High days and holidays for the workhouse child

As I wrote last Christmas, workhouse children were often treated to presents and outings over the festive period. This was not the only holiday celebrated by pauper children as the regular outings on Whit Monday (or spring bank holiday) show. Whitsun was traditionally a time for new clothes and trips and Whit Monday saw Swansea’s workhouse children, children from the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and the Swansea Blind Institution join up with children from local Sunday Schools to spend the day at one of Swansea’s beaches – Caswell Bay (below) appears to have been a popular choice.


The minutes of meetings show that this was an annual event which in 1874 cost the Swansea Union just under £4. That year the children were taken to Caswell Bay and, along with the elderly workhouse residents, also to Penllegare (below), the beautiful home of Mr and Mrs Llewelyn where they were reported to have been ‘very kindly treated’.


Penllegare, see The Penllegare Trust for more information

In 1893 the children of the workhouse and cottage homes were also invited to the theatre on Whit Monday. As they did over Christmas, former residents of the cottage homes came back to visit at Whitson. In 1905 it was reported that 10 old boys and girls visited and ‘gave a good account of themselves’ and some stayed overnight.

The cottage homes children also enjoyed visits to the beaches throughout the summer and often celebrated Royal Weddings and Royal visits. I have related girls being taken to Horton in the Gower for a holiday here. The boys however would go camping as a large group in various rural locations around Swansea. Sometimes they would share the camp with boys from the local Truant School.

A day trip to a workhouse?

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Gower Workhouse today is a rather beautifully situated care home overlooking Three Cliffs Bay below


In 1869 the Swansea workhouse children were all transported to the Gower Workhouse for a day out. When I tell students about this outing they generally accuse the guardians of meanness. Maybe it was a cost-cutting measure but the descriptions of the day in the local newspaper told of the children being welcomed by cheering and bunting and plentiful food and an afternoon of games with the Gower workhouse children. It was reported that the older boys immediately ran down to the sea to swim, the photo above shows just how beautiful a spot it was – and indeed still is.

Punch at the Workhouse


Punch and Judy Show by George Cruikshank

Entertainments were also regularly held in the workhouse itself. In 1871, the Western Mail reported with a mixture of sentimentality and satire an apparently spontaneous diversion which it reported ‘would long be remembered as a gleam of unexpected pleasure upon the monotonous surface of some scores of weary little lives’. A travelling Punch and Judy show had caused the Workhouse master to apparently rush into a Board of Guardians meeting and cry ‘Here’s Punch coming up the hill’, to the astonishment of the chairman.

The master was reported as collecting ‘two-shillings and elevenpence ha’penny’ from the bemused guardians which was enough to strike a bargain with the performers who entertained ‘every able-bodied pauper therein – man, woman and child’. The newspaper’s coverage of this event was laced with irony and satire in its representation of the guardians as quasi-Dickensian beadles debating to which parish Punch should be charged, but the Western Mail succumbed a little to the sentimentality of the occasion, with its description of ‘the absolute joy that beamed from the little pallid faces of the children’. punchandjudy-4

As with the Christmas treats and outings many local people and businesses were involved in these excursions. The Mumbles Railway transported children to Bracelet Bay and many local transport companies ‘conveyed’ the children to their annual days-out at Penllegare as well as surrounding beaches. Local confectioners would also supply sweets when children attended the theatre and there are endless thanks to local ladies supplying special ‘teas’ for the children.

I do not believe that these children were ‘lost in care’. Some were orphans and some had experienced severe trauma in their short lives. They were not forgotten children who were isolated from society, and guardians and local people treated them with compassion, kindness and understanding. One report from ‘Lady guardian’ Adelaide Perkins in the summer of 1902 reflects this very well:

 ‘We visited the Homes this day, and found Mr Elliott in charge, the master being with the boys at Oxwich. The children were taking their holiday in quite a holiday fashion, in the grounds, full of play, and rather more troublesome to the matron than when regularly at school, as is usually the case in families’.

 Not a dry eye in the house…

Most of the nineteenth-century editions of The Cambrian newspaper and dozens of others can be consulted freely online at Welsh Newspapers Online from the National Library of Wales

For more information about these lovely beaches and all the gorgeousness of the Gower Visit Swansea Bay 

Women of the Workhouse, Part 2: Ladies to the Rescue?


Most middle-class women of the Victorian and Edwardian period were neither ‘Angels in the House’ nor, as described by Lawrence Stone, ‘idle drones’. Civic participation was a class and gender expectation and middle-class women were involved in charitable work from the organisation of charity bazaars to the rescue of ‘fallen’ women. Ladies’ committees were standard within most philanthropic organisations and the election of women to local government posts such as school boards and as poor law guardians began in the later nineteenth century.

Workhouses always housed a large number of children and female inmates whose conditions and prospects attracted the attention of middle-class women. In 1858, social reformer Louisa Twining (below) founded the Workhouse Visiting Society  to promote the ‘moral and spiritual improvement of workhouse inmates’.


The same year Twining wrote Workhouses and Women’s Work, in which she put her case for women helping women in workhouses:

‘The progress from the workhouse to the prison is a very easy and natural one. A girl who has lost her place and has no home, enters the union, [workhouse] and is placed with many other women, old as well as young, some of whom are far worse than herself, and is put to the usual employment of oakum picking. There is no one to give kindly advice or counsel to her; the matron is far too busy with her various household occupations; the chaplain confesses that she and her companions are beyond his reach’.

