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.

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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’.

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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

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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

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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 

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4 thoughts on “High days and holidays for the workhouse child

  1. Another excellent post Lesley – thank you. Comes just at the time when I was reading a family-published memoir that included an account of the Daughters of Charity taking the boys from St Vincent’s orphanage in Hull on a 2 week holiday (early 1920s) to the seaside and taking the children from their London homes to a holiday home they had in Dover. This 2 week holiday was pretty general across their orphanages at this time and these holidays are recalled by the former residents as a great time with treats of the kind you describe. Can’t help thinking we have lost historical perspective on children in care – working-class children in my own Manchester childhood in the 1950s did not get 2 weeks at the seaside. I’m not saying these children were ‘better off’ or that two weeks holiday ‘makes up’ for not having your own family, just agreeing with you that the childrren were not ‘lost in care’ or neglected in a systemic way.

    1. Thank you Susan, yes in many ways these children were ‘better off’ than many poor children. No amount of outings and treats could make up for not having your own *happy* family, however quite a few children were from abusive homes or deserted by their parents.

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