Boston Union

The following are extracts from Boston Its Story and People by Geo. S. Bagley.

As a result of a public meeting in 1726 , "a workhouse for the maintenance and better supplying the poor of this parish" was built in a pasture near to St John's Row, where the original parish workhouse had been established to comply with the Poor Law Act of 1601. The old building was cleared, and materials from it used in the new, which continued to serve for over a century. The £600 cost was met by the borough Members, Albemarle Bertie and Sir Richard Ellys. Skirbeck had its own workhouse - later known as "the Poor People's Hospital" - in Spilsby Road at its junction with Workhouse Lane (now Tolfield Road).

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established new unions of parishes to organise the care of the poor, under the supervision of annually elected boards of guardians. The Boston Union, formed in 1836, extended eight or nine miles from the town in all directions, and comprised twenty-eight parishes with a total population of 34,681: in the county only Lincoln Union had a larger population. Augustus Duggan (related to the Fydells) was the first local chairman, with Skirbeck's rector, William Roy, as vice-chairman, solicitor John George Calthrop as clerk, and banker William Garfit as treasurer. Three relieving officers were appointed, and Thomas and Mary Sylvester were chosen master and matron of the union workhouse, which had a school for pauper children attached. Designated by George Gilbert Scott, and built at a cost of £7,566-5s to accommodate 350 inmates, this was erected upon four acres of land in Friars' Pasture, Skirbeck Road, and was first occupied on 23 May 1838.

A jolly note was stuck early on with a decision that "a treat be given to the Paupers in the Workhouse" on Victoria's coronation day. The expense was not to exceed 1s-6d each, with a shilling for each family receiving out-door relief. The grand total of £30-10s was to be defrayed from the penalty imposed upon the union's supplier of bread, for breach of contract. Bills were ordered to be posted in the town announcing that wheat and oats would be ground at the workhouse for two shillings per quarter, and ground and dressed for 2s-6d. The Poor Law Commissioners limited to 400 the number of paupers to be maintained at Boston's workhouse, and the guardians directed that vagrants arriving on a Saturday should not be turned out until Monday morning. Dr. Edward Coupland, the first medical officer, recommended


"That Meat be substituted for pudding, that the old people and adults have a moderate allowance of Good Beer, and that those who are in the habit of smoking be indulged with Two or Three pipes each day... Resolved that the allowance of Beer be 1/2 pint a day and of Tobacco one-third of an ounce per day."

Later, it was decided that "Tobacco be allowed no longer", and that "no more than 1s a gallon be allowed for the Ale purchased for the use of the establishment".

After complaint had been made about the meat supplied on one occasion, the contractor admitted there was more bone than was proper, but as meat was sent without bone for Christmas, he felt justified in sending extra bone the following week. The workhouse barber was to receive four shillings weekly; a cook was appointed at £10 a year; and it was agreed to pay B. Bothomley £3 a year for winding up, attending to, and repairing the workhouse clock.

Of the 194 inmates in 1842, sixty-five were able bodied men and women, fifteen old men and women, seventy-six boys and girls, twenty-five inform men and women, and four reception cases. There were three resident staff . In April 1844 the board started allowing elderly men and women to go out for a walk twice a week, the men one day, the women another. They could not go in the direction of the town, but only onto the river bank, as far as Pudding Pie House. The next year a tailor and shoemaker were appointed to teach the pauper boys a trade. The premises were extended in 1847 and again twenty years later.

Just before Christmas 1861, the guardians (now with Major Hopkins in the chair) heard there were 293 inmates, twenty-nine more than in the corresponding week of the previous year: "There were a great number of applicants for relief, and the Board sat until three o'clock." On Christmas Day all 304 inmates "had their annual treat of roast beef and plum pudding". The bill of fare included thirty stone of beef and forty eight-pound puddings.

"All the male paupers had also a pint of ale each, and afterwards, through the liberality of Messrs. Smyth and Company, tobacco manufacturers, they had the pleasure of indulging in the nicotian weed. Many of the old women too had also a similar treat, which they seemed heartily to enjoy."

Whether the workhouse children should be sent out to the town's board schools, or continue to be educated on the premises proved a lively bone of contention as the century was ending. Thus, in September 1895, George F. Young of Swineshead Abbey proposed they should go to the board schools. He argued that

"apart from the financial and economic question, it must in the long run be beneficial to the public at large, and highly beneficial to the children of both sexes, in that they could mix with other children, learn to know how other children lived, and what life really was like."

C.N. Hunn pointed out that latterly the children had been taken to the board schools, and "that was a system which he thought would answer very well... they seemed to hold their own as well as other children". The chairman, now Colonel C.T.J. Moore, said he had brought this question before the board some years previously, and fully believed in it now. But they should not "rush into anything till they were satisfied that the change would be a good one for the children, especially just now when they were sending children out to board schools". James Eley thought it "indiscreet for the Guardians to consider themselves as a committee of baby-farmers", and by nineteen votes his amendment that no committee be appointed to consider the matter was approved.

