Prior to the building of the Potterspury workhouse at Yardley Gobion –
Eden, in his 1797 survey of the poor in England, reported of Yardley Goben [Yardley Gobion] that:
In this township is a sort of Workhouse, in which there are at present only 2 persons. The manager of the house finds such Poor as the township may send him in victuals and fuel, for which he receives 3s. a week for each person. The township provides clothes, beds and other furniture.
The image above shows the tramps entrance to the workhouse early in the 20th century. On it you can see that the building goes all the way across as it was before the opening for a roadway was made in the 1920s, this gave access to the buildings which were made into residential accommodation. In the 1960s it was still possible to see the brick foundations to the webmasters house as you walked up between the houses.
The only access to the rear of the workhouse was through the gates in the picture this narrow lane ran behind the right hand row of houses or the tramps entrance: the small door or through the gate to the left into the room where the regular board meetings were held. At one time the large room above with the arched windows was the infirmary. Many babies born out of wedlock would have been born here.
The following was compiled by Tony Usher from notes made by Mrs Warren from Baker.
Compiled by Tony Usher from notes made by Mrs Warren from Baker
HISTORY OF THE POTTERSPURY WORKHOUSE AT YARDLEY GOBION
As a result of the Royal Commission investigation into poor relief in 1832, which concluded that the system was corrupt, extravagant and inefficient, certain reforms were introduced. When the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834, both urban and rural area parishes were combined into ‘Poor Law Unions,’ where a central workhouse was to be established for local poor to be housed, rather than to receive the rather more paternalistic, ‘Outdoor Relief’ that had previously been the norm.
Some outdoor relief was to be allowed in cases of sickness, accident, infirmity, the funeral of a relative, or to a widow with a legitimate dependent child or children. Also, families in work were to help support their aged parents.
Each Union elected propertied representatives from each parish to form a board of guardians, who were responsible for administering the workhouse itself, and what outdoor relief was appropriate under the supervision of the Poor Law Commission, subsequently the Poor Law Board.
Yardley Gobion was the chosen site for the workhouse building within the Potterspury Union, which comprised of eleven parishes in Northants and three from North Buckinghamshire. The land was bought from George Henry, Duke of Grafton, and the initial buildings were erected in 1837 at a cost of about £2,000.
Accommodation was prepared for around two hundred inmates, but the number in residence never reached that figure. The 1841 census shows the number of inmates to be just seventy-four, plus the Master, Matron and the Schoolmistress. Later census returns suggest that the number of residents never even reached one hundred.
While the general impression may be that the treatment of workhouse inmates was deliberately harsh, with constant bullying, and accepting that some maltreatment did go on in the hands of some over zealous staff, the majority seem to have been managed with fairness, but in a disciplined and strict manner.
Certainly, when Thomas Carr was reported as the culprit after it was discovered that the larder had been broken into, and bread and meat stolen during December 1843, the police were called in and charges were laid before the magistrates. Likewise, those who did not abide by the workhouse rules were dealt with unsympathetically as Lucy Richardson found to her cost in November 1840 when she was placed before the magistrates to be punished for refusing to work and for creating a general disturbance in the workhouse.
On occasions it was necessary for the Guardians to take drastic action as in the case of Elizabeth Jeffcoate. The minutes record that, “Mr Nixon stated that Elizabeth Jeffcoate, a pauper in the workhouse belonging to Stony Stratford West, is a dangerous lunatic and is therefore unfit to remain there. That the Overseer of the poor of Stony Stratford West be directed to procure her admission into the Northampton Lunatic Asylum and that our clerk do acquaint them with such order.” Having done that they also applied to magistrates to compel her husband to assist in maintaining her.
At the same time the Guardians were there to ensure fair play towards their custodians. Several examples where they exercised their authority to this purpose are shown in the Guardians Minute Books. In February 1871 Mr. Reeve, one of the Guardians found it necessary to bring to the attention of the Guardians meeting that “John Smith and Oliver Smith, two children lately sent from this House to be boarded at the House of James Evans of Stony Stratford, had been violently beaten by Mr. Ralph Mollett the National Schoolmaster there during their attendance at school.” The meeting then ordered the Relieving Officer to take out a summons against Mr. Mollett for assault.
Equally, the Guardians were responsible for the provision of the correct quantity and quality of food available to the inmates. In most cases the quantity was probably more than that of working individuals within the villages, although not so much as those in prison received, but scales were provided for inmates to have their quota checked if they so desired. On one occasion there was a complaint about the condition of the cheese supplied and Mr. John Reeve the local Contractor was ordered to “take back that now in the House and supply other cheese of a better quality in its stead.”
Contracts were tendered for on a regular basis following adverts in the Northampton Gazette and the Northampton Herald. Records indicate that in most instances the existing supplier was more likely to have their contract continued, but such contracts were significant and no doubt highly valued.
It may be noted that Mrs Jemima Smith was the supplier of bread to both the workhouse and the ‘Outdoor Poor’ in 1842, and that she was still making her deliveries in 1859 when she received a quarterly payment of no less than £188.1s.8d for her troubles. However, in 1848 the average number of paupers within the Yardley workhouse was 96, and the weekly cost of each for food and clothing was 2s. 7d, while in 1874 the average number in the workhouse was only 52, and the cost of each for food and clothing had risen to 4s. In 1874 William Bouser was the Master and Receiving Officer while his wife was Matron and a Miss Lucy Tarry was Schoolmistress.
