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Grim facts of life in the workhouses; Existences of poor Victorians revealed in online documents.

Byline: NEIL ATKINSON

THEY were a fact of life in Huddersfield for more than two centuries.

Now thousands of previously unseen Victorian letters and reports revealing the untold history of life in 19th century workhouses have gone online.

And, thanks to the efforts of several Yorkshire volunteer groups, the research is available to all free of charge.

Led by The National Archives, the Living the Poor Life project involved local historians cataloguing digitised scans of Ministry of Health (MH12) Poor Law Union records.

They trawled through hundreds of letters, memos and reports between Yorkshire Poor Law Union and the Poor Law Commission and Poor Law Board in London.

The previously untouched records shed fascinating new light on the lives and experience of the poor and those who 'managed' them.

The volunteers from across the country have created a wordsearchable resource consisting of thousands of pages, which offer a detailed snapshot of a revolutionary period in Britain's history. In Huddersfield, there were five workhouses maintained by the local Poor Law Union.

Conditions in those were bad, but there was new hope in 1862 when a new workhouse was erected at Deanhouse, in the Holme Valley.

But only four years later, Inspector R B Crane visited it and recorded: "So ill-arranged and incomplete building was ever erected".

Another inspection report of a Huddersfield workhouse revealed two large "coppers" inside, just a few inches apart.

One contained soup for the meals; the other was being used to boil clothing.

The report by a visitor states: "When the soup boiled over into the clothes I raised no objection but when the clothes boiled over into the soup, I said I would not stay to dinner".

In 1848, the town-centre workhouse had been condemned as "wholly unfit for a residence for the many scores that are continually crowded into it, unless it be that desire to engender endemic and fatal disease.

"And this Huddersfield workhouse is by far the best in the whole town."

The beginnings of the welfare state at the turn of the century signalled the end of the workhouses and the Poor Law itself was finally abolished in 1929.

Dr Paul Carter was Project Director for the new historic archives.

He said: "In many ways the lives of the poor are still hidden behind the impressive statistics of nineteenth century industry and trade.

"The l ives of those who remained poor during Britain's tenure of 'Workshop of the World' are harder to 'reckon' and much harder for the researcher to track down.

"The groups who have catalogued the Yorkshire records have made this kind of research somuch easier".

An unrivalled source of raw history for researchers, the bound volumes shed light on the government's socio-economic approach to the poor, by giving them means to support themselves and details the provisions made available to them, such as health care.

Sadly, the system was designed to reduce costs and was open to corruption, so the records also reveal tales of family breakdown, poverty, greed, violence and neglect of the poor.

It is estimated that around 80% of the population of England and Wales in the mid-1800s were affected by the Poor Law Unions.

Yet, despite their historic value, much of the information in these records remained a mystery until now as they were difficult to access and so were under-used.

The scanned records are now available to download for free at The National Archives Documents O n l i n e s e r v i c e a t www.n at i o n a l a r c h i v e s. g ov. u k /livingthepoorlife Local and family historians can now search the 4.6 million words by name, place, date, subject and event for the first time.

. Other internet resources on workhouses are also available, with www.workhouses.org.uk being one such site offering information on Huddersfield workhouses.

CAPTION(S):

* REVEALED: Scenes from two Victorian workhouses, left, and St Luke's House, above, at St Luke's Hospital, Crosland Moor, which was originally a workhouse
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Aug 21, 2010
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