That December, by seventeen votes to twelve, the guardians rescinded their earlier resolution that the young inmates be sent to board schools, and agreed they "should be educated at the Union as hitherto". Said one of the leading members, F.E. Bowser: "It always was an error to my mind... to depart from a rule that had worked well for so many years, and had been supported by government aid". Opposing, former mayor Joseph Clarke, a butcher who had "risen from the lowest ranks of society", took a particularly advanced view:

"I hope to see the day when this Union is nothing but an infirmary, with only persons who are sick there. I do hope to see the time we shall not have a Workhouse."

Clarke's hopes were not realised until over thirty years later. There was, however, another change of heart in 1900, when it was recommended that the workhouse school should be closed and its master for over eighteen years dismissed. His average salary for the last five years had been £42 per annum, and compensation was fixed at £90. The Independent's view was:

"For some time there has been a disposition on the part of some of the members of the Board to close the schools and oust the schoolmaster from the position he has worthily filled for many years... There is much to be said in favour of the boarding-out system, but not sufficient to justify an act of injustice to one who has devoted the best years of his life to the training of the young in the care of the Board..."

Boston Society reported in February 1900:

"The inmates of Boston Workhouse are about to revel. The dietary table has been revised, and henceforth they will be allowed meat on six days of the week and pudding on four days. Friday is a meatless day but the able-bodied men are to have a pound of suet pudding for dinner, served up with gravy, treacle or sauce, the other inmates, of course, partaking in proportion."

"The Local Government Board have also expressed a desire that the dietary table shall include, when possible, lettuces, onions, watercress and suchlike, which, however, is no new arrangement at Boston Workhouse."

"But the piece de resistance of the new dietary table will be produced every Wednesday in the shape of Irish Stew. There will be no half laps about this diet, either, for the specifications lay down that not less than five ounces of meat, or 10 ounces of neck of mutton, shall be stewed and served to each able-bodied inmate. There are rollicking times ahead in the Big House down South end!"

At this time Boston Union comprised forty-two parishes spread over almost 102,000 acres, with a population of 38,221. Children were still being taught on the premises when, in 1903, approval was given for a new infirmary and laundry to be built at the workhouse, and for a heating system to be installed. The outbreak of World War I found the board of guardians in jingoistic mood: at the end of August 1914 a resolution was sent to the government urging that the large number of vagrants of military age should be forcibly enlisted, one member declaring they would at least be suitable for guarding the breweries!

The Boston Union came to an end after some ninety-four years, the last meeting of the guardians being held on 22 March 1930 in the boardroom at what was then officially known as the "poor law institution", though still generally termed the workhouse. There were seventy men, fifty-one women, ten children and fourteen infants resident; and even up to that date a punishment book was maintained, and solitary confinement, with bread and water in place of the main meal, was still imposed.

There were fifty-one guardians, of whom auctioneer Ben Killingworth and coal merchant Walter Woodthorpe were chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, with William Henry Lunn as clerk. Three relieving officers were employed, as had been the case in 1836; L.V. and A.C. Brumblecombe were master and matron; and the medical officer was Dr. Reginald Tuxford. The board's functions were taken over by Holland County Council, but another six years elapsed before Boston got its first children's home, Holly Cottages on Fenside Road.

Improvements to the former workhouse were carried out in the years leading up to World War II, during which it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and became HMS Arbella. After the war, the infirmary block was brought back into use, to provide residential accommodation for sixty elderly people - a "temporary expedient" which lasted over twenty years.

Boston It's Story and People, Geo. S. Bagley

The final extract is from a local newspaper and was kindly supplied by Janet Corney. It was written by her mother's cousin.

Written Friday July 17, 1981

'Workhouse was my prison'

When I was a child and became orphaned in 1916, along with several brothers and sisters, I was deposited at that 'place' in Skirbeck Road then known as the workhouse, or Poor law Institution. And a more heartless, cold, inhuman place for parentless children to live in is hard to imagine. In the children's section the regime unfeeling and harsh, the building was prison-like.

I remember the flagstone floor of our living room (which we children sometimes had to wash), the playground, or exercise yard, also surfaced with flagstones, enclosed by a high brick wall.

We were always hungry, a condition somewhat relieved when the boys of nine years old upwards graduated to the men's quarters, where there were better opportunities to leave the dining hall with slices of bread up one's jumper, to be augmented after dark by slipping out of the bathroom window into the garden and returning with carrots, turnips, apple, pears etc. What a tucking we often had in our dormitory. If you've read any escape stories you will know what I mean!

To return to the beginning. In the first few weeks of my incarceration the harshness hit me so hard (I was six at the time) that I ran away (or shall I say escaped) and made the journey of nine miles back to the old family home at Wigtoft.

That did not have a happy outcome, so my next escape was in the direction of Freiston Shore. Another failure. After that I just had to grin and bear it, but forever after when I think of my life in the workhouse I think also of Wormwood Scrubs, Colditz, The Lubianka, Oliver Twist - they all go together.

My one shining memory of my four unhappy years in that "place" was the Headmaster of St Nicholas School, Mr J. G. Hirst, a wonderful man, kind, sympathetic and inspiring. Workhouse kids were, to him, just as important as everyone else.

You can find more information about workhouses on Peter Higginbotham's site.

Page last updated 4 December, 2003

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