Following a short AGM, Wheatley Local History Society’s speaker on 18th March was Harry Foxley and his subject was East Retford Union Workhouse. He started by putting members in the setting of the workhouse with a cup of gruel for supper in the evening and then to pick up their chamber pots, and retire to their dormitory by 8.30pm and all candles to be extinguished by 9.00pm latest.
In 1800 as many as one third of the population was living in poverty, some of it so severe that one family in West Stockwith were found in their hovel literally all starved to death. Originally, Retford had three poor houses on, Moorgate, Carolgate, and Grove Street. There had been a structure of village poor houses but in 1830 parliamentary approval was given for the formation of Unions of parishes to share the burden by building purpose built ‘workhouses’. There were 26 parishes that made up the Retford Union and a workhouse was built in 1836 to 1838 at a cost of £4,500. It was designed to hold to house 200 inmates and sited at the top of Spital Hill outside the then boundary of the town, not far from the current St Saviour’s Church in the parish of Clarborough. The smallpox isolation hospital was very close by. This new workhouse was to replace all the poor houses and was overseen by a team of guardians (one appointed by each parish) who met every two weeks to inspect the workhouse and review the day book kept by the Master.
Each workhouse was supposed to be self-financing, but this was rarely achieved and the balance came from the parishes. The income for the workhouse came from broken stone, down to marble size with quota per fit man 30cwt (one-and-a-half tons) per day. This ceased in 1892 when the new income came from cutting old sleepers to sell as logs. The women’s oakum was equally valuable and mixed with tar was for waterproofing boat and ships hulls. The hair shorn from inmates by a barber paid ½ d per head (480 haircuts to earn £1.00) was also sold — records show 1s/4d was paid for 14lbs.
Society members had many facts given to them about life in the workhouse; poorly and fraudulently run workhouses with ‘bad’ masters who even starved their inmates. The standard menu was laid down and was barely sufficient to keep the inmates alive and healthy enough to work. There was no electricity, gas only came in 1881 and water was from two wells, inmates were segregated to three parts sectors as male, female (some with nursing children), and children. Orphan children were often apprenticed out, thus saving on the cost of looking after them. The facts, shocking as most were by today’s standards, kept rolling out to a backdrop of images of workhouses, inmates and masters of guardians amongst others. Harry spoke for almost an hour and then answered numerous questions about the workhouse and more general Retford heritage.
The society’s next speaker will be the historian John Taylor, talking about the ‘History of Belvoir Castle’ on Monday 20th May at 10.00am. This meeting will be in the Village Hall and new members or guests are always welcome. For more details call Dave on 01427 880934.