"The Pwllheli Workhouse "
On the 8th of June 1837, the first meeting of
the Board of the Guardians of the Poor was held at the Crown Hotel Pwllheli,
thus beginning a new era in the history of the care of the poor, which lasted
with very few changes until it’s work was taken over by the County Council
under new legislation in 1929 – 30.
The setting up of the Board of Guardians came about as
the result of the many and varied means of dealing with the poor over the
Until the end of the middle ages the poor and needy were
given little or no support from the state. The Lords of the Manor would see to
the needs of both the freemen and those labourers who were enslaved to them, the
Monasteries opened their doors to the needy, and here and there they had places
to care for the sick and infirm. Gradually the population of the homeless and
needy grew as the Lords of the Manor became less powerful and the Monasteries
lost their stature. In 1348 the ‘Black death’ spread from the East and a
third of the population of Britain was wiped out, consequently there was a need
for labour in many parts of the country, and many travelled far in search of
work and in hope of release from their serfdom and a better life. These men that
travelled the country in search of work would only work for the highest pay, and
in order to counteract this a statute was passed forcing them to work for the
normal wage, and it was forbidden to give these men charity. But this law failed
to stop the increase in the numbers of the needy and the vagabonds. After the
Tudors had disarmed the Lords of the Manor and the Hundred Years War had come to
an end, there were many thousands of able bodied, unskilled men wandering the
country, and Common lands were created in many parishes and this together with
the disestablishment of the monasteries also added to the legions of poor and
needy throughout the land. In 1495 Henry V11th passes a law that each vagrant
must be put in the stocks for three days, and three nights, and to be fed only
bread and water, and then to be sent away. The vagrant population was increasing
almost daily, and by 1530 the general consensus was that this was caused by
laziness ‘the mother and root of all evil’ and so it was ordered that every
fit person that was caught begging should be ‘bound naked behind a cart
whipped and dragged through the town’ and then sent back to their birthplace
with evidence that they had been punished for begging lest they re–offended
there. Even though they did help the sick and needy, the priests were encouraged
to get the people to give generously to support the sick and needy. Punishment
for able-bodied men begging became even harsher by 1536, and if they re-offended
part of their right ear was cut off. By 1547 because the punishments were not
working, beggars were branded with hot irons and sent to work for two years for
their masters for only bread and water. If they re-offended this time they were
branded with an "S" on their foreheads and were enslaved to their masters for life,
and if they tried to escape then, they were sentenced to death. Some times they
would be put in the care of the local constable, and forced to work on the roads
in chains for the rest of their lives. In 1551 the priests and parish wardens
were made to choose three or more persons to collect charity for the poor of the
parish, but this was far from sufficient to meet the needs of the poor, and it
responsibility for collecting charity was transferred to the hands of the
magistrates. In 1563 any person who did not contribute fairly could be brought
before the magistrates to try and persuade them to donate, but this didn’t
always work either. In 1572 Magistrates were given the right to tax each parish
and the ‘Poor law’ became into being. They chose collectors to receive the
money and overseers to distribute it, and also find work for those who were fit
enough, but those that chose not to work were punished. In 1601 the wardens and
overseers were given the right to tax each household in the parish in order to
support the poor, they also created prisons for those able bodied men who still
refused to work. Even though every effort was made to help those in need, the
officers in charge made every effort to send the poor away from their parishes,
and the number of parishes that met the needs of the poor was very low indeed,
and those that did were soon inundated with more paupers and vagrants. And in
1662 a law came into force to enable parishes to send the poor back to their own
parishes, after forty days. This also led to an increase in the poor, as people
could not travel to parishes where they might find work.
In 1772 the Workhouse Act came into force this enabled
the wardens and overseers to establish workhouses, to house and give work to the
poor, and therefore enable them to refuse to give poor pay to migrants, thus
saving on taxes, but it only led to an overall increase in the numbers of poor.