The middle-class women of Swansea were regular participants in the civic and philanthropic sphere. Many women such as Julia, Lady Llewelyn, (below) were involved in a vast number of ‘good causes’. She had been at the forefront of the Cwmdonkin Shelter, a ‘rescue’ home for ‘fallen girls’ in Swansea and was Chair of the Swansea Workhouse Ladies Visiting Committee which was established in 1893.

(c) Swansea Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

  Caroline Julia Talbot Dillwyn Llewelyn, by William Carter 1889, Swansea Museum

In January 1893 Swansea guardians had received a directive from the Local Government Board empowering them to appoint a committee of women with authority to visit the workhouse ‘with a view to their reporting to the guardians any matter which appears to them to need attention’.

Over twenty women volunteered immediately and this number grew to over 90 in 1900. As Patricia Hollis argues in  Ladies Elect, female workhouse visitors and guardians were integral to the improvement of conditions and treatment of the women and children in many workhouses across Britain.

Unfortunately, the records kept by the Ladies Visiting Committee in Swansea workhouse are rather unenlightening. Brief entries in a ledger record when women visited the workhouse but do not reveal their activities, but in the secretary’s (very brief) report of 1904, it was remarked that not all ladies even remembered to sign this visiting book. However, the thanks given to the committee in the guardians’ minutes of meetings  give some indication of the womens’ influence.

These women provided many teas, entertainments and outings for women and children (often ‘imbeciles’ were also included in these treats). Decorating the ‘wards’ at Christmas and Harvest festivals seemed to be popular among the inmates and members of the Ladies Committee were asked to contribute two and sixpence annually to pay for treats and outings. Many of the elderly women were encouraged to knit and sew and the ladies also campaigned the guardians to allow older women to have tea in their own teapots. Mrs Ebenezer Davies was also a regular visitor to the Lock Ward (venereal disease) which was often overcrowded.

However, one of my favourite entries in the huge amount of records I have consulted is when Lady Llewelyn asked permission to place canaries in the imbecile ward.

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Images showing  women who were members of the visiting committee from the Guardians Minutes of Meeting from 1907, WGAS U/S  1/40

‘Lady Guardians’.

While the Swansea Ladies Committee attracted huge numbers of local middle-class women, much fewer women served as poor law guardians. The 1870 School Board Act made it possible for (some propertied) women to stand for election to local School Boards and Poor Law Unions. Britain’s first female guardian was Martha Crawford Merrington who was elected to the Kensington Union in 1875. The law was changed in 1894 which allowed anyone who had been resident in their Union for two years to stand for election as a guardian of the poor and this greatly increased the numbers of working-class men and, to a lesser extent, middle class women serving on Boards of Guardians.



Swansea guardians in 1895, showing Emma Brock as the only woman guardian

Although not all unions encouraged female guardians times had changed since the Poor Law Board issued the statement below in 1850:

‘The objections to the appointment of a female to an office of this nature, upon grounds of public policy and convenience, are so manifest, that the Board cannot readily suppose that the question will become one of practical importance in the administration of the Poor Laws’.

However, despite legal and cultural changes, in a letter to The Times on 28 November 1899, Louisa Twining argued that the work of the Society for Promoting Women Guardians was still needed. Out of 6488 unions in England and Wales there were less than 1000 women among 22,000 male guardians.

In Wales, two female guardians had been elected in 1893 and during the 1894 elections 88 women were elected to poor law unions in Wales. Emma Brock was Swansea Union’s first female guardian in the elections of 1893 and had served on Swansea School Board since 1875. She was appointed to several committees, was the Board’s asylum visitor on many occasions and was the Swansea’s representative at the Poor Law Education Conference of 1896.

Many Welsh women were involved in the temperance movement and Emma Brock was given leave to invite members of the British Temperance Women’s Association to hold meetings amongst the women inmates. She was also at the forefront of modern telecommunication technology when she introduced an internal telephone system in the workhouse in 1894.

The industrialist, novelist and lover of life Amy Dillwyn (below) was elected to the Swansea Union in 1905 and was reported to being ‘heartily welcomed’ by the Board and subsequently served on a variety of committees. She had been a long standing memeber of the Swansea School board until they were abolished by the 1902 Education Act.


Amy Dillwyn was an incredible woman – ‘one of the most remarkable women in Great Britain’ according to the Pall Mall Gazette. However, my ‘favourite’ female Swansea guardian was the wonderful Adelaide Perkins.

She seemed to go beyond what was expected from a poor law guardian; for several weeks every year she opened her house, Grey Cottage in Horton on the Gower Peninsular, to girls from the Union’s cottage homes for their annual holiday. Similarly, this house was used as a base when the children enjoyed day trips to the beach. Donald Bibey, the son of Violet Evans who lived in the cottage homes in the early twentieth century, told me he remembers his mother talking about a Mrs Perkins and trips to the Gower.

Adelaide Perkins vetted the people to which girls would be placed in service and regularly recommended refusal if any place was not of good enough standard. She visited Swansea Union’s children who lived in Nazareth House in Cardiff and both Deaf and Blind Institutions, and Swansea Orphan Home for girls.