Keeping finances in balance was quite a headache for the Guardians. On the one hand they had the ratepayers complaining that the rates were too high, while on the other hand they had to pay wages, maintain the buildings, and of course, ensure that provision was made for the poor. To this end, it was constantly necessary to request payment from other Unions in respect of paupers from their territory who sought relief locally. This required more than a little paperwork and often resulted in relief being withheld once a Union had refused to pay. An alternative was the forcible repatriation to the persons area of registration or birth.
Following a request by the then Master and Matron for an increase in their joint salary of £50 per annum, a review of all staff salaries was held during the meeting of Guardians of 24th February 1842. No doubt contrary to expectation, and because of complaints by ratepayers, the salaries of the Clerk and Auditor were reduced, while those of the Chaplain, the Receiving Officer and the Master and Matron remained the same. The Poor Law Commissioners did not agree to reduced the Auditors salary, but did in respect of the Clerk. The Clerk duly resigned his position.
With so many people housed together, albeit that the men and women were accommodated separately, there was the ever present concern of illness and disease. The Poor Law Commissioners encouraged a smallpox vaccination programme as early as 1840, but because some mothers resisted, it became compulsory in 1853.
Yardley’s workhouse had its own problem in the same way with measles during 1842. There were at least forty-five cases within the workhouse and no less than five fatalities from the disease. The Medical Officer considered that the poor ventilation of the dormitories were a contributing factor and consequently patients were removed to the boardroom and clerks room during the epidemic. Also, arrangements were made by the Guardians to have chimneys, fireplaces and grates put into all sleeping rooms. Incidentally, it is noted that the Guardians rewarded the Master and Matron for their contribution in comforting the inmates during the measles epidemic with an award of £5.
Medical Officers were also taken on a contract basis for specified areas within the Union domain. The largest of these areas included Yardley and the workhouse as well as Stony Stratford, Wolverton and Potterspury among others. It was the responsibility of the Medical Officer to visit the sick when necessary. In the case of Dr. Nixon a complaint was made by Mary Brooks that he failed to attend her husband who was very sick. After a second request was refused, with the explanation that he did not attend anyone in the afternoon, it became necessary to call out an alternative Doctor who saved the husbands life. The complaint was upheld against Dr. Nixon and he was warned as to his future conduct .
As an example of what each Parish had to contribute to the poor the following entry on 5th January 1871 is shown in the Guardians Minute Book.
Contribution Orders were made upon the Overseer of the Poor of the several Parishes requiring payment to the Treasurer on 27th instant of the following sums.
|Stony Stratford East||£69|
|Stony Stratford West||£85|
Several additional buildings were added to the workhouse during its lifetime. Apart from a wall being built to provide separate blocks for the men and women to sleep, there was also a hospital at the top of the yard where 13 to 16 Mount Pleasant now stand, and in 1872 a schoolroom was added. There was also further building to provide a dormitory, a day room, and a private room for the schoolmistress who had hitherto lodged with the Master and Matron.
In 1886 a Casual Ward was built where tramps or any poor traveller looking for work could stay one night. The tramps used to arrive in the late afternoon and sit on the seat surrounding the elm tree on the green until the gate opened to admit them. They had to bathe and change into clean workhouse clothes while their own were fumigated, and were then given supper, a bed, and breakfast the following morning, after which they had to break a heap of large stones into smaller pieces which were then subsequently used for road repairs. The tramps entrance was where the Post Office stands today.
Yardley workhouse seems to have been humanly managed compared with some others. A good deal depended on the Board of Guardians and the people employed as Master and Matron. The Duke of Grafton used to convey the inmates to Wakefield for an outing and feast in the summer, and special diets were provided in the house for those too old or feeble to go. Also, on Christmas Day special treats were provided. Although daily meals were dull, they were sufficient, and as good as the inmates would have enjoyed in their own homes if they had been outside. But of course, such a manner of relieving poverty was deplorable, and old people dreaded going into the workhouse.
Towards the end of the 19th century it was realised that it was a bad thing to keep workhouse children shut up as they had difficulty in facing life in the outside world when they were old enough to go out to work, so they began to attend the village school. A doorway was cut through the wall adjoining the workhouse and the school playground.
In 1908 the Government brought in Old Age Pensions and this was followed in 1911 by sickness benefit and unemployment pay, so the need for the workhouse decreased. Finally, in 1917, after the death of the matron and pensioning off of the workhouse master the Yardley workhouse was closed. The buildings were first utilised to house our own injured soldiers then to house German prisoners of war who worked on local farms. After the war the buildings remained unused for some time and as no use could be found for them they were sold and converted into dwellings. The original house of the Master and Matron was tenanted but was eventually demolished to allow widening of the road access into the other dwellings of Mount Pleasant.
This is how the master’s house looked before demolition when the workhouse became a residential area.
Viewing from the top towards the road.