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Poorhouse peculiarities in Bedford


My view of the poorhouse and workhouse was, until recently, comprehensively bleak. Tales of children taken from a mother’s arms, each of those children then failing to thrive then passing away, were part of the currency for me in writing about Bedfordshire’s folk and historical past. So, when researching Bedfordshire Folk Tales for The History Press, I came across a story of a workhouse incident in 1842 of men breaking into a pub and eating a seemingly endless list of food, I had an initial picture in my mind of men reacting to near starvation conditions. The reality was slightly different.

I found a record of the court case that followed this incident in the court depositions. By this time, the men were now prisoners on trial and depositions were taken from William Horn, the keeper of the Duke’s Head public house at Heath and Reach not far from Leighton [Buzzard], Bedfordshire, Thomas Bromley the Master of the Union workhouse at Leighton, James Sherwood, the parish constable and then Jabez Cosby, James French, James Elgerton, Samuel Kempster and Wiliam Banks – all inmates of the Union workhouse.

It was true that the men had broken into the pub, yet it seemed to come as no surprise to the master of the Union workhouse that the men had left the workhouse in the first place. In his deposition he reveals that it was easy for persons to get out of the sleeping wards. The five men left the workhouse leaving some slight fresh marks on the front gates, which they must have clambered over with no incident. With that task complete, they wandered into the Duke’s Head at about 9 p.m. ordering beer and bread and cheese, this recalled by William Horn with prosaic calm. The men chatted to him quite openly about having got out of the Union house, saying that they would need to return by 10 p.m.

With hindsight the chatter about returning by 10 p.m. appears to have been staged and a ruse to convince the keeper of the Duke’s Head of their return to the workhouse.  William Horn and his wife went to bed about 11 p.m. Before doing so they made sure that the outer doors, windows and cellar flap were all made fast.  In the morning he found a scene of near devastation in his cellar. Missing were a hare, a piece of pickled pork weighing 4 or 5lb and 14lb of bacon. Four stone bottles had been taken as well as a potato fork. A hogshead barrel of beer was still running, leaving the floor wet with beer and William Horn quickly came to the conclusion that the men had filled the stone bottles with beer before disappearing. 

William Horn, with due alacrity, contacted the parish constable and when they visited the workhouse a search was made of the men’s day ward. In one of the privies attached to the ward, three stone bottles were found and in the other privy, a hare. In the coal place a piece of pickled pork was discovered and under the roof four or five pieces of bacon. This was far from the picture I had of surveillance and cowed subservience. Depositions from the men showed that they had returned to the workhouse, broiled the bacon and pork and continued to drink the beer until the early hours of the morning. The men were far from suppressed and subdued paupers and the master of the workhouse was apparently sleeping soundly in his bed unaware of the chaos taking place within his walls.

After reading these depositions, I dug a bit deeper into the history of the poorhouse and workhouse in Bedfordshire. It became clear that the poor law introduced after the Dissolution of the Monasteries was not uniform. Distress could be acute and the reaction to it sometimes inadequate, especially in the years of bad harvest in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. There was some understanding that the poor are always with us, giving an impetus for schemes such as parish allotments for poor labourers in the villages of Sharnbrook, Toddington and Eversholt. Enlightenment about poverty and its link to crime came in the shape of a small booklet written by T.P. Macqueen of Ridgmont in 1830, Thoughts and suggestions on the present condition of the country, who asserted that ‘of 96 prisoners in Bedford, 76 were of good character driven to crime by sheer want’.

It became clear that the Victorian discussion of crime, poverty and work was just as complex as the debate taking place on Internet pages, newspapers, television and radio today. My slightly humorous story of men escaping for a night of drunken debauchery – although it couldn’t be that debauched if they had the wherewithal to cook the pork and bacon – seems to show a lack of uniformity in these institutions. By the time of the story, 1842, a new poor law had been introduced. In 1834 Parliament introduced a system of grouped parishes in unions with elected groups of guardians. As time went on, these institutions developed an ideology of making workhouse life so bleak that the able-bodied pauper would do everything in their power to avoid entering such a place. It could have been leniency on the part of the master of the workhouse, habit maybe or that he was distracted by other aspects of his everyday life. In any case this story seems to suggest that life in these institutions could vary with the vagaries of human nature.

By Jen Foley

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