A report by a Mr Cane for the national Poor Law Board painted a horrifying picture of conditions in the Preston Workhouse in 1867. The report was picked up by the Morning Star, a radical London newspaper, much to the disgust of the workhouse’s board of guardians. I’ve not been able to locate Mr Cane’s report or the article in the Morning Star, but in the Preston Chronicle report of the board meeting at which the article was discussed, one member quoted from it extensively as he expressed his outrage at length.
That member was a Mr Ambler, who I think was Edward Ambler, a printer and ‘political schemer and Liberal parliamentary agent’, who was clearly a smooth operator since he managed to retain the Tory corporation’s printing contract. The Tory members of the board poked fun at Ambler, saying the radical Morning Star would be his paper of choice.
The chairman, Thomas Batty Addison, was also a wily political operator, twisting the condemnation of the workhouse, which was then on a site on Deepdale Road near the present bus depot, into an argument in favour of his pet project: a new workhouse serving the wider Preston area. He won, against fierce local opposition, and the result was the workhouse built on Watling Street Road in Fulwood. Addison peppered his response to the Morning Star article with a shotgun blast of slanders against the working people of Preston.
The report to the Poor Law Board, according to Mr Ambler, focussed on the workhouse’s ‘itch ward’ where those with contagious conditions were confined in a room with no ventilation, swarming with vermin and:
… slept two or even three in one bed. At the moment of inspection, six men were found occupying one ward, and these had two beds placed at their disposal. This was the ward specially allotted to itch cases; and in one instance lately two men and two boys were allowed to sleep in one bed.
Treatment was rudimentary:
… in the midst of this ward Mr. Cane saw an adult patient standing upright without a fragment of clothing upon him, whilst a pauper attendant painted him over with a brush a dipped in an application for his disease.
Batty Addison’s slanders included the following:
When Mr. Cane talked of want of ventilation, he (Mr. Addison) might ask if the houses of the poor, the lowest class, were ventilated (‘no;‘) did they like ventilation; would they permit it – could they persuade them to open their windows (‘no‘) on any occasion were their windows made even to open? Let them compare the workhouse with their own houses. If this were done, would they not find the Preston Workhouse a palace in comparison with their own abodes?
The following is a full transcription of the Preston Chronicle report of the issue at the board of guardians’ meeting, it can be found on page six of the 9 March 1867 issue:
PRESTON BOARD OF GUARDIANS
The weekly meeting of the guardians was held on Tuesday. Present-Mr. W. Howitt, in the chair; T. B. Addison, J. Cooper, and R. Newsham, Esqrs., ex-officio guardians; and Messrs. Clarkson, Sumner, Teebay, Redmayne, Whittle, T. Holden (Ribchester), Waddington, Bee, J. Howarth, Cragg, Lund, G. Howarth, Gudgeon, Dewhurst, Ward, T. Holden (Walton), Miller, Satterthwaite, and Ambler, elected guardians of the Preston union
CRITICISM OF THE MORNING STAR ON THE PRESTON WORKHOUSE
Mr. AMBLER said he might inform the guardians that with reference to Mr. Cane’s recent report on the state of the Preston Workhouse, they had now the metropolitan press down upon them. If those papers had said all that was true, he (Mr. Ambler) should not have raised any objection; but as they had grossly misrepresented the facts of the case, he thought it only just to the Board to make some allusion to the matter. Mr. Ambler then quoted several passages from an article in Monday’s Morning Star, which he represented as false, and said that those who had had a hand in the writing of the article knew as much about the Preston workhouses as he did about the South Sea Fisheries. We subjoin the passages quoted:
We learn that the workhouse infirmary of Preston, in Lancashire, is managed in a manner as offensive to the common laws of humanity, as it is detrimental to the preservation of the public health, and discreditable to the officials under whose superintendence this institution is placed. It is a very painful matter to have to dwell upon the scenes disclosed by a recent inspection of the Preston Workhouse; but it is a grave duty which we owe to the public, and from which it would be cowardly, in the interests of charity, to shrink.
And in this way the writer went on ‘piling the agony’ to a very considerable extent.
Ventilation was a phenomenon unknown, and the wards were dark, low, close, gloomy, and unhealthy. Mr. Cane examined the patients, and found that many of the infirm, and even those suffering from the most serious contagious diseases, slept two or even three in one bed. At the moment of inspection, six men were found occupying one ward, and these had two beds placed at their disposal. This was the ward specially allotted to itch cases; and in one instance lately two men and two boys were allowed to sleep in one bed.
