‘A d_m cock eyed b_’ Wild Workhouse Women

Many female workhouse inmates did not conform to the popular imagining of submissive downtrodden pauper, but instead resisted and sometimes undermined the power of workhouse authorities. Contemporary representation of the inmates of poor law workhouses in the nineteenth century was that of a submissive underclass, humbled by the wretchedness of their circumstances. This perception has been propagated by some historians and continues to stimulate a genre of pity and outrage surrounding the real and imagined harshness of the post-1834 poor laws.

At its inception, the ‘new’ poor law intended that the workhouse should be the last resort of poverty. Paupers were classified rigorously according to age, sex and health, and all aspects of their lives such as eating, working, washing, sleeping, interaction and recreation were to be ordered in accordance with exacting guidelines. Women formed a substantial proportion of workhouse inmates throughout the nineteenth century. Whilst those let down by the alleged weakness of their husbands were perceived more sympathetically, mothers of illegitimate children and women defined as ‘fallen’ incited the strongest condemnation.punnish

Workhouse management was empowered to impose punishments on inmates who broke the rules of obedience and compliance.  This ranged from a change of diet to a spell of isolation in the ‘refractory cell’ or, in more serious cases, being taken before a magistrate. The representation of a workhouse as an isolated ‘total institution’ proves to be unrealistic both in theory and practice. Inmates could leave the workhouse for Sunday worship, personal business or to find employment. Going out with or without permission and returning drunk was a popular enterprise for both sexes. The phrase ‘over the wall’ was frequently used.

My research is derived primarily from newspapers and the Swansea workhouse punishment book, and while not a complete record of misdemeanours, it demonstrates how women inmates disregarded workhouse rules and appeared to remain impervious to punishments and at times manipulated the pauper system with great success.

The most common ‘offences’ were swearing, quarrelling and fighting. In 1864, Ellen Macarthey and Mary Brown ‘quarrelled and fought, abusing each other in the most savage manner like brute beasts, and after being parted would not give over their abusive language to each other’. For some women, disruption of workhouse life appeared to be a regular pastime.  Between November 1866 and March 1868, Mary Ann Daniels was charged with breaking windows in the workhouse, for which she was sent to gaol for 14 days, quarrelling, fighting, threatening and obscene language, ‘going to bed in the day time’, disobedience, impertinence and ‘threatening to do for the cook’.

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Another inmate who troubled the authorities repeatedly was Harriet Nichols. As well as a string of offences similar to Mary Ann Daniels above, she enjoyed a drunken evening in the workhouse in 1863 which included shouting and singing obscene songs and dancing around the bedroom. This culminated in her and Mary Rees ‘exposing their persons at the windows in a state of nudity’.

One woman’s resistance to the conventions of control was so successful that she publicly overturned the power and authority of the poor law establishment. Miriam Jackson was taken before the magistrates for breaking a window in the refractory cell where she had been confined for the night.  Her performance in the dock resulted not only in an acquittal but also censure for the workhouse management from the Bench. While being escorted back to the workhouse she apparently ‘abused the master with the most filthy language’, and boasted that she had the magistrates on her side. Similarly, The Cambrian newspaper later commented on her incarceration in the refractory cell as:

‘Such a state of things is not only a disgrace, it is cruel, it is monstrous!’

When I first read the punishment book, I laughed out loud throughout at the sheer, glorious, bloody-minded anarchy and disruption these women (and men) caused to those in authority. Their experience and conduct is a stimulating area of women’s history and their behaviour should not be sanitised and neither should they be categorised solely as victims.  They were active agents – of their own downfall perhaps – and I have no doubt they were replicated in workhouses all over Britain.

The Swansea workhouse punishment book (U/S 24) is available to consult at West Glamorgan Archives Service, Swansea.

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