Hard times, vagrants and the poor law unions ...
"Hush-a-bye baby, on a tree top. When you grow old, your wages will stop. When you have spent the little you made. First to the poorhouse and then to the grave."
This rhyme tells the story of many a working man's life in the 19th Century. The rather elegant building in Allhallowgate, standing in grounds graced with flower beds, trees, lilacs and even a passion flower, seems far removed from the dreaded Workhouse in Oliver Twist.
A feeling of doom or at best hopeless resignation must have fallen on many passing through the Gatehouse arch and hearing the door shut behind them. They knew they would leave only in the regulation coffin, 'with two handles, name of the person with the year of their decease inscribed'. Coffins were ordered in bulk.
Nor was it only labourers who entered. In 1861 the 'former master wheelwright', 'former gentleman's servant', 'master shoe-maker', butcher, farmer and many who had known better times found themselves in old age, or when widowed, in a similar predicament; as did the 24 children under the age of 12, the youngest inmate being Matthew Colby aged two weeks.
Past Ordnance Survey plans and original accounting documents provide some insight into workhouse history.
A Workhouse has stood on this site since 1776. By 1832 there was national concern at the expense of maintaining the poor and a Commission of Enquiry was appointed. Ripon was found to have 33 inmates, 11 men, 11 boys, 9 women and 2 girls. Only one of the men was not 'able bodied' at 68 years of age, but those able spent 8 hours a day breaking stones to mend roads.
The present building was completed in January, 1855. The Workhouse was almost a self sufficient world of its own with its own teacher, chaplain and doctors, chopping its own fire wood, doing its own laundry, growing its own vegetables, having its own infirmary and its own van to transport lunatics to asylums elsewhere if they became unduly violent.
Vagrants presented a special problem and in 1877 a separate block of buildings was provided where they could have an evening meal, a bed for the night and leave the next day after completing a designated task.
With the coming of the Welfare State, the building was renamed Sharow View and an astonishing change took place. Locked doors were opened, warm fires and bowls of flowers, chintz covers and hangings did everything possible to disguise the high bare rooms and staircases of the Institute. It is presently used as a centre for Social Services.
The museum is housed in the former Male Vagrants section where there are 14 cells where these unfortunates were locked in for the night. These provide a harsh touch of reality and an insight into what poverty once meant to the poor.
The "Hard Times Gallery" contains photographs and information about life for the poor both in the Workhouse and outside it. An audio visual presentation prepares the visitor for the displays to be seen throughout the museum.
Locations of all the former Union Workhouses in Yorkshire are presented and there are fact sheets on each one available in the shop along with other publications and souvenirs - including carbolic soap! See what life in the Day Room and Classroom was like.