Mr. Ambler said that, so for as the ‘serious contagious diseases’ were concerned, there was no truth either in the remarks made by the Morning Star or in the report which Mr. Cane had made to the Poor-law Board. But if there was any truth in it, he contended that the onus did not rest upon the Preston guardians, but more particularly the medical officers, whose advice the guardians were bound to take, and for whose neglect, if there had been any, the guardians were not responsible. As to the sleeping of two in a bed in the itch ward, they know that there was now ample accommodation for all the itch cases that occurred in the house; and if men in that ward thought it proper to sleep three, four, or five in a bed, they were not acting in accordance with the regulations of the house and it was also a voluntary act on their part, for which the guardians were not responsible.
He (Mr. Ambler) had observed several beds empty, after persons had been placed in them; the patients had for their own reasons perhaps – it not difficult to explain – left their own places and slept in close company with others. If the men set the regulations at defiance in that manner, the guardians, ought not to be blamed in the way in which Mr. Cane blamed them, and in which the public press were now apparently disposed to blame them. If they provided ample accommodation that was all they were in reason called it upon to do.
The writer went on to say that ‘in the midst of this ward Mr. Cane saw an adult patient standing upright without a fragment of clothing upon him, whilst a pauper attendant painted him over with a brush a dipped in an application for his disease.’
This certainly was a very shocking affair (laughter); but when properly explained by the regulations in the hospital, he thought it would not be found so startling as the gentleman who wrote that article would lead the public to imagine. Under medical superintendence what was named was done; but he hoped that the source of complaint would be removed by withdrawing all patients and in putting them under proper treatment in the workhouse.
The writer then observed, ‘One is loath to believe that the most stolid officialism has descended so low that such a condition as that which Mr. Cane describes should exist in any civilised institution.’ The writer might well disbelieve it. The guardians disbelieved it, because it was not correct. They knew that some of the circumstances alluded to by Mr. Cane were of an exceptional character, which occurred just on the day he visited the house. What Mr. Cane saw was not the normal or regular state of affairs.
The writer further said,
We learn for instance that no provision of water-proof sheeting or air cushions was made for the sick; that there are no closets or other conveniences, a few buckets distributed throughout the ward being allowed to take their place; that the wards were, as the matron admitted, swarming with vermin; that the male inmates, being unprovided by the guardians with clothes, were in some cases without shoes or stockings; and that there was but one receiving ward for men, women, and children.
He (Mr. Ambler) had no hesitation in describing that paragraph as untrue. It was not true when Mr. Cane made his report, and it was much less true now than then. There was now proper provision made with respect to water-proof, for all patients requiring it. The statement as to their being no other conveniences was palpably untrue. As to the vermin, that was quite true, and it was to be regretted that it was so. But the building was old and badly ventilated, and it was therefore not to be wondered at that vermin should exist more or less; but the master and matron, since their acceptance of office, had done all in their power to clean the place, and he believed that since last summer, and during the latter part of autumn, there had not been a cleaner workhouse in the respect named in any union in Lancashire.
The writer in the Star evidently wanted to convey the idea that the inmates were in a nude condition, and that they had no clothing. The words quoted related to that bright gentleman who threw his clothes and stockings away just before the inspector made his visit, and upon that man’s condition alone had the inspector grounded the whole of his case. The writer in the Star went on at considerable length afterwards, and referred to the necessity of an exposure of this shameful case, and no doubt the Preston Guardians would be considered barbarians through having allowed such a state of things, It was a great pity that men who wrote articles like that – articles of a sensational character – should make statements of the kind named; but he would write one article one way and another just the opposite if he was so instructed by his employers.
At the close of the article the writer stated: ‘If Mr. Cane’s observations be correct, either Mr. Corbett must have been guilty of a strange dereliction of duty, or his reports to the Poor-law Board had failed to stimulate that body to exert themselves in the matter.’ Having referred to Mr. Corbett’s knowledge of the case, Mr. Ambler observed that they all knew what Oliver Cromwell said in reference to Lord Harry Vane: he asked the Lord to defend him from Lord Harry Vane; and he (Mr. Ambler) must say that if all the inspectors who came down to Preston were like Mr. Cane the guardians might reasonably say, ‘The Lord protect us from inspectors.’ (Laughter.)
