Edited by Robert M. Gutchen
A combination of poor wages for agricultural workers and the depression after the Napoleonic Wars put the existing system of poor relief under great strain. This was demonstrated by widespread labourers' riots in 1832, although these did not greatly affect Hertfordshire. In the same year, The Government appointed a Royal Commission to inquire into the poor law. It was to find reasons for not subsidising labourers' wages and to solve excessive pauperism.
The Commission claimed that prevailing practices in poor relief were responsible for the increased poor rate. The subsequent report was produced in 1834 and two months later an Act embodying the report’s recommendations became law. The Bill was intended to produce national uniformity with less eligibility and a workhouse test.The Act placed the Poor Law system under the direction of the new Poor Law Commissioners.
Assistant commissioners were appointed to tour the country and check for conformity to the Bill. 2066 parishes were formed into 112 unions, 14 of which were wholy or partly in Hertfordshire.
The Barnet Union
When the Barnet Union was formed in 1835, five of its ten parishes, South Mimms (population 2010 in 1831), Shenley (pop. 1167), Chipping Barnet (pop 2369), East Barnet (pop. 547) and Ridge (pop. 347), had poorhouses of various sorts. South Mimms had a building at least a century old with fifteen rooms and a yard with a small garden. It could take 40 paupers. Shenley’s poorhouse had been built in 1800 and held about 25 inmates. The workhouse of Chipping Barnet, built in 1807, had eleven rooms and was surrounded by a garden of two acres. East Barnet’s house could hold fifty paupers. Ridge had just built a new house (in 1834) to take 20 inmates. The other parishes in the Union were Elstree (pop. 341), Totteridge (pop. 595), Hadley (pop. 979), Friern Barnet (pop. 615), whilst Finchley (pop. 3210) was added in 1837.
Daniel Adey, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner visited the area and reported that the then current houses were insufficient to support the Act. The Guardians decided to build a new, single Union Workhouse on a new site and they borrowed £4000 (with the agreement of the Law Commissioners) in order to do so.
The main building which faced south overlooking a valley, contained a Board Room and a waiting room, each fitted with a fireplace. The Master’s quarters were also on the ground floor. There were separate living quarters (sleeping and dayrooms) for old men, old women, able-bodied men, able-bodied women, boys and girls. All these living quarters were on the first floor and the plan has the young men’s rooms and the young women’s rooms at opposite ends of the building! Each “class” of inmate had its own gravelled yard for exercise. Each class also ate separately. The porter had a small lodge and stables and sheds were provided for the Guardians horses and carriages.
An infirmary was added later as a separate building, to tend the sick and isolate those with contagious illnesses. Whilst this building was being built, Shenley workhouse was used to house pauper children; South Mimms workhouse housed the pauper women, (shortly transferred to East Barnet) and the men were housed at Chipping Barnet. This latter house was supervised by Benjamin Woodcock and his wife at an annual salary of £40. Until everyone was finally moved to the new Union building, Benjamin was responsible for overseeing the other workhouses as well.
On 27th March, 1837, Woodcock transferred the inmates of Chipping Barnet to the new building. This was followed by the women from East Barnet during the week of 27th April and finally the women and children from Shenley on 5th May.
All Workhouses were governed by rules laid down by the Poor Law Commissioners. A set of rules was created in 1835 to go with the new Poor Law. These were amended over time until the General Consolidated Orders of July 24th 1847 were produced and these remained in force into the twentieth century as the basic national code of poor relief.
The aims of the 1835 regulations included running the workhouses efficiently and economically as well as making them as uncomfortable as possible whilst keeping them fair, healthy and clean for the paupers. The Regime Discipline was rigorous with inmates having to rise at 6 o’clock (7 o’clock in winter) and be in bed by 8 o’clock. Meals were breakfast from 6.30 – 7 am (7.30 – 8), dinner from 12 noon to 1 and supper from 6 to 7 pm. In between times they were expected to work. Infants, sick and infirm had their hours and work determined by the Guardians. There was no work on Sunday and inmates were expected to attend religious services. Cooking and household chores were allowed. Children were to receive three hours of reading, writing and religious education as well as training in useful, industrious and virtuous habits.
