Explore Your Archive: A Camden workhouse accounts book

By Rosemary Collins, 21 November 2019 - 10:08am

Rosemary Collins talks to Tudor Allen of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre about a rare document offering a glimpse into workhouse life

Camden workhouse accounts book
The list of 'Eatables' in the Hampstead Workhouse accounts book (Credit: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre)

Explore Your Archive – a week dedicated to celebrating archives around the UK and the historic documents they care for – begins on 23 November and will run until 1 December.

At Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, we like to celebrate our archives all year round, with our Gem from the Archive column.

Every month, we interview a different local or specialist archive about a hidden highlight from their collections.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019

To celebrate Explore Your Archive Week, we’re sharing our latest Gem from the Archive on our website.

This month, we spoke to Tudor Allen of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre about an early workhouse accounts book that shows how our pauper ancestors lived.

Remember, you can discover every month’s Gem by subscribing to our magazine.

Could you tell me more about the book?

It’s an accounts book for Hampstead Workhouse, which opened in 1729 in a derelict Tudor mansion in Frognal and remained there until shortly after 1800. The book runs from December 1734 until June 1739.

What information does it contain?

It itemises the weekly expenditure on “eatables” and “necessaries” and gives the name and age of each inmate week by week. The workhouse was small with usually no more than around 20 inmates and a maximum of 31. They are mainly women and children, some with wonderful names – Rhoda Panther, Mary Moleytrot, Merci Jones, Thomas Twist.

There are the big regular payments for things like beef, beer and bread, and rarer expenditures for the likes of treacle, “biscakes” and sugar candy. Among the dishes the cook rustled up were broth, black pudding, cherry pie and “sugar sop”. Drinks include sage tea, rice milk and a lot of beer, usually bought from a Mr Vincent.

It also evokes life in the workhouse through the various tasks paid for: turning a gown, washing strangers, cleaning a child’s head, scouring sand, mending saucepans, cutting the laurel in the garden, cutting corns and nails, shaving the men, collecting holly from Hampstead Heath, “getting dung to keep the pipe from freezing”, acting as a lying-in woman for a stranger’s baby and laying out a corpse.

We learn something of the individual inmates. Jane Hicks, the oldest resident, was there throughout, still going strong aged 90 when the record ends. Mary Godward liked a smoke – there is regular spending on tobacco for her. Evidently a tough character, she was paid “for doing for the strowler that which nobody there would do” and for washing bedclothes “left so nasty that they were washed by themselves”. Payments show Betty Hunt liked her snuff but she could be difficult. On one occasion she needs bribing with apples and snuff “to get her to put on the new gown”.

There is the “unnamed strange woman”, who arrives one day very ill and dies there a few days later – her name still unknown. And the foundling who they baptise Benjamin Basket.

Why did you choose this book?

It is rare to find a document in our collections so richly informative about such an early institution in our locality. I like it because it is not a record of the lives of the rich and famous but of the ordinary, the poor, the forgotten. It amuses, surprises, saddens, moves.

There are lovely human touches. One entry states proudly: “Here in this house is people whose ages makes of 1,000 years.”

What does it show us about the history of workhouses?

We get an insight into how a small rural parish workhouse of the early 18th century functioned.

We learn what the inmates ate, what was needed to run the place, what type of things happened there. We can form a picture of the building with its hall, great parlour, little parlour, cellar, wash house, wood house and garden where potatoes, beans and coleworts (cabbages) were grown.

We see how inmates assisted in running the workhouse, being paid in cash or kind. We see how workhouses then cared for the sick using physic (a purge), bleeding (blood letting), fomenting (applying heat and moisture to the body), figs (as a laxative) cinnamon (as a carminative and restorative) and snail syrup (for sore throats).

Periodically a stranger arrived at the workhouse, often sent from the watch house. Sometimes they were ill or about to give birth.

The stay of these “strowlers” or vagrants was usually brief. They received some temporary help. A bed was made ready for them. One claiming to be pregnant was given money and clothing and escorted out of the parish. An “Irish man” was sent on his way with a shilling.

There were occasional treats for the children, the elderly or the sick. When young Jeremy Riper was taken very ill, he was given cakes, “biscakes”, and buns (though, sadly, he did not survive).

So this accounts book shows that workhouses were not the universally cruel institutions we might imagine. The Hampstead inmates at this time seem to have been treated with reasonable kindness and humanity.


Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019


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