Even on the occasion of the marriage of her son Bertie in 1900, she included the children of Swansea Union in the celebrations and gave them a special tea.

One entry she made in the cottage homes visiting book shows her love and understanding of children:

‘As it has been such a fearful day, the superintendent wisely did not send any of the children to school this morning, and at noon received a message that neither of the schools would be opening this afternoon’ -

‘this news was not received sorrowfully by any child’.

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Adelaide Perkins died at the age of 89 in 1928, and the card (above)  points to her ‘long, unselfish, and noble life’.


A selection of works used:

Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Oxford: New York: Clarendon Press, 1987).

Steven King,Women, Welfare and Local Politics, 1880-1920: ‘We May be Trusted’, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2006.

David Painting, Amy Dillwyn, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1987.

Catherine Preston, ‘“To do Good and Useful Work”: Welsh Women Poor Law Guardians 1894-1914’, Llafur, The Journal of Welsh People’s History, vol.10, no. 1 (2010), 87-102.

Frank Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.


Women of the Workhouse, Part I – A suitable job for a woman?

The lives of women have always been one of my primary research interests, so when my friends at Archif Menywod Cymru/Women’s Archive of Wales were asked to devise a Women’s History Walk in Swansea, I started thinking about who should be included.


Mrs Corney wooed by Mr Bumble, Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

There is no shortage of interesting and laudable women from Swansea’s history of course, but with the workhouse and the poor laws always at the forefront of my mind, I realised how many female employees and volunteers had worked in Swansea workhouse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Female labour was the mainstay of workhouses across Britain and in many ways a career in the poor-law service was a reliable, if unglamorous choice for a working-class woman. Many middle-class women gave their time to visiting the more vulnerable of workhouse inmates, recommended improvements and often provided treats. In the later nineteenth century women were elected as guardians of the poor.

I will explore how middle-class women contributed to workhouse life in Part Two, but this post examines the roles for working-class women for whom work was generally an economic necessity.

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Workhouse Matrons 

Women in the Victorian period contributed greatly to the caring, nurturing and domestic professions. The workhouse matron was the most senior of female workhouse staff, overseeing all the other women workers and inmates. She was considered second in command to the workhouse master and would take charge of the establishment in his absence. Often, the workhouse master and matron were appointed as a married couple, although in the case of an incumbent matron’s death another woman may have been employed.

Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Swansea’s first workhouse matron was Mrs Hernaman. Soon after, The Cambrian newspaper complimented Mrs Hernaman for her care of the inmates and pointed to the ‘remarkable’ lack of illness in the establishment. The Hernamans were employed from 1834-1848 and three of their daughters Ann, Georgiana and Patience were all workhouse schoolmistresses at some point during this time.

Another Swansea matron Jane Prosser was the innocent party in a workhouse scandal in 1855. Her husband William Prosser was accused of ‘gross immorality’ by the Board of Guardians when a female inmate named him as the father of her unborn child. The cutting below from a very long and salacious piece in The Cambrian shows that guardians’ meetings could be gripping events.


Prosser was dismissed and although Mrs Prosser was a respected matron, she followed her husband and a few weeks later sadly gave birth to a stillborn son.

In 1865, after a series of unsuccessful appointments of masters, and by association their wives the matrons, Swansea Union increased the joint salary of husband and wife to £80 per year to attract a higher calibre couple. This resulted in the employment of the Hewsons who stayed for almost 30 years. In previous years masters and matrons were expected to have no dependent children and Mrs Hewson at first was forced to leave their four-year old child with its grandmother. In 1866, when the grandmother died Mrs Hewson applied successfully to the guardians for the child to come and live with them in the workhouse.

Mrs Hewson also gave birth to a daughter and when she, Jane Jones Hewson, was 20, was employed as children’s nurse and later as assistant matron to her mother. One of the major advantages of a career in the Poor Law Service was the contributory superannuation or pension scheme. In 1894 the Hewsons retired and their daughter Jane left with them. While Hewson only enjoyed his pension for two years until he died, Mrs Hewson was still receiving a sizable sum in 1910.

Bad Behaviour

Some of the female workhouse staff were not so committed to their posts. In 1861 Mary Thomas the nurse, Margaret Hoskins the cook and Ann Williams the industrial teacher were found to be incapable of discharging their respective duties because they were drunk. They all admitted it and, as it wasn’t their first ‘offence’, all were dismissed. Margaret Hoskins (the cook) alleged ‘gross misconduct’ by Master Robert Clark whose wife had died recently and he was subsequently forced to resign after admitting ‘improper intimacy’ with her.


According to the 1851 census teaching was the fifth most common job for women. While a workhouse teacher was not paid (or valued) as well as a teacher in an elementary school, it was a reliable if demanding job.

In 1840 an advertisement in The Cambrian (below) newspaper sought ‘a fit person’, with good character references and an ability to teach reading, writing, ‘the common rules in arithmetic’, along with plain needlework and knitting. Many schoolmistresses employed by the Swansea Union had neither experience of school teaching or workhouse employment. Elizabeth Davies, who was recruited in 1845, had been a milliner prior to her appointment. Her lack of teaching practice was no doubt disregarded because of her vocational sewing expertise.

