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Liverpool Workhouse Hospital

Liverpool Workhouse Hospital

From is very early years of growth, Liverpool was able to attract labour to man its ships, and work its docks and transport, by absorbing the natural drift of people into the country and by the importation of workers from Ireland and elsewhere. The population in Liverpool had vastly increased by the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, especially with emigrants from Ireland. Some of these were in transit to America or elsewhere, and instead of continuing their journey, became permanent residents in Liverpool. In good times work was available, and when it was not there was always the option of emigration; for example, Australia was crying out for skilled and semi-skilled men and their families. but a large static population without work was a serious problem. In Liverpool many people were incapable of work in view of the constant sickness and epidemics.

Dr Duncan
A young man, Dr. W. H. Duncan came to Liverpool from Edinburgh, where he had studied under a Professor W. P. Alison. Duncan was appointed to the Northern Dispensary in Vauxhall Road, from which he made visits to the poorest parts of the city.Tireless in his efforts recording, the diseases he encountered. he included details concerning the water supply and sanitation of the courts in the slums-also the degree of overcrowding. He produced a report which was a damning indictment of peoples living conditions and one of the first statistical surveys. Duncan later became the first town medical officer of health in the United Kingdom, and was consulted on relevant problems everywhere.

Herman Melville
Another witness to the poor conditions in Liverpool was one Herman Melville,  an outsider and unknown. This American novelist wrote a book called 'Redhurn' in the form of a novel but which was, in fact, an autobiographical account of his life when he was a young ship’s cadet, describing a visit to Liverpool, of which he gave a graphic account. He wrote that the dock road was a dangerous place, beggars were legion, drunkenness was a way of life, so that the poor seaman had only to become intoxicated to lose his hard-earned wages and to end up in a lodging house. Such were the conditions in Liverpool in the middle of the last century. 

William Rathbone VI
There were however many people who were trying to alleviate these sad conditions. As the town had expanded new hospitals and dispensaries had been built; for example, both the Northern and Southern Hospitals had come into being. Men and women of good will endeavoured to change things, among whom was William Rathbone, the head of a prominent family living in Liverpool for several generations. In 1859 his appreciation for the services of a nurse, Mary Robinson, engaged to care for his dying wife, Lucretia, his first wife, prompted him to campaign for a system of district nursing to enable the poor to benefit from similar care; his involvement of Florence Nightingale led to a close friendship. She advised him to establish a training home in Liverpool, which was completed by 1863.

There was, of course, the Poor Law, an Act for the relief of the poor and which had been passed at the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1601. The Act placed the duty on the Church Wardens of each parish of ordering the "setting to work of the poor who had no means of maintaining themselves”, and to "raise competent sums of money for and towards the necessary relief of the lame, old, blind and such others, being poor and not able to work”.
The church wardens were charged with the task of "erecting, building and setting up convenient houses or dwellings, for the impotent poor and also place inmates or more families than one in one cottage or house”. From these communal dwellings stemmed the workhouse, the upkeep of which was clearly laid down by the Act to devolve on the prosperous and well-to-do inhabitants. It rapidly became obvious that many small parishes could not cope with these tasks so that it was the practice for several adjoining parishes to join together to form a larger body or Union. Not everyone, supported the movement and the Poor Law was criticised for leniency, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, resulting in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Brownlow Hill Workhouse Infirmary

Liverpool's first parish workhouse was erected at the corner of College Lane and Hanover Street.  A new “House of Industry”  was built in 1769-72 at Brownlow Hill to accommodate up to 600 inmates. At first the workhouse was intended to be used by healthy paupers, but gradually housed also the sick, providing an infirmary, a function, reinforced by the Local Government Board in 1905, and in 1913 when the word "workhouse” was changed to "Poor Law Institution”. In the middle of the last century Liverpool Workhouse was a vast group of buildings, part of which consisted of wards for the sick.  The staff of the Workhouse Hospital consisted of three senior individuals controlling a number of healthy women paupers, together with a group of scourers (cleaners). No one on this hospital staff had had any nursing training of any sort, including the three people in charge. The whole institution workhouse and hospital was under the control of a Governor, who was in turn responsible to the Liverpool Vestry. The Vestry organisation was well known to be enlightened and anxious to do the best possible for the hospital and its members included the philanthropist, William Rathbone.

Agnes Jones
William Rathbone finally obtained the permission of the Liverpool Vestry to introduce trained nurses (at his own expense for three years), at the Workhouse Hospital in 1864. ( He accordingly wrote to Agnes Jones (at that time in charge of the London Great Northern Hospital), with the formal invitation to undertake the project Agnes accepted the offer. Agnes thought it would be best for her to stay at the hospital itself. Her quarters were depressing but non the less she wrote, "I went to bed very happy, and with a kind of feeling that I had indeed adopted the work, whatever doubts I might have had before, seeing the place has made me feel I shall love it”.

Brownlow Hill Workhouse - © University of Liverpool

The Workhouse entrance gate on Brownlow Hill.

Meal time at a workhouse
Liverpool’s Workhouse Infirmary had a good reputation with patients. However, there is no getting away from the fact that, before Agnes arrived, the staff consisted of three senior persons (untrained in nursing), controlling, more or less, a large number of able-bodied pauper assistants, together with a number of scourers (cleaners). This completely untrained staff had to cope with approximately 1200 patients. The pauper women were notorious for drunkenness (often when on duty), for stealing from and ill-treating the patients -a common practice was for the pauper women to eat the patients’ food and dispose of their own rations to their own families. Eleanor Rathbone in a memoir of her father said that the women looking after the sick at Liverpool Workhouse Hospital, "were superintended by a very small number of paid but untrained parish officers, who were in the habit, it is said of wearing kid gloves in the wards to protect their hands. At night, a policeman patrolled some of the wards to keep order, while others, in which the inhabitants were too sick or too infirm to make disturbances, were locked up and left unvisited at night”. The Liverpool Workhouse building was one of the largest in the country. In 1790 there were 1164 inmates, in 1821 there were 1492, and in 1831 no less than 1705. Over the years overcrowding became acute with 727 sick in February 1861 out of a total of 2555 inmates. Twenty-two died in the week ending February 12th, mainly as a result of Typhus Fever, Diarrhoea and Phthisis.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of steady reform and improvement in the provision of relief for the poor and the sick poor. Workhouses and workhouse hospitals were still places of dread amongst many of the labouring classes, but the atrocious conditions of the first part of the century were, as 1900 approached, disappearing due in part to philanthropic benevolence and to better medical knowledge and practice. A Central Administration Board with Annual National, and District, Conferences on the Poor Law enabled up-to-date information and practices to be disseminated throughout the country. Nursing provision in the Workhouse Hospitals improved dramatically towards the turn of the century when trained nurses were employed who later became the bedrock of hospital care.

The last infant was born in the Brownlow Hill Workhouse Hospital in September 1928 and the nine acre site was put up for sale by auction on 26th March 1930.  The land was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently became the site of the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. One bell from the workhouse now hangs among the others in the cathedral belfry.


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