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.

18 april 07 ladies vis com 2 (2)

18 april 07 more ladies vis com (2)

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’.

adelaide perkins funeral card from clive album (2)

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.


5 thoughts on “Women of the Workhouse, Part 2: Ladies to the Rescue?

  1. Thanks so much, as always, Lesley for your post. I wonder if you have come across reference to Roman Catholic sisters being approved as visitors for Roman Catholic women in the workhouses? My research in the archives of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul shows they visited in many workhouses (and several prisons such as Holloway and Strangeways) and I was just beginning to address the question of how this came about when your post appeared. Any pointers you can give me as to where I would find answers to the question of Roman Catholic visitors and approvals/recommendations would be really helpful. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments Susan. Swansea Union had a rather ambivalent relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Although Catholic children had the right to attend whatever church they belonged to, attending their church was never as straightforward as the Protestant children. In April 1897 a male guardian referred to the nuns of St Joseph’s church as a ‘secret society’. However, a Sister Leopoldine joined the Ladies Visiting Committee a month later in May 1897.

      1. Many thanks for this information and for signposting me to the Ladies Visiting Committee books. That’s obviously where I need to look. Can I take this opportunity to thank you also for ‘Elephant in the Room’ which I really appreciated as it is a very big question for me too and hard to discuss. I ‘worrit’ a great deal about it. Have you come across the work of Mark Smith? “Victim Narratives of Historical Abuse in Residential Child Care: Do We Really Know What We Think We Know?” Qualitative Social Work first published on August 27, 2010.

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