Our January talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
Pauline Hurst came to talk to us on 26th January. She explained that members of the St Helens Townships Family History Society had been curious to know why some of their ancestors were listed as Workhouse inmates on 19th century Census records. Their researches had developed into a book published in 2009. This made use of Library and Record Office archives including the architect's original drawings, newspaper interviews with workhouse staff and inmates, and a Whiston Workhouse Handbook printed in the 1920s setting out the rules and regulations (e.g. 'only one inmate to be in the bath at any one time').
Overcrowding of existing workhouse accommodation had forced national changes in 1842. As a result, the Prescot Poor Law Union had purchased land on the corner of Dragon Lane and Warrington Road, and commissioned the Liverpool architect William Culshaw to design a large new workhouse. This consisted of a central hub, with a tower enabling the Master to observe the four separate courtyards: for men, women, boys and girls. Strict segregation acted as a powerful deterrent, and it was only the destitute who chose to enter the workhouse. The stigma of the uniform (characteristic shawls and bonnets were worn by the women in one of the few photographs to have survived) and the monotony of the diet (an evening meal consisted of '1½ pints of cow's head soup') acted as further deterrents.
Whiston Workhouse incorporated offices for the distribution of 'outdoor relief': payments to local people in need, but not destitute enough to be admitted to the workhouse. It also provided accommodation for tramps, who were given a night's shelter and food (bread and water) and left the following morning after carrying out tasks such as breaking stone or chopping wood. Pauline explained that the Board of Guardians, who ran the workhouse, were 'in loco parentis'. Boys from Whiston were sent to the Kirkdale Industrial School in Liverpool for training in a craft or trade. The girls went to Pantasaph Orphanage in Wales with a view to becoming housemaids or nursery nannies. In 1883 it is recorded that 25 Whiston Workhouse children were sent to Canada for 'a better life' with more prospects.
Gradually the workhouse expanded: the number of inmates rising from 117 in 1851 to 1,140 in 1911, and the number of staff rising from 7 to 108. It had its own Chapel, with altars on wheels to cater for different religions. A Hospital was built behind the workhouse, and in 1929 - when workhouses were abolished - the whole complex became 'the County Hospital at Whiston'. Pauline showed us photographs of various wards (all now demolished, along with the workhouse and chapel buildings, and replaced by the new hospital completed in 2009-10) some of which, such as the Burns & Plastics Unit, had a regional reputation.
Pauline described how, even though it had been described as 'No.1 Warrington Road' on birth and death certificates from 1904 onwards (a potential source of confusion to genealogists) the stigma of the workhouse had persisted into modern times. She told us of an elderly relative, born in the Brownlow Hill workhouse, who refused to be admitted to Whiston Hospital 'to die in a workhouse' (as he still saw it). It was anecdotes like this that brought the story of the institution to life, and triggered off numerous questions and reminiscences from Pauline's large and appreciative audience.