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Working hours were long for schoolmistress. It appears that expectations of the poor law schools inspectors about the duties of a teacher differed from those of the Swansea Union. During one visit schools inspector Jelinger Symons complained that both schoolmaster and mistress were expected to perform ‘certain menial offices’ for the children and the schoolmistress was also expected to nurse sick children.  A visiting Swansea guardian’s scathing comments regarding workhouse girls being left unattended by their schoolmistress for ‘many hours’ in the evening was in direct contrast with Symons’ opinion that time for the school teachers’ recreation was inadequate. Michelle Cale argues that the staff may have felt as ‘imprisoned’ within the institutions as the children, given the long hours and commitment required.

Swansea Union seldom enjoyed a large pool of applicants for the position of school mistress and often had to re-advertise the post. The low salary – £12 per year in Swansea until the 1850s when it was raised to £25 – coupled with long hours and little recognition must have resulted in less competent instruction. Margaret Crowther has calculated from figures taken from a Poor Law Return that the average salary paid to workhouse school mistresses in 1849 was £16 a year. Some unions, such as those in East Anglia, paid up to £20 a year.  From 1846 unions could claim monetary grants for education from the central authorities. The amount depended upon the skill level of the teacher and the numbers of children taught.

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Married couples were also employed as schoolmaster and mistress. Although chosen from a strong field of four shortlisted couples Mary and Alfred Roskilly subsequently ill-treated the children which was uncovered when boys started running away from the workhouse. Mary Roskilly was involved in the ill treatment and was reported to use a bat for beating children. Both were dismissed. While corporal punishment was an accepted (but not undisputed) method of correction in the nineteenth century, its use on workhouse children was, in theory, strictly controlled. An 1841 report on the training of pauper children warned guardians to take care in the employment of school masters ‘lest we introduce a tyrannical despot rather than a father’.

Medical staff

In the first half of the nineteenth century provision of health care in workhouses was variable to say the least, and illnesses resulting from overcrowded conditions were endemic. Although the 1834 act had sought to bring uniformity to pauper relief the medical treatment of inmates depended largely on the benevolence (or otherwise) of local poor law guardians. In 1866, reformer Joseph Rogers established the Association for the Improvement of London Workhouse Infirmaries and medical treatment improved across the country as a result.

In Swansea, perhaps because of the redoubtable Mrs Hernaman, medical treatment was lauded (maybe just a little unconvincingly) in correspondence with the central authorities in London. In March 1837, the chair of Swansea Board of Guardians reported that:

‘The poor have been much better attended by medical relief since the formation of the Union – the attention of the medical officer has given general satisfaction to the board and not a single complaint has been made by any pauper – the slightest cases of indisposition immediately attended to’.

Again, women provided most of the nursing care in Swansea’s workhouse although male medical officers and orderlies were also employed.

In 1874, Mrs Esther Quigley was appointed as head nurse at a salary of £25 per year. During her 27 years of employment her name was only recorded in the salary accounts. This silence points to a job well and quietly done, which was confirmed when she retired in 1901. The guardians successfully requested that the Local Government Board add five years to her length of service (to increase her pension) because of her ill health, small salary and absence of holidays. As well as this the guardians awarded her a gratuity of £10 because she was ‘in a very bad state of health and not likely to benefit from her superannuation but for a short time.’ Sadly, she died in June 1903.


In 1903 the workhouse built a large new infirmary which cost over £17,000. By this time the workhouse appears to be primarily a hospital and home for old people and vagrants. The following year medical officers were giving lectures in midwifery to female nurses, and midwives were also going out into the community. In 1910 the workhouse employed 18 nurses in various stages of training. Dances were held for nurses in the workhouse dining hall; in 1909 it was recorded that friends could also attend and it was ‘lights out by 12.30 am’.

In September 1910 applicants were invited to apply for a vacancy for an assistant medical officer in Swansea Workhouse.  Eight well qualified young doctors were shortlisted, five of whom were women. Three of the women had qualified in Edinburgh, while the other two received their medical degrees in London and St Andrews. The position was however offered to a local man.

Also in 1910, charge nurse Albena Williams applied for and gained a significant promotion. The practice of boarding-out or fostering pauper children in the surrounding areas was gaining popularity and the desirability of female supervision for this was reinforced by a Boarding-Out Order which instructed that at least one-third of boarding-out committees should be women. Unions were also encouraged to employ a female ‘Visitor’. After consultation with several other unions in Wales and England, Swansea Union resolved to appoint a ‘Female Visitor’ in June 1910.  She was to be a trained nurse between the ages of 25 and 40 and preferably a Welsh speaker.  The post also included the office of Infant Protection Officer, as well as visiting the elderly and ‘deserving’ poor who were in receipt of relief, and visiting the Workhouse maternity wards.

The duties of the Female Visitor appear to be commensurate with both a district nurse and social worker and it seems to have been an important appointment as the starting salary offered was £70 per annum, which rose incrementally to £90. This was more than (male) relieving officers received and only slightly less than the (male) Union Clerk. Albena Williams was appointed from a strong field of seventeen applicants and saw her salary double.

Fit work for women? Probably some of the better ways to earn a living for a working-class woman in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. My next post will look at the unpaid work done by middle-class women in the workhouse

A selection of works consulted:

Hannah Barker, ‘Women and Work’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus, Women’s History: Britain, 1700-1850 : An Introduction, London; New York: Routledge, 2005.

