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Girls in the workhouse: a question of morality, c.1880-1920 – Claire Phillips

In the late nineteenth century, anxiety was growing throughout society about the suitability of the workhouse for children. Children could enter the workhouse for many reasons: as part of destitute families, as orphans, or as a result of economic difficulties that had led the family to place one or more of their children in the institution. Workhouse children were considered to be impressionable, and in need of protection from the bad influences of adult paupers.

Girls were particularly vulnerable to such influences, and the subject of girls’ morality is central to my ongoing research on workhouses in Wales. Pauper girls were identified as being one step away from ‘a dissolute life of easy virtue and illegitimate babies’ and living in the workhouse was thought to encourage that behaviour.[1] Different areas of Wales held opposing views about how to look after children and ensure the morality of girls in their care. In West Wales, particularly in Ceredigion and Powys, children were boarded out. Whilst this sometimes meant living with extended family—paid for by the Union—children were often boarded out with families that they did not know. The main concern for those arranging the boarding out of children was religion. The foster family and the child had to be of the same denomination, and the children were expected to regularly attend church or chapel. This was considered to be a fundamental component of the moral life by the Board of Guardians.

In South Wales and some parts of North Wales, children were provided accommodation in specially built cottage homes. These were cottages that formed part of the workhouse, but were located away from the main workhouse site to keep the children away from bad influences. Each cottage was overseen by a ‘house mother’, who was either a single woman or a married woman assisted by her husband as ‘house father’, and they were single-sex environments—ensuring no mixing and thus protecting the girls’ morality.[2] The cottages were run like a home rather than a workhouse dormitory, with the children given chores and responsibilities. Girls who entered the workhouse during this period were expected to become domestic servants, therefore their work in the cottage was seen as useful training for their adult life.

The surviving records demonstrate the importance of morality to those charged with overseeing children in the workhouse. Daisy Concklin was boarded out from the Aberystwyth workhouse after her mother’s death in 1903. She was fostered by Mrs Evan Thomas and proved to be a problematic child. The correspondence on Daisy does not explicitly state what she had done to earn the moniker of ‘troublesome’, but it does confirm that she ‘had a good home and year by year has improved’.[3]  The reference to a ‘good home’ suggests that Mrs Thomas, Daisy’s foster mother, had proven able to provide Daisy with a stable environment and perhaps some domestic training. The latter’s improvement over the years suggests that living away from the workhouse environment was good for her wellbeing, especially as an impressionable young girl.

However, not every girl’s experience was so successful. May Richards was one of eight illegitimate children who were orphaned when their mother died in 1903—the father or fathers were unknown. Although illegitimate children were not subject to the same discrimination as their mothers, there was a fear that illegitimate girls in particular were susceptible to following in their mothers’ footsteps.[4] In May’s case, she was first adopted by her uncle whilst her seven siblings were taken in by various individuals known to the family. However, May’s uncle’s wife—for reasons not disclosed—did not like May, and she was returned to the Aberystwyth workhouse. May was boarded out with another family, but her behaviour was deemed to be so poor that she was sent to a training home in Birmingham in in 1905. She was still resident at the home two years later when her records stopped being updated.

It wasn’t just girls who were boarded out whose behaviour was brought into question either. Those who lived in cottage homes proved to be equally capable of causing trouble. Elizabeth Jones ran away from the Swansea Cockett Cottage Homes in 1881, after having stolen some money from the home. She was captured by a policeman, returned to the workhouse and sent back to the cottage home the following day to face her punishment. The records show that those in charge of the cottage home did not consider Elizabeth to be redeemable:

“I suggest that this girl cannot be properly punished in the Homes and that she out to be kept under a warrant (after proof of these offences) to an industrial school as a means of reforming her and deterring others by the example.”[5] (emphasis added).

The fact that Elizabeth could not be punished with sufficient severity within the home suggests that there was neither the provision nor the taste for punishing girls for such serious offences. Yet her removal to an industrial school was recognised as having the potential for warning other girls in the home not to follow in her footsteps.

As these examples demonstrate, morality was at the forefront for girls in the workhouse during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The attempts by Board of Guardians to instil morality and good behaviour in these girls is clear, despite the kinds of backgrounds they may have come from. When the Guardians could not do this, the girls were sent on to Reformatories or Industrial Schools, but whether they were reformed is a question for further research.

I’ll be undertaking more research on the girls in Welsh Workhouses and attempting to trace their lives—were they successful in their later lives, or was their treatment too harsh, leading them into the immoral lives the Workhouse was attempting to prevent?

Claire Phillips received her PhD from the University of Leeds in 2017. She has published widely on the London Foundling Hospital, with articles in Genealogy and Childhood in the Past, and has two articles forthcoming in Family & Community History and the Journal for the History of Childhood and Youth. With the support of a WHN ECR Fellowship, she is currently beginning a project on children in Welsh Workhouses, 1880-1920, with a focus on the morality of girls, and their preparation for life.

Images of Ruthin Workhouse and Swansea Workhouse from wikicommons.

[1] Christopher Draper, Paupers, Bastards and Lunatics: The Story of Conwy Workhouse (Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2005), p. 134.

[2] Draper, Paupers, Bastards and Lunatics, p. 125.

[3] Ceredigion Archives, Aberystwyth CBG: 1233 Aberystwyth Boarding Out Committee, 1899–1909.

[4] Frank Crompton, Workhouse Children (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), p. 43.

[5] West Glamorgan Archives, Swansea U/S/66/1 Visitors Report Book, Wednesday 30 March 1881.