treat was given to the children of the Bedminster Union schools. Through the kind exertion of Mr. And Mrs. Stone, the master and matron, a sufficient sum was collected amongst the guardians and ladies and gentlemen in the neighbourhood to give an excellent treat to the children.
A plentiful meal, consisting of tea, cake, bread and butter, and oranges, was provided in the afternoon, after which they were taken into the boys’ schoolroom, where a large Christmas tree reaching to the ceiling was placed in the centre of the room, heavily laden with an endless variety of dolls, toys, etc. The room was illuminated with Chinese lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and was decorated with mottoes, evergreens, etc, the whole presenting a very pretty appearance, and it was much admired.
Mr. H. O. B O’Donoghue, clerk to the board, superintended the distribution of the prizes, and having made a few appropriate remarks, asked the children to give three cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Stone for their kindness in providing the treat for them, and also to the kind friends who had subscribed for the presents. It is scarcely necessary to say that the youngsters again and again cheered lustily.
A number of willing hands were then ready to assist in the distribution of the gifts, which consisted of a dress to every girl likely to go out to service during the ensuing year [virtually every female workhouse resident was trained to become a domestic servant], a work-box to four girls and a writing desk to four boys for special merit; each child in the schools also received a toy from the tree and a book, handkerchief, and scarf.
As the children received their prizes they passed out into another room, and it was only necessary to give a glance into that room to realise how fully they appreciated the treat which had been given them. The evening was brought to a close by the exhibition of a magic lantern by a Mr. R. D. Frost, of Victoria street, Bristol.
It should be mentioned that the whole of the inmatesof the workhouse were provided for on Christmas Day, an abundant supply of roast beef and plum pudding, with a pint of beer for each adult, being given, after which the men had pipes and tobacco served out to them. Mrs. Gibbs, of Tyntesfield, paid a visit to the house, bringing with her tobacco and pipes for the men and a present for every pauper.
New Year’s Day, by the way, was usually the day on which Christmas presents were exchanged back then. Gawd bless the rich and their generosity, and don’t ask too many questions about how innocent children end up in these institutions and destined for nothing better than domestic service or the armed forces. Happy new year!
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