Anne Borsay, Peter Shapely, Medicine, Charity and Mutual Aid: The consumption of Health and Welfare in Britain c. 1550-1950, Aldershot: Adgate Publishing, 2007.

Michelle Cale, ‘Working for God? Staffing the Victorian Reformatory and Industrial School System’, History of Education, 21:2 (1992).

Penelope Corfield,  Power and the Professions in Britain,1700-1850, London 1999.

Margaret Crowther, The Workhouse System, 1834-1929: The History of an English Social Institution, London: Batsford Academic & Educational, 1981.

B Hurwitz, ‘Joseph Rogers and the Reform of Workhouse Medicine’, History Workshop Journal, 43:1 (1997), 218-225.

Pat Thane, ‘Women and the Poor Law in Victorian and Edwardian England’, History Workshop Journal, 6 (1978), 29-51.

Some useful primary sources: 

West Glamorgan Archives in Swansea holds many sources for Swansea and Neath Poor Law Union.

Local newspapers such as The Cambrian always included job vacancies and are a useful source when researching women’s work and wages.

The National Archives in Kew holds a multitude of Poor law Correspondence (a tiny percentage of which is now digitised),

Report on the training of pauper children, 1841.

Boarding-Out (Within Union) Order 1909, Local Government Board Circular Letter.

Local Heroes: Tears of a Historian

The First World War was never far from my mind while researching pauper children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Boys who were 8 or 9 years old in 1905 would be old enough to ‘join the colours’ when war broke out in 1914. My PhD research focussed on the period between 1834 and 1910. One of my reasons for not continuing into the First World War was my reluctance to encounter ‘my’ lovely young boys and girls grown up (barely) and gone to war.


Swansea Cottage Homes on the brow of the hill, c 1910.

Recently, while searching the wonderful Cymru 1914 database I stumbled on the article (below) about the cottage homes where many of Swansea’s pauper children were sent after 1877. Although I knew it was bound to happen it came as a huge shock and quite frankly I cried my eyes out.

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Cambrian Daily Leader, 27 October 1915

So many familiar names. George Palfrey was one of five siblings who were all brought to live in the cottage homes by the local NSPCC inspector and their mother was subsequently imprisoned for neglecting them. His older sister Harriet appeared to be very attached to the homes and visited on many occasions after she left in 1908.

Willie Standing came to the homes because his mother Lizzie was described as a prostitute and was adopted by the guardians. He was subsequently placed with a farmer but ran away and reported to the police that he had been beaten by his employer who was investigated by both the police and the guardians.

Percy Lloyd was hardly mentioned in the records I have consulted apart from some time spent in the workhouse infirmary. In the Cambria Daily News in 1916 it was reported that Percy Lloyd had been killed.

Although there are huge opportunities opening up for exciting research into these young people’s war, part of me feels that they shouldn’t be the subject of a historian’s curiosity. And, although I believe respectful research, commemoration and remembrance of the people of the First World War during the next four years will be vital for the understanding of future generations, I feel with these boys its rather personal as I have spent so much time getting to know them over the last five years.

Whatever my reservations, this is research that I can’t NOT do and I hope it will produce happier news for my cottage homes boys.

Am I being too emotional? I believe emotional engagement with our research enhances scholarship rather than undermining ‘objectivity’. Some of the best (and most rigorously researched) historical blogs are written by historians who have ‘come out of the emotional closet’ to quote Joanne Bailey . Similarly, Helen Rogers’ emotional commitment to her nineteenth-century convicts lads enriches an already superb blog.

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George Evans

In the meantime to end on a more hopeful note, one boy George Evans (above) although not mentioned in the above article survived the war. In 1914 at the age of 20 George joined the South Wales Borderers. He transferred to the Liverpool Regiment and was wounded in France and sent home for several weeks. He then joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in 1915 and was posted to Gallipoli.

In 1916 he was again wounded in France and in 1917 he transferred to the South Lancashire Regiment. In 1918 he married Elizabeth Cameron and was demobbed in 1919.  He returned to his early career on the railways and died in Swansea in 1973 at the age of 79.

I know so much about George Evans (and his lovely sister Violet) because Violet’s son and grandson Donald and Allister Bibey contacted me and shared their family history research. I was thrilled to be able to answer many of their questions and solve some mysteries using my own research. Cooperation between local, family and academic historians can enhance everyone’s research and I hope to work more closely with many of these very knowledgeable and enthusiastic historians in the future.  Everyone’s a historian after all.

There are many sources relating to Cockett Cottage Homes, Swansea in West Glamorgan Archives Service (WGAS) in Swansea.

Victorian Adventures and Terrible Tales: The Illustrated Police News

To celebrate my first Twitter anniversary on 18 December 2013, I thought I’d present a Christmas Compilation of some of the amazing drawings from the Illustrated Police News that I have tweeted over the past week or so. Since October, I have been teaching a third year history module at Swansea University called Digital Detectives. We have been searching for and using the vast range of digitised historical sources available for the Victorian period. See @DigiDetectives on Twitter.

One of the databases we consulted in our exploration of Victorian Britain was the wonderful 19th Century British Newspapers database. Soon, gory and melodramatic portrayals of the Jack the Ripper murders were being located by the students, many of which were printed in the Illustrated Police News (see below).


