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The Workhouse

The old Cockermouth workhouse stood on Skinner Street, on the banks of Tom Rudd Beck. It was demolished in the 1970s.

A new workhouse was built in Gallowbarrow in 1840-3. The average number of inmates during 1846-7 was about 230. The Cockermouth Union was run by a committee which included some of the town’s tradesmen and some ‘gentry’. They were obliged to account for every penny spent, so conditions in the workhouse were necessarily spartan.

The workhouse gardens were cultivated in an attempt to make the workhouse pay its way. Able-bodied inmates were required to work for up to 12 hours a day. Women inmates were required to carry out all the usual domestic tasks – cooking, scrubbing floors, washing and mending clothes – some of them were sent to work in local houses. Younger, fit men spent long hours breaking stones to be used in road-making or road repairs.

In 1897 a Mr Murray had been less than impressed by the fact that there were 18 ‘imbeciles’ living in a cage in the workhouse, with little room to exercise in. His suggestion that there should be a separate lunatic asylum was treated with derision. Another suggestion of his, that the inmates should have treacle sauce served with their suet pudding, was not well received either.

Women who gave birth to illegitimate children had a very difficult time and often ended up in the workhouse. Children who were orphaned or otherwise abandoned came under the care of the Guardians. Their care was put out to tender, which meant the danger of exploitation; in return for food and lodging a carer would have in the child a cheap source of labour.

Some children found themselves working in the weaving sheds of Gallowbarrow, working long hours in harsh conditions. When some of them were discovered scavenging for food in the bins outside the Globe and the Brown Cow this caused great unease in the town and the Guardians were obliged to change the system.

CHRISTMAS IN THE WORKHOUSE 1877

“The inmates of the workhouse had their customary Christmas dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Mrs Watson…also treated the old women lodged in the sick wards to a quarter of a pound of tea and a pound of sugar each; and Miss Benson, of St Helen’s, sent tea and sugar to all the other old women who are inmates of the house. The Rev W Williams…gave snuff and tobacco to those of the old inmates who use these articles. To the children he also presented oranges, and Mr J B Banks furnished them with a supply of marbles.”

( West Cumberland Times, 29.12.1877)

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