Imaginative Ancestry: Sarah Elizabeth in an English workhouse, 1867-1874.

The streets of Illogan echoed to the steady clip clop of the old nag pulling Joseph’s cart. Beside him sat his old and dear aunt, Sarah Elizabeth, still unmarried at the ripe old age of 75, now destined to spend the rest of her days in The Workhouse. They sat in silence, neither of them looking forward to the moment when Joseph would help her down from the cart and turn her over to those who would rule over every minute of her remaining life…. what time she got up in the morning, what she ate, her daily work and what time she went to bed at night. He felt guilty about it, who wouldn’t, but what could he do with five children and a wife to feed all living in a cramped miners cottage. There wasn’t anywhere even for his aunt to sleep never mind enough to feed her!

Workhouse Entry

The moment arrived and Joseph watched sadly as Sarah Elizabeth was taken inside by two younger women, not unkindly, but with a smile and a reassuring nod to him. Once inside, she was taken into a commissioners office where a suited gentleman asked her lots of questions about her age, where she was born, where she recently lived, her previous occupations, religion and place of worship, her health and any infirmity. Everything was written down in a large logbook before he explained what would happen next and the general rules of the house. Ringing the bell on his desk brought forth another woman, slightly younger than Sarah Elizabeth who took her away to be stripped and bathed by two of her assistants, a most demeaning experience! Once this was done she was issued with the female standard clothing of two calico shifts, two petticoats, two gingham dresses, a day cap, some worsted stockings and a pair of slippers.

Workhouse Food

A bell,suddenly began ringing and women began pouring out of different rooms and walking purposely down a long corridor …. “what’s happening” said Sarah Elizabeth “you arrived at just the right time” said Emily, her guide, “it’s supper time, come on”. They entered a large refectory with long lines of trestles, all set out with plates, cutlery, a large chunk of cheese and several thick cuts of bread on each plate. There were over 120 women scurrying to find a place to sit and Emily shoved Sarah Elizabeth to sit at the first spaces they found. Other women were walking around with large enamel jugs and teapots filling up the pint sized mugs with hot tea. This was the final meal of the day before bed time at 8 o’clock, a chance for a bit of gossip and general socialising.

Workhouse Dormitory

Slowly but surely the inmates started to leave the tables making their weary way to their dormitory bedrooms. “Come on” said Emily, “they’ve given you a bed in the same dormitory as me so I’ll introduce you to your new friends”. In truth, Sarah Elizabeth was already exhausted and had very little memory of entering the dormitory, saying hello to a few folks who were darning stockings or patching a dress before she lay down on her lumpy bed and entered the welcome oblivion of sleep.

A Full Day in the Workhouse

The next thing she remembers is being shaken awake by Emily together with the noise of doors banging and people getting dressed in semi darkness. It was 6.00 am and time to get ready for a prompt and strictly enforced breakfast between 6.30 am and 7.00 am. If you were late …. no breakfast Emily advised her. “Where’s the privy” said Sarah Elizabeth “I need to go …… now!”. “Look under the bed” she was told, “Don’t worry nobody minds or looks, you haven’t time to go to the outdoor privy I’ll show you that later”.

Laundry: Breakfast was a pretty miserable affair, bread, butter, and a pint mug of tea, before being hustled off by Emily to what would be Sarah Elizabeth’s place of work ….. the laundry room. Hot and steamy air and wet floors greeted them as they entered with huge zinc tubs on legs, full of water were being heated on top of wood burning grates. Along one wall underneath the long window were piles and piles of clothing which had already been separated into underwear, dresses, bonnets, shirts, trousers, socks, and vests. These were the dirty clothes of the inmates with each dormitory having its day to deposit their clothes for cleaning by the laundry team, which Sarah Elizabeth was now part of. It was hard work in such heat, scrubbing, soaking, scrubbing again, rinsing, putting through the rollers of a mangle, then taking baskets of the clean clothes outside to be hung out to dry. Only four more hours and it would be time for dinner!

Dinner: Remember, this was hard graft to a young woman, but for a woman of 75 it was back breaking and sitting down in the refectory for dinner Sarah Elizabeth was aching in every muscle of her body. A large plate of beef and mutton pudding with potatoes and cabbage was put down in front of her and she just stared at it for a few minutes before her brain signalled to her hand to lift the spoon and start to eat. There was a battle raging inside Sarah Elizabeth’s head between tiredness and hunger, between the need to sleep versus the need to eat. If it hadn’t been for Emily, Sarah Elizabeth would have ended up face down in the beef and mutton pudding! But a few swigs of the pint of beer provided as part of lunch had a reviving effect and soon they were on their feet again for the next 5 hours of work, and thankfully it now involved sitting down.

Oakum: Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labour in Victorian workhouses and prisons. Workhouse inmates were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into their individual corkscrew strands. They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee using their hands until the mesh became loose. Oakum was made from mixing these fibres with tar and was then predominantly used to seal gaps in a ships planks, making them watertight, though it was also used in sealing other joints in log cabins for example or even cast iron joints in Victorian plumbing. This was classed as “outwork” with each woman being expected to pick a pound of oakum per day which was then sold to merchants who would mix the fibre with tar and sell it on to the Royal Navy. Naturally the Workhouse made a fine profit from this but it is somewhat fanciful to believe that those profits were ploughed back into the running of the Workhouse!

Sarah Elizabeth was relieved to be sitting down but five hours later her arms and fingers were throbbing even more than her back and shoulders had been from the morning laundry. She was used to working hard, in her sister’s homes she had cooked, washed, dusted and polished, as well as tending the vegetable garden. But this was purgatory, pure and simple purgatory, what had she and all of the others done in their lives to deserve this?

Oblivion: The ringing bell told her it was 6 o’clock, time for supper…. thank goodness, and she and the other women trudged through into the refectory for their meal of cheese with bread and butter plus a pint of tea. She now realised why it had been so quiet the previous evening, everyone was so tired they could hardly speak. For Sarah Elizabeth it was now a blessed relief an hour later as she slipped under the blankets of her lumpy bed and into a black oblivion of sleep. Until the 6am bell rang for the start of the next day, and the next day, and the one after that for another two thousand three hundred and seventy two days before the final oblivion claimed my great great great aunt, Sarah Elizabeth.

The general description of the final 7 years of my great great great aunt, Sarah Elizabeth’s life are true, she passed away in 1874 in the St Illogan Workhouse at the age of 82. I am also fairly certain of her daily routine including the administration of her entry, the food and the daily work routine. I have no idea whether she had a friend called Emily or whether she laundered or picked oakum on her second day but these were common labours for women as well as sewing and vegetable gardening. I hope you enjoyed the tale, but much more importantly I hope you gained some insight into the social conditions of England during the Victorian era. Whatever we have today in “this green and pleasant land” was fought for by our ancestors, not just on the battlefields of Europe, but in the fields, the factories, the mines and the work houses of those times.

If you want a fantastic resource on the history of The Workhouse I can recommend the website of Peter Higginbotham whose schedules and examples I have used in this article to tell Sarah Elizabeth’s story.

Categories: 1800s, Ancestry, Cornwall, Family History, Lucky Dip, Waters

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4 replies

  1. Unbelievable that older folks were treated like this at the end of their lives. Thanks for a truly illuminating story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful way to share your ancestor’s story. Thank you, Dr. B.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, do we ever have it easy! Whoever raves about the “good old days” doesn’t really know anything about what 99% of the population endured. So many people have fought to improve our lives in so many ways. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can be repaid only by ensuring that subsequent generations can continue to enjoy those blessings.

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