Mr. Addison agreed with Mr. Ambler that the report was highly coloured. He (Mr. Addison) ventured to say that, although of late he had not had it in his power to attend the workhouse as he used to do but he had for many years known the condition of it and he had always desired to improve it, and had been an advocate for a new one, – still he ventured to say that he did not think there had been anything in it which could really give grounds for such a description as that Mr. Cane had put forth as to its management.
That there was some ground for it there could be no doubt. The guardians were not now putting the union to an expense of £30,000 without some cause. If the old workhouse had been what it ought to be; and what the necessities of the case required, it would have been a great waste of money to build a new one. But the old place was insufficient, and the guardians, after overcoming the prejudices which had existed on the subject, had decided to erect a proper establishment.
Let them look at the case on both sides. This inflammatory description of the state of the workhouse appeared to be put into the Morning Star to teach the people that they were tryannised over, oppressed, starved, deprived of clothing, and not allowed the bedding and the necessaries they required, which again was to be made an article in the Morning Star to satisfy the people that they were not treated as they ought to be, and this was because they had not votes for members of parliament (Laughter)
Let Mr. Cane compare the present state of the Preston workhouse not merely with what he thought it ought to be and might be, and what perhaps the guardians of the Preston Union might make some approach to in their new workhouse, but let him contrast it with the condition of its inmates at home. (Hear, hear.) When Mr. Cane talked of want of ventilation, he (Mr. Addison) might ask if the houses of the poor, the lowest class, were ventilated (‘no;‘) did they like ventilation; would they permit it – could they persuade them to open their windows (‘no‘) on any occasion were their windows made even to open? Let them compare the workhouse with their own houses. If this were done, would they not find the Preston Workhouse a palace in comparison with their own abodes?
This was the proper way to consider the subject, because there were evils which afflicted humanity; evils incident to their present condition in this world, they must have poverty amongst them, and if they had, they must have squalid poverty, dirt, and filth, and foul smells, and many things which they might not wish to appear at all amongst them. The duty, the business of the guardians was to relieve this poverty as far as they could; and let them not be discouraged or disheartened because the efforts they made were treated in the manner named.
He must say that at the present time the Preston guardians were doing their duty. They had incurred great expense to meet the requirements of the poor, &c. But the work was not-done in a day. The new workhouse must in the first instance be resolved upon, and approved of, the plans must be made out, and then time must be taken to erect the building. They must have patience. Under all the circumstances he very much regretted that Mr Cane should have selected Preston to be put in the foreground as an instance of neglect, and at a time, too, when the Preston guardians were deserving of praise rather than blame for the accommodation they were making for the poor.
Mr. WARD said that if he recollected rightly, the lowest sick ward was ten feet high, and that one of the wards was from fourteen to sixteen feet high, and that there was no room in the house in which there was not one or two air grates for ventilation.
Mr. DEWHURST observed that the guardians had from time to time improved the ventilation; but the paupers stopped up and fastened the windows so as to prevent them from being open, and they were continually complaining that they had too much air.
Mr. COOPER said that Mr. Cane had not looked at the matter from a proper point of view. Probably in the south, where he had been, workhouses might be of a better description than they were in this part; but if he had to go into dwellings in town or country, and had then contrasted them with the Preston Workhouse, he would have gone away well satisfied. Again: Let Mr. Cane look at the dietary tables, and see how the people were fed – let him examine them, and include all the new laid eggs, legs of mutton, porter, &c. (laughter) –and compare them with those adopted in the south. In this part the inmates had been made as comfortable as circumstances would admit of. As to the vermin, he could account for it by the extra amount of fuel consumed. In warm climates, they were all aware, vermin thrived uncommonly well (laughter);-and the extra coal consumed at the Preston Workhouse must have made it a perfect paradise for fleas.–(Laughter,)
The CHAIRMAN considered the guardians were much indebted to Mr. Ambler for bringing this matter before them; and that they were under special obligations to him when they remembered that the paper he had been attacking was the Morning Star – a journal which Mr. Ambler to some extent believed in. (Laughter.) The chairman then said that from time to time Mr. Corbett had referred to the state of the Preston Workhouse; and all of them knew it was not what it ought to be; and that they – the guardians – were doing all they could to remedy the state of affairs by erecting a new workhouse.
Mr. COOPER thought that as Mr. Ambler had quoted Cromwell’s saying with regard to Lord Harry Vane, he would now be inclined to say, relative to the Morning Star, ‘Save me from my friends.’ (Laughter). The subject then dropped.