It also came at a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of
society, and also the high costs of living due to the Napoleonic war, the corn
law and the enclosures act, that meant that common land was now put in the hands
of a few landlords. The situation got worse year by year and by the end of the
18th century magistrates had to rely more and more on Gilberts Law,
or they would have a revolution on their hands. In the first ten years of the 19th
century the parish support became an important addition to the poorly paid
agricultural wages, at a time when the cost of living was ever increasing, and
there is no doubt that it did indeed save many from starvation. But farm
labourers came to depend on it, and farm wages were kept low without opposition,
if wages increased the labourers would not benefit, as they would loose out on
the support from the parish and the employers were hardly likely to increase
their wages without being asked to do so. Labourers would marry young with no
certainty of security but in the knowledge that their families would be cared
for. There was no incentive for honest labourers to keep their independence and
fend for themselves, as it was better for them to rely on the benefit given by
the wardens. Thus the poor rate increased greatly from two million to eight
million in ten years, it was such a burden in some areas that some crofters who
were not in receipt of support, were forced to give up their crofts. In 1832 a
complaint was brought before the Royal Commission, that the system was open to
misdeeds and mismanagement by those officers who were in charge, and also by the
To stop the misuse of the law the Commission changed the
system and in 1834 the Poor Law came into force. Under this law many parishes
were united to form a district to cater for the needs of the poor and displaced,
and they were to be under the auspices of the Deputies of the Poor Law, and this
is the time on the 8th of May 1837 that the Pwllheli Union Workhouse
came into being in the South Caernarvonshire area. From now on parishes were
taxed according to a rate based on the deputies calculation of the average costs
of the last three years e.g £632 for Denio, £523 for Llangian and £10 for
Llandudwen (complete listing later on). The deputies further ordered that a
board of governors were to be appointed consisting of 41 members, two to be
appointed from each of the following parishes:- Aberdaron, Llanengan, Abersoch,
Llaniestyn, Llannor, Nefyn, Llanystumdwy, and Denio, and one from the remaining
parishes, but the same person could be elected to serve more than one parish.
Each person elected to be a governor had to have property or pay rent of more
than £25 a year. The governors were elected annually by the church wardens and
the overseers. At least two days before the election they had to send ballot
papers to every household where a person was eligible to vote. On election day
the papers would be collected, and anyone from outside the parish, or who
hadn’t received a paper could vote before noon on that day. In the afternoon
the wardens and overseers would count the votes and announce the results of
those members that had won a majority of the votes. The vote was given to those
that paid the poor rate or were property owners, everyone that had paid the poor
rate for the previous year was entitled to vote and if they were taxed on a rate
of £200 - £400 pounds they were eligible for two votes and over £400 they
would be allowed three votes. If a person owned many properties in the area, and
they had registered, they would be allowed up to nine votes each, and they could
also get a proxy vote, as long as they had notified the officers in writing of
The first election was held in Pwllheli on the 3rd
of May 1837 and the Board of Governors met at the Crown Inn, where Mr John
Lloyd, Trallwm, was elected chairman and Mr Richard Griffith Jones, as vice
chairman. The first secretary of the board was Mr David Williams. Occasionally
the board would meet either at Sarn or Cricieth, as well as Pwllheli, as it was
necessary for the poor to come before the Board of Governors. One of their first
meetings was at Sarn where four women came before the board seeking assistance
as their husbands had left them. The board worked under the strict governance of
the deputies and all cases would have to be endorsed by the deputies. In the
first meeting it was decided to advertise for four charity officers at a wage of
£50 a year and an extra £10 for the officer in charge at Aberdaron, as he
would need a horse. David Griffith, Bodwrdda, was elected officer for the
Aberdaron district, and shortly after his death his brother Thomas Griffith took
over the position, although Hugh Ellis, Mynytho and Thomas R Williams,
Fourcrosses were also candidates, Thomas Griffith won by one vote only. It was
through these officers that the overseers gave out the charity, and as it was
the deputies that appointed them. They were to a great extent free from local
influences, when carrying out their work. This enabled them to carry out the
great changes in the law without much restriction.
In this first meeting, it was also decided to appoint
four medical officers for the Cricieth, Pwllheli, Nefyn and Aberdaron areas. The
doctors wanted a wage of between £70 and £100 but the overseers allowed them
between £50 and £60. Later these areas were made into Vaccination Districts as
well, but only on the understanding that service would only be given to the
children of those that were receiving support, as it does not appear that it was
compulsory for parents to vaccinate their children, and those could afford to
pay were made to come to their own agreement with the doctor. The doctors agreed
to this but said that if they were called upon to vaccinate all children brought
before them and they were not paid by the parents then they would not do so for
less than 2/6d for each case.
In September 1834 the Board of Governors decided to
build a workhouse, and the land where the current hospital (now clinics) stands
in Pwllheli was bought for £500. In the following May, the price for building
the workhouse was given as £2.769, and the Wardens held their first meeting
there in September 1839. It was advertised for a manager and a matron to care
for the residents at a wage of £50 per annum, with three quarters of a pound of
meat, a pound of bread, and an extra £5 for tea, sugar and beer, which they
would buy for themselves.
The first manager didn’t last long, as the residents made complaints about his conduct and the way he treated them, and so the wardens asked the governors for permission to relieve him of his duties.
