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.


6 thoughts on “Women of the Workhouse, Part I – A suitable job for a woman?

  1. Mr & Mrs Hewson, the Swansea workhouse master & matron, were my great-great-grandparents. Thank you, this was very interesting.

      1. Hi, I don’t have any photos of them I’m afraid. And really I don’t know much about them either, except that he was born in Swansea and before they got the job managing the workhouse they were living in London, where he was apparently working as a Scientific Lecturer. It does strike me as a bit curious that he would leave a position like that to go back to Wales to run a workhouse for a joint salary of £80 a year: which really wasn’t very much money even back then.

        I do have some photos of their son the singer and actor, Jones Hewson, who was my great-grandfather. But photos of him are quite easy to find online as he was something of a celeb, and I don’t think I have any that aren’t online already. I do however have one of his wife, Brenda Gibson the actress. I only recently found out that she was from Scotland.

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