A grim institution

I’m going to republish all my books as paperbacks – although I’ll re-edit them all first! The next to come out will be ‘Magick’ the second in my Radwinter series. In this extract Thomas Radwinter is researching someone he hopes will prove to be his distant ancestor because he likes his name ‘Horatio Magick’; he is beginning to research him and finds him as a young boy in a workhouse:

I looked back at the record of Horatio in the workhouse, then looked at a really good website all about workhouses.
The North Witchford Union Workhouse was built in 1838, four years after the new Poor Law Act was passed. It was designed as a cruciform two-story block and the photos which I’ve found make it look a most agreeable and attractive place… I’m sure it wasn’t thought of like that a hundred and seventy years ago!
There was an entrance with a porter’s lodge and a room for the workhouse guardians, presumably to meet and discuss the inmates. The ‘residents’ were in buildings at the back, men separated from women, husbands from wives, sons from mothers, and daughters from fathers. I wonder where Horatio’s parents were? There may also have been an infirmary at the Union workhouse… much needed I would guess.
What a dismal place, but maybe it was better than sleeping in ditches? I looked at the occupations of the ‘residents’; before they had fallen onto hard times; many of them had crafts and must have once worked in respected positions. There were many agricultural labourers, here written out in full – on other censuses they are abbreviated to ‘ag lab’.
On the first page, there at the top were Isaac and Mary Kirkby, the master and matron. Mr Kirkby’s mother, seventy year old Ann was also living on the premises. Below them were James and Ann Pope, the porter and the school mistress, and their four little Popes, Frederick, Robert, William and Jane. George Smith was the school master, he was only twenty, and Jane Hillard from Ireland was the nurse.
As I scanned down the pages, there were a fair number of ag labs, but there were also people with occupations; the intriguingly named John Cammel was a hawker, Lidia Cunnington a lace-maker, little thirteen year old William Jackson seemed to be a shoe-maker or possibly shirt-maker. Another little shoe/shirt maker, another hawker, a dealer… and then, how heart-breaking, some child labourers. It actually said it, there on the census, ‘child labourer’. William Pitchers aged six, his older sister Ann who was nine, and little John Ablett aged eight. John Ablett had two brothers, mere boys who were tailors, Isaac and Robert. They were ten and thirteen, doing the work young men would do now; however, without that work they were in the grim institution of the workhouse.
There were more child labourers, another lace-maker, another shoe maker, all children. I turn the page without expecting to see anything better; shoemaker, gardener, carpenter, a miller… where was his mill? What had happened that he was a miller without a mill? William Smart, aged seventy, maybe he was too old to work… it must be hard work, carrying in the sacks of grain, carrying out the sacks of flour, operating the machinery. Further down the page is sixty-eight year old Richard Smith, a mill-wright. To be nearly seventy in that era must have been unusual, there were no pensions, nothing to support an old person in their later years.
Two washer women, a butcher and here is Horatio, and I hadn’t noticed before but he is a carpenter… eleven years old and it says he is a carpenter… and so he is ten years later back on the Isle of Wight.
I’m feeling quite melancholy so I try to cheer myself up by looking at the unusual surnames; Lythal, Bingess, Measures, Newitt, Lenton, Selch, and Charrity. There are several people born in Ireland, there is the letter ‘I’ under the column marked ‘Whether born in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts’. The Radwinters came from foreign parts.

© Lois Elsden 2018

Here is a link to the e-book version:


My featured image is of a workhouse, no longer a grim place but luxury flats


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