"Pwllheli in the 1890's"
After the workhouse opened, no able bodied man living
outside the workhouse was eligible for support unless he had five or more
children, and that only meant taking some of the children into the workhouse to
be cared for. Unmarried mothers were given no support either, other than
admitting them to the workhouse, and no official was allowed to give support or
sustenance to anyone, before firstly contacting the board of governors. On the
orders of the chief medical officer, it was stated that no more than 180 persons
were to be admitted to the workhouse, otherwise they could not maintain the
health of the residents. At first the residents were allowed three meals a day,
breakfast and supper, consisting of 7 ozs of oatmeal for the men and 6 for the
women, to make porridge and a pint of buttermilk or water if no buttermilk could
be got. For lunch the menu would vary as follows:-
Sunday – 4ozs meat and a pound of potatoes.
Monday – 7 ozs of bread (men) 6ozs (women) and 12 pts
Tuesday – Two and a half pounds of potatoes and salted
Wednesday - 6
ozs bread and an ounce of cheese.
Thursday – Two and a half pounds of potatoes and
Friday – One and a half pints of lobscouse
Saturday – Two and a half pounds of potatoes and salt
Those over sixty years of age also received meat on
Later we find the wardens asking whether they can give
rice instead of porridge in the mornings with two ounces of treacle and an extra
half pound of potatoes on Sunday two ounces of bread and half an ounce of cheese
on a Wednesday.
It was expected that those who were able bodied would
work and to this end Mr Hugh Hughes, the clerk went to Caernarfon jail to
inspect the method of picking oakum, which inmates there were expected to do,
and to see if this type of work would be suitable for the residents of the
workhouse. As a result of his visit it was decided that each man should pick
five pounds of oakum per day and each woman three pounds.
The wardens and board of governors were not beyond
reproach either, and those who failed to account for and ensure sufficient funds
from each parish for the running of the workhouse were brought before the
magistrates and fined as follows,
Ceidio 2/- plus costs, if paid on the day or 15/6d.
Llaniestyn 5/- plus costs if paid on the day or £3.
Llangian 5/- plus costs if paid on the day or £3.
The deputies tried on many occasions to reduce the wage of the doctors and officials but to no avail. The new Act and the forming of the Board of Governors meant that everything was better supervised, and they were effective against misuse of funding from outside and firm foundations were laid down for the management of the poor law. The fact that the law survived a century without change shows how effective it was at the time. Within the Pwllheli Union the poor rate fell from £6,737, the average for the previous three years to £5,600 for 1841 –2, since the opening of the new workhouse. It must be remembered that for years before that the poor rate was increasing rapidly each year (full figures will be shown later). The effect of this change weighed heavily on the poor especially in those areas where a workhouse had already been built when the law came into power, now no support was given and the only sustenance given was within the workhouse, and it became a name to be feared by the poor and needy in many regions. But on the other hand the law did keep the rural labourers from the constant decline they suffered under the old order, and they were forced to work for a decent wage, and not to depend on charitable handouts. In 1847 the work of the deputies was transferred to the board of the poor law, and in 1871 it became the local government board.
First Board of Governors. (Ex Officio)
– Trallwm (Esq).
Glynne Griffith – Bodegroes ( Esq )
Thomas – Carreg Plas a Cefn Mine (Esq).
Priestley, Tremfan (Esq)
Robert Jones Llaniestyn Clerk.
Kyffin Llanbedrog. Clerk.
– Mr John Jones Ynysgain.
– Mr W Williams Jones Ysgubor Hen.
– Robert Thomas.
– Griffith Roberts Gelligorn.
– Elias Williams Plas Newydd . Evan Jones
. Evan Jones
– Griffith Humphrey Carnguwch Bach
– Robert Hughes Uwchlaw’r Ffynnon.
Richard Griffith Jones. (Esq) David Williams – Druggist.
Evan Roberts Penmaen.
William Thomas Tyddyn Llywelyn.
– Cyril Williams (Esq) The Cottage.
Bachellaeth – Owen Williams Penrhynydyn.
– Griffith Griffith – Castellmarch.
– Robert Williams Pantygwair.
– Richard Jones Neigwl Ucha.
Edward Roberts Botacho Wyn
Hugh Jones Hendre.
Hughes Cefn Edeyrn.
Richard Evans – Plas yng Ngheidio.
– John Evans Trefwerin.
– Charles Williams Garreg Lwyd.
– Richard Thomas Tanllan.
– Robert Evans Methlam.
– Griffith Evans Ysgo.
– William Jones Hendrefor.
– John Williams Trefgraig.
– Griffith Griffiths Penllech Bach.
Owen Owens Bodnithoedd
– John Jones Coch y Moel’
– Parch John Hughes Botwnnog.
Owen Roberts Bodwyddog.
Workhouse 1881 Census.
Dwelling: Pwllheli Union Workhouse
With thanks to Miss M Evans who lent us this account,
she was given it by Mr W Jones, Gladstone, Aberdaron and the original account
was written by Mr S R Jones, Clerk of Llyn Rural District Council, he had copied
them from an old notebook in the council that he was given on June 8th
(Apologies for the translation – not easy!!!!!)
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