The Illustrated Police News first appeared in 1864 and was very much a product of the ‘Penny Dreadful’ school of publishing. This 1898 representation (below) of a ‘French massage establishment’ in London’s Oxford Street presents a risqué but humorous image of the ‘naughty nineties’. Fetch (15)

Tales of daring-do were also popular topics for the paper. Bob Nicholson has also recently posted many wonderful illustration on Twitter, mainly about rampaging animals like this case of elephant teasing gone wrong, below. Have a look at his very funny ‘Bovine Highjump’ series of tweets, see @DigiVictorian. Embedded image permalink In my research into the poor laws I always like to discover some form of resistance by paupers such as the adventures of these workhouse boys below.

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I particularly like this 1898 festive representation of Christmas above and below stairs

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Cats, of course are the lifeblood of Twitter and these illustration below were very popular on the Twittersphere

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However, one illustration from 1898 appears to have captured the imagination of Tweeps around the world. This portrayal below of a girl shooting a man dead for standing on her foot and declining to apologise has been retweeted over 300 times. As @saladinahmed pointed out, historical tv/books/films showing Victorian women as tough cookies are not anachronistic!

For more information about the Illustrated Police News, see Linda Stratmann, Cruel Deeds and Dreadful Calamities: The Illustrated Police News 1864-1938, London: The British Library, 2011 Here

‘Altogether a right merrie day’? Christmas in the Workhouse

Although it is true that Charles Dickens and Prince Albert did not invent the Victorian Christmas, they did influence the Victorian imagining of Christmas considerably. Were workhouse inmates and other recipients  of poor relief allowed to participate in Dickensian festivity over Christmas or was it more a case of Bah Humbug?


In the years following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the central authorities in London ruled that no extra food or drink should be given to paupers in workhouses at Christmas. Many local poor law unions ignored this directive including the guardians of Swansea Union. In 1837, The Cambrian newspaper reported that: ‘The paupers of Swansea Union were regaled on Christmas Day with an excellent dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, by a few individuals who subscribed the necessary sum for the laudable purpose’.


Swansea Workhouse

An entry in the guardians’ minute book from 1883 is particularly poignant, one guardian wrote about a Christmas night party and concert:

‘The remarkable feature in the programme was the difference in the ages of the musicians, The youngest being 3, sang ‘a little cock sparrow who sat in a tree’, the oldest a sprightly young fellow of 83. Altogether a right merrie day was the Christmas of ‘82 and the grateful inmates went to their wards feeling thankful that in the general joy they were not forgotten’.

Gifts of tobacco or snuff, tea, sugar, jam and sometimes beer were given to the elderly residents, and the children and ‘imbeciles’ were taken on several outings over Christmas and New Year. A regular event on New year’s Day was a visit to Studt’s funfair, or ‘Venice’, where they rode on the ‘gondolas’ and received presents around the Christmas tree.  Visits to the pantomime, circus and Poole’s Diorama were an annual event and benefactors also gave the children gifts of cards, toys and games, ‘aerated water’, oranges, buns and sweets.

However in 1880 although the ‘usual Christmas dinner’ was to be given to inmates, it was reported that they should have pea soup on the ‘meat day’ before Christmas to save the meat ration for Christmas day. Bah Humbug etc…

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Western Mail 1894

Events such as Christmas, royal weddings, jubilees or particularly harsh weather could also generate generosity from poor law unions. Extra relief of around sixpence or one shilling per pauper was generally given by Swansea Union at Christmas, although not all unions did the same. Monmouth, Llanelli and Carmarthen were among Welsh unions who declined to give extra relief at Christmas.

Gifts were also made to outdoor paupers from benefactors such as shop owner Thomas  Trew who gave toys and fruit in 1865. However, it appears that largesse to children in the workhouse and cottage homes was much greater than to outdoor pauper children, possibly because they attracted more pity as they were seen as ‘waifs’ or ‘orphans’. It is also possible that gifts to outdoor pauper children were not recorded as often as to children living in institutions.

When Swansea Union built ‘cottage homes’ in 1877 to move the children out of the workhouse, the imagined Dickensian Christmas began in earnest.


Postcard of Cockett Cottage Homes, Swansea c. 1910 (the ‘cottages’ are on the brow of the hill)

For the children of the cottage homes, Christmas brought presents, sweets, decorations, entertainments and vastly superior food.  Although it is clear from comments written by visiting guardians and the donations received from a wide range of people that a great deal of kindness was shown to the children, a lesson was also apparent. Striving to become responsible working-class citizens would bring appropriate rewards such as the enjoyable, yet respectable, celebrating of Christmas.

Many gifts and services donated to the cottage homes were recorded by the superintendent. The annual reports of many charitable establishments also detailed the benevolence of their subscribers in this way, no doubt to advertise the fact that generosity would be acknowledged publicly.

In 1882 the superintendent reported ‘that several of the boys who once belonged to the homes but who have since been placed in situations returned to spend the day with their former friends and companions and it was with great pleasure he noticed the successful results of their former training’. In the evening all the children assembled in the large cottage when all danced, marched and sang to the music of Mrs Grossmith [the head matron].

In 1903 a guardian remarked that the ‘lively’ preparations of the officers and children were pursued with a ‘joyousness’ that ‘gladdened one’s heart’. On Christmas morning ‘every child found a special toy, orange and apple in his or her shelving’ and Christmas dinner was a ‘huge success’ with every child ‘delighted beyond bounds’.


