Preparing children for a better life away from the dreaded workhouse

A Family History Fair was held at the Centre in the Parl,Norfolk Park'Fir Vale Workhouse Gates
A Family History Fair was held at the Centre in the Parl,Norfolk Park'Fir Vale Workhouse Gates
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Author Lyn Howsam, who has written two books about Fir Vale Workhouse in the grounds of the Northern General Hospital, here looks back at the lives of children who cme through its doors.

The recent news of demolition of some old buildings (now named Wycliffe House) at the Northern General Hospital has renewed interest in the history of these particular structures.

The ruins of Fir Vale workhouse.

The ruins of Fir Vale workhouse.

Wycliffe House, known by many as Stores or Supplies, was part of the old Children’s Receiving Home belonging to Fir Vale Workhouse.

Attached to it is Chesterman House, once the home of the Superintendent. The idea of the Isolated and Scattered Homes for the care of workhouse children was suggested by J Wycliffe Wilson quite early on but it was not acted on until 1893, nearly 12 years after the workhouse had officially opened its doors in 1881.

The system was meant to move the children away from what were considered the bad influences of the workhouse itself.

At times that also meant removing the children from their parents too in the hope that they would grow up to be worthwhile citizens.

Some of the children were orphans, some neglected and/or abandoned.

Little help was available for people who became vulnerable through age, ill health and lack of work or the means to help themselves.

If they happened to be parents too then their children also needed care.

J Wycliffe Wilson, along with Philip Ashberry, was a guardian of the workhouse and they both felt very strongly that the children would be much better off being brought up somewhere well away from the bad influences of workhouse life.

The boarding out of some children to foster homes within the community had taken place previously but it was considered to be an expensive scheme to administer.

By 1893 the guardians had purchased the Goddard Hall estate with 25 acres of land and farm buildings, for the erection of an isolated children’s home on the site, isolated in the sense that it was very much independent from the workhouse with its own entrance into its grounds.

It had its main headquarters consisting of the superintendent’s house, office, porter’s lodge, committee room and stores.

The receiving house in the same block had accommodation for 10 boys and 10 girls and in the grounds three large detached homes were built, each capable of accommodating 29 children.

Goddard Hall at times also provided additional accommodation for the children when necessary. It housed a tailor’s workshop for teaching tailoring to the young boys.

There was a large room too which was used by the children during wet weather, for the Band of Hope meetings and other such gatherings.

The rest of the accommodation was in use for the man who was responsible for the livestock and the land.

The old outbuildings were dilapidated so new stables, a cow-house and other necessary offices were built, together with joiner’s and shoemaker’s workshops.

All this was planned with an eye to teaching the children a trade so they could, on leaving the homes, become useful and diligent workers capable of providing for themselves and their families should they marry.

The idea worked quite well and suitable houses were also built outside the workhouse in the community so that the children could live as normal a life as possible, mixing with other children both at school and church.

These homes varied in size, accommodating anything from 10 to 18 children, and each had a foster mother in charge.

There was a planned mix of ages, the intention being that each child had its own duties to carry out such as washing the floors, cleaning shoes, laying the table, darning, all according to age and ability.

In turn the older children could care for the younger children by helping to get them up each morning, dress them and ensure they behaved as they should do.

The physical, medical, educational and religious needs of the children were well taken care of as they attended schools and churches within the community in which they lived.

Whether emotional needs were taken into consideration, would of course, depend on the caring qualities of the foster mother. Some were very good, others were not.

One set of foster parents was dismissed for ill-treating the children and at one home there were just seven toothbrushes between 22 children.

However, it must be said that in comparison to the children they went to school with, although their lives in the homes were more strictly disciplined, they were often much better fed, clothed and looked after in general.

As the children became older, then the need to equip them for life outside gathered momentum.

The girls, who would have already been using their sewing, darning and housework skills, would perhaps be sent to a servants’ school at the age of around 14 years or apprenticed out dressmaking or at a similar occupation.

Some were retained within that particular home as a helper to the foster mother.

As for the boys, they were taught skills such as shoemaking, tailoring, farming, or gardening, with living-in jobs being found for them, in the hope they were treated as one of that family.

For those boys who, shall we say, needed a firmer hand or maybe showed an interest in going to sea, they were sent to a training ship such as the HMS Conway at Liverpool.

Many orphaned children, after having been adopted by the guardians, were sent from Fir Vale to Canada via the Barnardo’s Homes or Father Berry’s Catholic emigration scheme.

There they would be given medicals and arrangements made for them to sail to Canada.

On arrival they would spend some time in a receiving home before the next stage in their lives began, being placed out in the community.

It may not be considered the perfect way to care for these children; many people did in fact think the system was harsh but it certainly prepared the children well for life away from the homes.

Following on from the success of the scheme in which Sheffield led the way, many other workhouses adopted the same system.

This system of caring for children at Fir Vale lasted until around 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two when those who were still there moved to Fulwood Cottage Homes.

Was it a good system? Well, I can only question what sort of lives these children might have led if these homes had not existed.

We cannot judge it by the standards of today; we have to judge it by looking back at the difficult times they lived in.

People today talk about poverty but just take a step back in time and see how hard life really was in those days with no other help to be had but the dreaded workhouse system.

n Lyn’s books, Life in the Workhouse & Old Hospital at Fir Vale: The Story of the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, and Memories of the Workhouse & Old Hospital At Fir Vale, are available on Kindle and Amazon.