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In the 1700s the town of Derby consisted of five parishes, St Alkmund's, St Werburgh's, St Peter's, St Michael's and All Saints. Each was responsible for its own poor and in 1722 they all built workhouses within their parishes.
More than a century later, in 1839, it was decided to create one large union workhouse on Osmaston Road. This building still exists, although substantially altered, as the Royal Crown Derby building. When the china factory took over the building in 1877, the inmates were moved to a new workhouse on Uttoxeter Road, later known as the Manor hospital. By this time the union had grown to seven parishes, and by 1890 to nine.
The forerunner of the workhouse was outdoor relief and in 1530 a wealthy dyer called Robert Liversage founded a chapel at St Peter's, and order a divine service to be said every Friday. Thirteen poor men and women were each given a silver penny, which at that time could feed a family for several days. Fights often erupted over who was the most deserving.
With the dissolution of the monasteries, where many were given help and work, the numbers of poor were increasing. Each parish had overseers who could levy a poor rate to raise money to give to the poor. They were generally unpaid volunteers, who arranged funerals and found homes for orphaned children. It was not unusual for the wealthy to leave money to the church for services said in their honour. Sometimes bequests were left to buy bread for the poor or to be given to them in the form of interest free loans for clothing or to help set up a business.
In some areas almshouses were built for the poor. In 1599 Elizabeth Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick, has some almshouses built in Full Street for eight poor men and four poor women, with pretty gardens on the east side down to the River Derwent. These people received 2s 6d per week and also 20 shillings per annum with blue gowns, on which they wore badges of silver. The occupants had to attend daily prayers at All Saints Church and were fined 2d if they failed to attend. They could also be turned out of their homes if found drunk. These almshouses closed in 1894.
Robert Wilmot of Chaddesden also built some almshouses in Bridge Gate. They became known as the Black Almshouses as the occupants - six men and four women - all wore black. These 10 almshouses were built before Wilmot died in 1638. In his will he left instructions that the alms people were to be given an allowance of a shilling a week and at Christmas every man and woman was to get a black gown, faced with red, and 30 yards of linen cloth to be shared between them. They were also to be given a Christmas dinner and the men were to have a new red cap every two years. In addition Wilmot stipulated that his descendants had to keep the houses in good repair. In fact new houses were built in 1814 and by 1895 they were listed as the Wilmot Hospital. The Liversage Trust also built almshouses on London Road in 1835-6, each person being given a shilling a week to live on. The 13 houses cost Â£3000 to build and were designed by a Mr Mason and built by Joseph Gascoyne. Each house had a front room, small kitchen, pantry, one bedroom and closet with gardens at the rear and a grass lawn at the front. The occupants were given an allowance of coal and a coat or cloak each year.
Only parishioners who had not received any other parish relief and were of the "best moral character" were allowed to live in the houses.
In 1601 Parliament passed an act, which aimed to provide the poor with trades. Children were to be apprenticed - boys until they were 24, girls until they were 21. This act was openly abused. Children were appallingly treated by their masters, many dying of neglect as a result. Many children lived in a twilight world of candle factories and silk mills, working gruelling shifts of 10 hours or more for a few pence each week. Poor nutrition and childhood diseases meant a high mortality rate, even for the rich, but it was the children of the poor who suffered most.
As Derby grew into a prosperous market town, the chances of finding work improved, though in 1690 one in 10 people were poor enough to receive some kind of outdoor relief. It usually consisted of 4lb of poor quality bread, 1oz of tea, and Â½ LB of sugar. Tea was still a luxury in the 19th century, so ale was drunk at most mealtimes, even in the workhouse.
Strict rules applied when looking for work. You could only leave your own parish if your had a job to go to, had been hired for service or held public office in another parish. Where you were born or the last place you had worked and paid parish taxes became your place of legal settlement. If a parish thought you were going to become a burden on the rates by asking for outdoor relief or entry into the workhouse they had the right to deport you back to your home parish. If your found yourself out of work in a new parish, letters would be sent back and forth to the parish of your birth or last settlement as to who was responsible for the cost of your care.