The Llewelyn family of Penllegare led much of the festive celebration in the cottage homes. Lady Llewelyn and her daughters regularly hosted a Christmas tree event with gifts of toys and edible treats for the children. The tree was described as being ‘loaded with presents of all descriptions’.

 During the Christmas celebrations of 1908, the Llewelyns gave the children bananas and ‘new half pennies’ while a gramophone could be heard playing in number three cottage. Some Christmas entertainments became annual events, such as the Boxing Day visit to local theatres for the pantomime. An invitation to the Star Theatre in 1881 had not been welcomed by all guardians, but by the end of the Victorian period, pantomime was patronised by the Royal Family and considered suitable entertainment.

One report from 23rd December 1903 in particular demonstrates that the cottage homes children were cared for.  Although ‘decorations for Christmas are all in hand’, there had been a message from the workhouse regretting that they could not supply the cottage homes with cake in time for Christmas. The guardians recorded that:

‘We therefore empower the superintendent to purchase 100 lbs [pounds] elsewhere at 3½d  per lb, as we hardly think it is fair to deprive the little ones of their Christmas cake’. That’s a lot of cake!

 Merry Christmas and God Bless Us Every One!


Gratuitous photo from the incomparable The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Guardians Minutes of meetings for Swansea Union and documents relating to the cottage homes can be consulted at West Glamorgan Archives Service in Swansea.

For more on the Victorian Christmas, see Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010.

For Pantomime (oh yes it is), see Jim Davis, ed., Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays, Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Rescued Lives? ‘Fallen women’ and their ‘rescuers’ in Victorian Society

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Prostitution was identified as the ‘Great Social Evil’ in Victorian society and women defined as prostitutes were perceived with both revulsion and pity. The image of the prostitute as a powerless, and therefore forgivable character justified interventions of reform and encouraged the establishment in 1758 of the first rescue home for ‘fallen women’, the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in London. Societies concerned with the reclamation of ‘fallen’ women had mushroomed during the second half of the nineteenth century: in 1856 there were 60 such societies in Britain and by 1906 this had increased to 308.  William Gladstone was known for his help of ‘fallen women’ and Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens were involved in the Urania Cottage rescue home.

magdalen hospital 1812

The Magdalen Hospital, London, c. 1812

 The success of rescue homes depended upon their potential clientele showing both an active recognition of their ‘wrongdoing’ and a passive compliance to their rehabilitation.  Paula Bartley has argued that many rescue homes enforced stringent criteria for the admittance, discipline and redemption of ‘fallen’ women which was frequently directed by a patriarchal regime. Some large rescue institutions across Britain adopted punitive and humiliating regimes and, in the early nineteenth century, even shaved off their inmates’ hair to discourage escape or disobedience. Linda Mahood argues that rescue homes favoured admitting young women, generally under 24, without police records or a tendency to inebriation.   Some institutions such as the Salvation Army followed a more open policy of admittance and the Mayfair Union would admit any girl ‘who is anything like sober’.

Workhouses across Britain regarded many of their female inmates as prostitutes and some of these women, generally the younger ones, were offered place in ‘rescue’ establishments, see my post about one such woman, Dorcas Carr. In Swansea, Lady Vivian opened the Cwmdonkin Shelter, a home for ‘the reclamation of fallen and abandoned women’ in 1887. The Shelter was at this time established in temporary accommodation in Cwmdonkin Park and later relocated to various addresses in Swansea.  During the twentieth century the Shelter continued to house single mothers until its closure in 1972.


Annual Report for 1905-6, this is the size and shape of a cheque book, probably designed to make subscribers think of writing a cheque!

A Cwmdonkin Shelter Ladies’ Sub-Committee was responsible for policy making and the practical day-to-day running of the Shelter. Overall management was undertaken by the General Committee, which was composed of both men and women.    At their first meeting in September 1887, eleven women were elected to the Ladies’ Committee.  They lived in middle-class areas of Swansea and most were married to leading figures of Swansea civic society.

These women wielded considerable power over those they sought to rescue, all of whom would be ‘sent’ elsewhere.  Some were returned to friends or family: In 1887 a woman was ‘sent home to her uncle’ and in 1889, Jane Parry was described as being ‘returned to her friends’.   It is not recorded whether these friends or family were investigated to ascertain their suitability for the care of vulnerable women, and some refuges had policies of ‘quarantining’ their charges from suspect friends and family.   Many women who passed through Cwmdonkin Shelter were referred to other rescue establishments in Wales and London.

The referral of women to emigration agencies was an option used by the Ladies’ Committee on many occasions.  There was a shortage of servants in the colonies and standards were perceived to be lower and more flexible: a doyenne of rescue recounted that ‘not so much is expected of servants; life is freer, rougher and therefore more suited to them’.   The Cambrian newspaper had earlier strongly advocated emigration to relocate the ‘unfortunates’ to Canada where ‘they might soon become virtuous wives’.  There is no discussion of the ethics of emigration in the Ladies’ Committee Minute Book or indeed whether the women who were ‘sent’ for emigration actively chose that route.

