The Threat of Poverty

During the 17th century various charitable bequests were made for the benefit of the poor in Madeley Parish. In 1706 and 1713 some of this money was used to purchase property and other land in Madeley Wood and, towards the end of the 18th century, income from this investment was being distributed to ‘widows and other poor’. A parliamentary report of 1777 records a parish workhouse operating at Madeley (for up to 20 inmates). In 1796 a ‘House of Industry’ was constructed on charity property (financed by public subscription). We know from later records that this was in ‘The Brockholes’ (now Belmont Road, Ironbridge). The building was altered and extended several times before being sold in 1874 when a purpose-built workhouse was constructed on Lincoln Hill.

The original workhouse survives in part at 13 Belmont Road, the middle house in a terrace of three, whose front rooms probably belong to the 1796 phase of construction. A map of 1847 shows a much larger set of buildings labelled ‘workhouse’ on the site. Most of these have been demolished although some foundations survive in the back gardens of the present houses. The front section of the workhouse was, however, divided into three by the insertion of new walls and doorways when it was turned into houses shortly after 1874 and the construction of the back rooms of the existing houses is consistent with a later 19th century date.

It cannot have been a pleasant place in which to end up. Workhouses were controlled by ‘Boards of Guardians’ mostly comprising local worthies. Each workhouse was run, on a day-to-day basis, by a governor (or master) and a matron (usually the wife of the master) while a local doctor was co-opted to serve as the workhouse Medical Officer. Most Boards also employed a ‘Relieving Officer’, who received applications for relief and made payments approved by the Board, and a clerk who looked after general administration. Sometimes a schoolmaster or mistress was taken on. Workhouses were the only form of poor relief offered after 1834 and were intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm and the able-bodied were supposed to be housed separately and given basic food of the gruel variety. Initially, the able-bodied were sent to ‘The Brockholes’ with the ‘aged and infirm’ being sent to the smaller workhouse at nearby Broseley but, by 1838, all adults were concentrated at ‘The Brockholes’ (apart from one 92 year-old lady deemed too frail to move).

‘The Brockholes’ conformed to the late 18th / 19th century preference for putting the poor to useful work – hence the title ‘House of Industry’. Its masters and matrons were expected to have some knowledge of the ‘manufacturing of coarse linens and woollens’ and it produced cloth products which were sold on to a range of outlets. The ‘inmates’ as they were known wore the rough workhouse uniform and slept in dormitories. Those capable were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes (oakum). At one time workhouse boys from ‘The Brockholes’ were indentured as apprentices to the mines at the age of 13 or 14. They were then tied to that colliery for seven years earning nothing at all or only a very small gratuity. The practice had stopped by the mid-19th century.

However, some education was provided in the workhouse and provision improved over the years. A schoolroom was set aside in the Madeley workhouse and, from 1842, a separate playground. It is recorded that reading books, Testament lesson books and maps of England and the Holy Land were provided. By the 1860s workhouse children were being sent to school in Ironbridge and, by then, it was clear that ‘The Brockholes’ suffered from severe overcrowding and would have to be replaced.

The fear of ending up in the workhouse must have been common among Madeley miners who lived and worked so close to the local institution. From the beginning of the 19th century both the Madeley Wood Company and the Coalbrookdale Company ran ‘Field Clubs’ whose funds were raised by weekly payments of 2d (ca. 1p) for men and women and 1d (ca. ½p) for boys. In the case of accidents, contributors were entitled to the attendance of a doctor and ‘sick pay’ of 5s (ca. 25p) per week for six months (2s and 6d ca. 12½p per week for boys) and, for the remaining six months, half pay.

However, many colliers had to apply for relief on account of accidents in the mines or long-term sickness. Many, too, had to apply because of permanent debility from between the ages of 45 and 50 after which time many men would be considered unfit for work as colliers. Where possible such older or injured miners tried to find employment working on the pithead bank with the women or by attending to an engine or other less laborious work. The Anstice family were good employers who were concerned for the welfare of their workers but were probably unaware of the proportion of their workforce likely to end up in straitened circumstances.

Back to top ↟