In 1722 a Parliamentary Act was passed which allowed each parish to build its own workhouse. St Michael's, which was the smallest parish, sent its poor to Stanton by Dale, but by 1792 it did have a house divided into rent free flats. St Alkmund's workhouse, situated in Lodge Lane, contained eight rooms on the ground floor, eight on the first floor and had its own bakehouse. In 1800 it was described as one of the best workhouses - by 1833 it was in a poor state of repair. St Werburgh's was built in Friar Gate in 1730 and consisted of 16 rooms, a counting house, a kitchen and a brew house. St Peter's workhouse was in the churchyard in a building belonging to the Liversage Charity and consisted of 11 rooms on the ground floor and 13 bedrooms. All Saints was built in 1729 but there is some confusion as to where it was located, some saying Walker Lane, some Full Street. It is now generally believed to be the former.
Under the Poor Law if people refused to enter the workhouse the parish could refuse to give them any aid. But many preferred starvation to the degradation of the workhouse, even though some were reasonably clean and orderly. The image of Oliver Twist with his gruel and maggot ridden bread may have epitomised many workhouses, but in Derby at least the food appears to have been reasonable. From accounts of All Saints of the time it is recorded that meat, suet, flour, bran, greens, eggs and beer were ordered weekly whilst it had its own farm to supply fresh milk, cream and butter from 1805. In March 1835 it was decided to keep costs down and beer was no longer allowed at dinner whilst cheese was to be cut from the menu.
By the late 1830s, Derby's workhouses were falling into disrepair. In 1837 St Alkmund's and St Werburgh's sold their workhouses and the money was used to help build a new union workhouse on Osmaston Road. The cost of Â£8000 was partly met by the Derby and Derbyshire Banking Company. It was built by John Mason in an 'H' design and was a stark building with a dome in the middle, under which was a vaulted dining hall. The building had three storeys and another dome at the back which covered a chapel. From the top of this chapel hung a large brass bell, which was used to announce working times, which were very strict.
The new union workhouse appointed its first governor in late 1838 and he oversaw the finishing of the building and the removal of the inmates from the other remaining workhouses. The first governor was Ratcliff Gawthorne and his wife was matron. He noted in one of his reports in 1839 that he had taken in two men from prison and that they had arrived "very hardened".
The workhouse was a repository not only for the poor but the 'mad and bad'. Until 1851, when Pastures opened as an asylum for the mentally ill, poor families who could not cope with mentally ill relatives sent them to the workhouse. In one report dated the 30th September 1839, the governor noted that a Mary Cockayne was "dangerously insane, being violent in her attacks on the matron and fellow inmates". She also used obscene language that would shock any female.
The men were divided into two categories - full able and not so able. The able bodied were set to breaking up three and a quarter yards of stone a week, the less able one yard. In September 1842 it was decided that every able-bodied man should break up three quarters of a yard of stone within four hours of breakfast or he would be taken before the magistrate as an idle or disorderly person. Frequent mention of punishment diets is made by the governor, who used to deny inmates food if he felt they were refusing to work properly.
During 1842 the Relieving Officer was Mr Collumbell. His job was to deal with all requests from the parish poor. He would agree to a certain amount of out relief, check that the facts were as stated, sometimes order a family into the workhouse. He would also take in any orphans and move on those who came into Derby and could well prove a burden on the parish. The Overseers held a weekly meeting to which Mr Collumbell presented his report. Mainly his recommendations would be accepted, sometimes he would be ordered to find out more. These records are a mine of information for the family historian although very few have survived. Such was the horror of the workhouse that when the Uttoxeter Road workhouse changed into a hospital many of the records were promptly destroyed so that no traces would remain.
Details of a disk containing an index to the records for June to December 1842 can be found on the Publications about Derbyshire page.