Wales

New records cast light on life in Victorian workhouses

Dinner time at a workhouse
Image caption The records recount instances of family breakdown, poverty, greed, violence and neglect of the poor

Previously unseen records shedding new light on life in Victorian workhouses have gone online for the first time.

They include thousands of untouched 19th Century letters, memos and reports between the Cardiff and Llanfyllin Poor Law Unions and the boards regulating workhouses in London.

The documents have been pieced together by volunteer groups, including several in Wales.

The 'Living the Poor Life' project was led by the National Archives.

Experts at the London institution say the new digitally scanned catalogue of records will prove a vital research tool in helping understand what life was like for those forced to live in the workhouses as well as those who ran them.

The project also reveals how governments throughout the century treated the less advantaged and shows the early origins of the welfare state.

Provisions like health care, pauper education and money for emigration are detailed.

But it is also clear that the system was often corrupt and the records recount instances of family breakdown, poverty, greed, violence and neglect of the poor.

Among the more horrific tales from Wales is the 1844 story of a man from Cardiff who died after walking several miles to receive relief.

And in Llanfyllin, Powys, volunteers uncovered the story of Thomas Jones, a vicious schoolmaster straight from the pages of a Dickens novel, who reportedly beat a boy of eight with a heavy stick.

The majority of the documents are letters, memos and reports between the Cardiff and Llanfyllin Poor Law Unions - covering Glamorganshire, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire - and the Poor Law Commission and Poor Law Board in London.

Project director Dr Paul Carter, who is principal modern records specialist at The National Archives, said: "In many ways the lives of the poor are still hidden behind the impressive statistics of 19th Century industry and trade.

"The lives 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 Cardiff and Llanfyllin records have made this kind of research so much easier."

The documents exist in 16,741 large bound volumes and cover the period from 1834 to 1900.

The project has involved cataloguing and making available digital scans of 105 of those volumes relating to 20 areas (22 poor law unions) across Wales and England.

Thanks to the work of 200 volunteers, the records are now keyword searchable, so academics, family and local historians, colleges and schools will be able to use them as a research tool.

The project uncovered numerous stories of ordinary people caught up in the Poor Law system.

Among the case studies unearthed during the project was the tale of former collier William Smith, who had lost the use of his arms in a pit explosion.

Image caption The documents tell the story of hundreds of ordinary people caught up in the Poor Law system

In 1847 letters detail accusations that his death was accelerated by "ill-usage" by the Poor Law authorities in Cardiff.

Records also show that in Cardiff in 1852, a letter from a pauper survives in which he lodges a complaint against a surgeon.

He claims the surgeon, a Mr Lewis, treated his patients inhumanly and he also criticises a master who made it his particular business to complain to the doctors and governors about the paupers.

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

Until now, much of the information in these files remained a mystery as they were difficult to access.

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