The Workhouse

The Workhouse was situated at the junction of Lady Lane and Vicar Lane, on the North side of Lady Lane. Re-opened in 1726, after being closed in 1705, the venture was a failure, as it was unable to pay its way, but was reopened in 1738 to comply with the Poor Law. The intention was always that the inmates should work to provide money to maintain the Workhouse but this was rarely the case. At the time of this study it would be more accurate to refer to it as a 'Poorhouse'.

The Workhouse was the last resort in the provision of relief for the poor. Out-relief, where money was paid to the poor living in their own homes, was given by preference to tide the poorer people over hard times, as it cost less. The Workhouse was for the truly destitute. It was also required to provide shelter for people who were in the area looking for work, in the hope that they would find work and become self-supporting rather than a burden on the parish.

Leeds Workhouse was considered to be quite well run, although no doubt we would consider it to be a highly unpleasant place, and was reported on favourably by Eden later in the century. [Eden 1928 p359-361] At the time the inmates were:

42 old and infirm men or lunatics
56 women, many of them soldiers wives
56 children, mostly under 12

Children were apprenticed at 9 or 10. There was sufficient accommodation for 200 people with 20 beds in each room. Each bed had 2 blankets and a rug and 'some beds have sheets.' [Eden 1928 p359] while 'The house is whitewashed and the bedclothes scoured once a year.' [Eden 1928 p360]

At the time of Edens visit poor relief was also given to the following :

415 Regular Out-Poor
251 Casual Out-Poor
158 militia men's families

The money to provide this relief came from the poor rates and administering this money was a foot on the political ladder. A workhouse committee appointed the master and generally supervised everything, although it tended to run more smoothly when they didn't interfere too much and appointed a properly qualified overseer. They were keen to remove anyone who they thought should be provided for by the poor rates of another area.

The only alternative to the workhouse was to find a place in the almshouses, known as hospitals, of which there were three at that time:- Harrisons, Jenkinsons and Potters. However, Burt and Grady regard them as 'semi public institutions used to keep the middle classes, who had fallen on hard times, out of the workhouse.' [Burt and Grady 1994 p82]

In the absence of figures for the years in the study we will take the figures for 1755:


Inmates during 1755


Table E-1
Men Women Children
July 1754 22 41 22
January 1755 43 60 53
June 1755 24 46 36
November 1755 32 53 35

Taken from Anderson[1977 p70]

There were actually few people capable of doing work in the workhouse. The men tended to be over 60 and a 'high percentage of women in the 20-30 age group who entered the workhouse during the last stages of pregnancy or were deserted by their husbands,' [Anderson 1977 p70] Most of the children were too young to apprentice.

This accounts for the workhouse having the most deaths from 'Old Age' in Table D-14. The aged poor went there, when no longer capable of supporting themselves even on out-relief, to die.

In the winter the workhouse was always overcrowded. At the time in question there was accommodation for 'about one-hundred-and twenty persons.' [Anderson 1977 p8] and since the sick were not segregated it was possible for infections to spread rapidly. In January 1741 nearly a quarter of the inmates died.

This being the case it seemed strange that the workhouse did not have a higher entry in the tables for infectious diseases. To investigate this, data was extracted to show what the inhabitants of the workhouse died from, Table E-2.


Deaths in the Workhouse January 1764 - December 1772


Table E-2
Unknown 237 Decline 2
Old Age 60 Child Bed 2
Consumption 20 Dropsy 2
Fever 10 By a Flash of lightening 1
Fitts 6 Fistula 1
Wearing 5 C 1
Smallpox 2 Measles 1

Here it can clearly be seen that the problem is one of reporting. Either no one cared what they died of or no one could be bothered to report the cause of death. The cause must have been known since the committee appointed a new apothecary annually, to take care of the inmates and, in some years, those on out-relief.

Knowing the maximum capacity of the workhouse it then became even more interesting to see how many died there each year. Table E-3

Number of Burials from the Workhouse

Table E-3
Year No. of Burials
1764 23
1765 26
1766 52
1767 61
1768 32
1769 34
1770 36
1771 44
1772 42

This shows that in 1767 half the capacity of the workhouse died, but it is not mentioned as being a particularly bad year.

The inmates could, and did, discharge themselves when they wanted to, which would mainly be during the summer months when there was more work available. These would obviously only be those who were capable of supporting themselves, not the aged, infirm or mothers with young children. It is interesting that they were provided with clothing and some money when they left.

It would seem that the Leeds workhouse was a place of shelter for those in most need. While being far from an ideal place it was better than many around at the time and did provide some respite for those unable to care for themselves.


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