Sunday, August 12, 2012

David Whybrew's childhood

Stanway 'Spike', the workhouse where David Whybrew
was an inmate in 1851
  © Copyright Glyn Baker and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence
Anyone who has read Charles Dicken's novels would know that 'the workhouse' in 19th century England was synonymous with humiliating poverty and deprivation. Conditions in the workhouses were deliberately intended to deter any able-bodied person from seeking help.

According to Peter Higginbotham on his website 'The Workhouse', parishes were responsible for caring for anyone unable to care for themselves. They did this by levying a tax, the poor rate, on local property owners. Most of this was dispensed as 'out relief', enabling people to remain in their own homes by providing food, clothing, tools for work and so on.

Workhouses generally took in those who could  not work - orphans, the elderly without family, unmarried mothers and the disabled. However, parishes did have the option of restricting relief to those willing to enter the workhouse, as a deterrent to those who were capable of supporting themselves. In this situation, those fit enough to work were expected to work without pay in return for their board.

Conditions in the workhouses were generally spartan, cheerless and degrading. Despite this, there was often a perception that 'poor relief' was seen as an easy option for those who didn't want to work. (Does that sound familiar?) In 1832, at a time of growing unrest and spiralling costs, the British Government set up a Royal Commission to look into the running of poor relief. This resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which was intended to abolish the 'out relief' system altogether. Only residents of the workhouses would be given poor relief, and if a man couldn't support his family, the whole family had to move into the workhouse.

Under the act, local parish relief systems were combined into Poor Law Unions. Many large new Union workhouses were pupose-built at this time, including the one at Stanway, in Essex, run by the Lexden and Winstree Union, which could hold up to 330 people. This was where David Whybrew was living when the census was taken in 1851.

We can only guess at how David came to be there. After his mother Sarah's death (probably in 1841) the family seem to have moved from Wormingford to Wakes Colne, a few miles away. I say this on the basis that James Whybrew died there in 1848, and whoever completed the census at the Stanway Workhouse assumed that David was born there. All three of David's sisters also eventually married men associated with Wakes Colne or the adjacent White Colne.

When James died, David would have been about 10 years old, still too young to find work or care for himself.  Sophia had married, and Harriet and Eliza were probably working as servants. (Unfortunately I can't find either of them on the 1851 census.) Jeremiah, still single, seems to have gone off to North America before 1851. Apparently no-one in the extended family was able to take David in. He may even have moved into the workhouse before James death, if James was unable to support him.

It's unlikely that David received much emotional support or personal attention as an inmate of the workhouse. It might have been some comfort and encouragement to have so many other children around him who were in the same situation. One of these was Alfred Duncombe, brother of Sophia's husband Charles, who had been there most of his life.

There were some benefits to being in the workhouse. He would at least have a roof over his head, regular meals and an education. In an article from 1850 quoted by History House on poverty among Essex labourers, the writer says  "It is one of the anomalies of the poor-law, that the pauper is better fed, better clothed and better lodged than the labourer." Not well fed, but at least better fed.

In fact the pauper may have been better educated than his future employers. The writer recounts a conversation with a local farmer:
"I am," said he, "one of the guardians of our union, and I just happened to go into the school-room and there if the master wasn't telling the boys to point out with a stick, on some big maps that were hanging up, where South Amerikey was, and France, and a lot of other places, and they did it, too. Well, when I went home, I told my son of it, and asked him if he could tell me where them places was; and he couldn't. Now, is it right that these here pauper children should know more than the person who will have to employ them?"
Perhaps the names on the big maps and the institutional life of the workhouse were what inspired David to join the army as soon as he was old enough.

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