Meals were eaten in complete silence and were sufficient to sustain the ability to work but not attractive enough to the local poor to induce indolence or idleness. Portions were strictly controlled. The Medical Officer decided what the aged and sick would eat.The only alcohol – beer, wine and sometimes gin - allowed was for medical purposes.
Unruly inmates were classified as either disorderly or, worse, refactory. A Refactory pauper could be confined for up to 24 hours with limited food and if the Guardians considered the offence to be sufficiently serious he/she would be brought before a JP “to be dealt with according to law.” The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 forbade corporal punishment.
Workhouses were supposed to encourage inmates to become independent workers and not depend on workhouse relief. However it was not easy to quit the workhouse since the regulations stated that three hours’ notice had to be given to the master of any intention to leave the house and the head of family had to take his wife and children with him. A pauper who left without authorisation was liable to be charged with theft of the workhouse clothes he or she was wearing.
A committee of visiting Guardians were required to make weekly inspections to check the cleanliness of the establishment and the health and orderliness of the inmates. They were required to check that the paupers were kept employed “as far as they were severally able”; the children were looked after and properly instructed; different classes of paupers kept apart; menus adhered to; prayers said and services held regularly; and that the stores of provisions were kept properly.
Clergymen were allowed unfettered access to the inmates for religious consolation or instruction. Otherwise the inmates were only allowed visits authorised by the Guardians and these were strictly supervised by the master or matron.
Barnet Guardians only appointed a schoolmaster at the end of 1838 to teach shoemaking as well as writing, reading and arithmetic. Woodcock’s daughter taught the girls and, until the school master was appointed, a pauper taught the boys reading and the rest of their education consisted of cultivating the workhouse garden.
The 1835 Regulations also required that there be a medical officer who was responsible for the health of the inmates and a porter who made sure that only authorised people entered the building. The Board could, and did, make its own regulations as long as they did not contradict the 1835 Regulations.
The Duties of the Master and the Matron
Woodcock had to be up early in the morning to rouse the paupers after which he read prayers, took the register and inspected them to see that they were clean. This was followed by supervising breakfast (including Grace) and then setting the paupers to work. He had to supervise dinner; setting the paupers to work in the afternoon; supervising supper and then seeing that the men were in bed by 8 o'clock. At nine o’clock in the evening the master had to check the men’s dormitories and make sure that all fires and lights were extinguished. He then had to check that all gates and doors were securely locked.The matron did the same activities in relation to the women inmates. She was also responsible for the sick and the children.
The Poor Law Commissioners tried to regulate for any contingency that might occur, to enable it to treat paupers fairly and humanely but also harshly so that life in the workhouse was not seen as “an easy option”.
Further information can be found in "Down and Out in Hertfordshire - a Symposium on the Old and New Poor Law, published in 1984, ISBN 9780901354327. This book is available at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies.
Notes on the Diary
Woodcock attended the Guardian’s meetings every Thursday. He reported on the state of the workhouse, the conditions of the paupers and the state of the Union generally. He was expected to report any abuses or problems which needed correcting as well as suggesting what improvements might be made in the running of the house. He clearly used the diary to help him in his report. The diary was read by Guardians at other times as there are occasional comments written in the margin by the chairman, Mr Elwin and other Guardians.
Woodcock often used contractions in his diary and these have been expanded, generally, to the full word. Some punctuation has been provided or supplied in place of Woodcock’s dashes & flourishes. Most spelling errors have been left untouched except where to do so would confuse. Most grammatical errors have been left untouched, as has Woodcock’s use of capital letters. This work was completed by Robert M. Gutchen, the editor.
The diary was written in a small bound notebook. Each page contained three or four entries with a wide margin. Material written in the margin has been added at the end of the appropriate entry.