However, in the 1906 annual report a letter was received from Mary in Canada, 23 years after she had been in Cwmdonkin Shelter. She wrote that she had never been sorry to come to Canada and she went on to say, ‘I am very glad to tell you that I have a good home, a good husband and very nice children’. It was also reported that she had sent ‘a photo of herself and family. Letters such as these are a problematic source for the historian; It was not unknown for letters purporting to be written by former happy inmates of philanthropic institutions to be made up and the camera can of course lie. However the photo below, if a true representation of Mary, demonstrates that some nineteenth-century emigration resulted in a happy new life.

1905 6

Employment of a domestic nature was thought suitable for women leaving all rescue homes and this was reflected by the Committee placing women primarily as domestic servants or laundry workers.   This was a problematic initiative as domestic service was perceived to be a recruiting ground for prostitution. Frederick Merrick, chaplain of Millbank Prison in London had found that out of 16,000 alleged prostitutes he interviewed, nearly half had been domestic servants.   Although the Shelter boosted its income through laundry and needlework services, there is no record of girls being trained as dressmakers, nor shop assistants, just servants.

The Ladies’ Committee also worked in the wider community.  They initiated a proactive campaign to ‘recruit’ girls from Swansea workhouse and the prison and visited the ‘low parts of town’. An emergency night refuge was also provided although it was thought the venture would be likely to be abused unless ‘very wisely managed’.   In 1895 Mrs Roberts Jones was employed as a ‘mission worker’, four months later it was recorded that she had visited the police court 93 times. Mrs Roberts Jones also successfully persuaded the magistrate to allow time for fines to be paid rather than send women to gaol; it appears to have been a popular initiative as the fines were all paid.

Night classes were also established 4 nights a week at the Ragged School ‘for recreation and instruction’. One of the reasons given for these classes was, ‘Oftentimes the want of healthful and instructive amusement was the occasion of young girls taking to evil ways’. The classes appear to have very popular: there were 200 names on the book, with a nightly attendance of about 90. Two years later in 1891 a ‘Girls Club’ attracted 50-60 girls.


Swansea Ragged School

What happened to women after they left the Shelter?  As with Mary in Canada above, much was made of letters received from former inmates in the Minute Book and in annual reports.  Extracts from encouraging letters were published in annual reports, and most were written with evangelical gratitude or ‘cheerfully and gratefully’ according to the Fourth Annual Report. The Minute Book records several optimistic letters being received, but does not go into any detail.  Although it was hoped that the Shelter would become ‘self-supporting by means of a Laundry and a Workroom’, the high costs of clothing the girls, fees for permanent homes and railway fares made the Shelter financially unviable without charitable donations.

The annual reports also acted as an advertising platform to generate sympathy for the cause to sustain and increase subscriptions, and letters from girls who thanked the Shelter for ‘saving’ them, no doubt promoted the notion that rescuing ‘fallen women’ was a legitimate philanthropic objective.  Although the vast majority of women defined as prostitutes never entered any rescue home, letters received from former inmates of Cwmdonkin Shelter indicate that possibly some women felt they had benefited from their stay and their lives had improved subsequently.

Did the women of the Ladies’ Committee also benefit from their involvement with the Shelter?  The notion of middle-class women being barred from the public and sexual sphere was waived if it involved philanthropic participation.  The Ladies’ Committee not only undertook the administrative and policy-making duties of the Shelter, but engaged in discussions of prostitution considered inappropriate for respectable women. They also knew when it was advisable to take a step back and their visible control of the running of the Shelter within the ‘private’ confines of all-women meetings was not replicated at the ‘public’, male-dominated Annual General Meetings, where they stayed (and were placed) very much in the background.

The Ladies’ Committee also rarely followed their male colleagues’ evangelical pronouncements.  The Minute Book records simply that girls had left or run away; at the first AGM, it was reported these girls having ‘returned to their evil life’.   Entries in the minute book concerning girls ‘met at prison’ or at the police court are also in direct contrast to the melodramatic language used in the Second Annual Report such as ‘it has been our privilege to snatch [girls] from their evil surroundings’.

Participation in philanthropic work was a class and gender expectation of middle-class women and most of the Ladies’ Committee demonstrated a long term commitment to the Shelter.  Concern and tolerance is prevalent throughout the Minute Book as is genuine pleasure of their ‘successes’.  Although they strived to impart middle-class values on working-class women, they should not be categorised solely as privileged, leisured ladies dispensing charity and patronage.  They knew how to manipulate the unwritten rules of philanthropy and played the ‘lady-like’ game of invisibility at public meetings in order to emerge from the domestic sphere and into the very public locus of prostitution, enabling a vicarious, but safe engagement with the ‘dark side’ of sexuality.

 The word prostitute is rarely used in anything other than a derogatory way. Poor women in the nineteenth century had few career options and most were unpleasant. Some women used their only saleable commodity to avoid starvation and many women became prostitutes because of alcoholism or despair. Some women actively chose prostitution as a profession and later went on to marry and lead ‘normal’ lives. Prostitution may be unacceptable to some of us but a look at this poor, poor woman’s face shows that the alternative was often even worse.


‘The Crawlers’, John Thomson, Street Life in London, 1877

Works used:

Paula  Bartley, Prostitution, Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 2000).

Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes, Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1990).

Harriet Nokes, Twenty-Three Years in a House of Mercy (London, 1888).

F. K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, Women, Class and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Sources used:

The minute books of Cwmdonkin Shelter are located in the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University. Annual reports can be found both in Swansea Central Library and Swansea Museum.