Thomas Smith, Barnet Workhouse
Workhouse records can be an invaluable source for disability history, offering a poignant glimpse into the lives of individuals grappling with disabilities in the past.
Workhouses were designed to provide relief to the destitute, including those with disabilities. These records often document the types of disabilities individuals faced, the support systems, (or lack of), in place, and the daily challenges they encountered. Within the records, personal stories can come to life.
One such story is that of Thomas Smith, detailed in the Barnet Workhouse Masters Journal [Ref: 70876]. In September 1836 a letter was received at the Barnet Workhouse to say that Richard Smith, the brother of a pauper named Thomas Smith, was dangerously ill. Thomas was granted permission to go see his brotherwith a boy to guide him, he being entirely blind.
Richard sadly died and on the 12th October it was recorded that “Thomas Smith, the blind man begs he may be permitted to attend the funeral of his brother Richard”. This entry is amended with the note “permission granted”.
on the 24th October 1836, the workhouse master records that
“Thomas Smith the blind man on his return this afternoon said the resurrectionist men had attempted the previous night to steal his dead brother, and asked me to let him go out the following day as he wishes to watch the churchyard all night. I of course refused”
Resurrectionists were body snatchers who, for payment, stole newly buried corpses for surgeons. Though the practice was illegal, prosecutions for body snatching were rare.
This story encapsulates the challenges all people faced in the workhouse. Thomas was subject to the whim of the master who possibly refused his request to protect his brother’s body due to the cost. The workhouse would have had to pay a boy to sit with Thomas all night.