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December 2023

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See also:

Tom the Brush

The Autobiography of a Resident.

This published version of an earlier talk seeks to locate the Christmas Day experience of Ruthin Union Workhouse within the wider context of how the institution operated.

Ever since Charles Dickens in his 1837 novel, Oliver Twist, created an image of the Workhouse as a highly-regimented and austere place for its residents, who were subjected to the tyranny of rapacious and heartless Workhouse officials. This fear of ending one’s days in a Workhouse endured to the end of the century, despite the radical reform of the Workhouse system introduced in the wake of the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834.

Although much-criticised at the time as leading to increased costs to  local ratepayers, who had to pay for mainly new and much-improved  Workhouse buildings and be subjected to unwelcome oversight by distant officials of the Poor Law Commission in London, these necessary wide-ranging changes greatly improved both Workhouses themselves and their management. Previous to this introduction of a national and uniform set of regulations and standards, each parish determined what provisions it would provide for the support of the destitute  ‘deserving poor’, paid for by a compulsory Poor Law Rate imposed on wealthier parishioners.   

Ruthin Union Workhouse opened in 1838, off Llanrhydd Street, with accommodation for 200 residents, bringing together 21 parishes in the wider Ruthin area. It was one of three in Denbighshire (the others being at Llanrwst and Wrexham). Each parish’s poor law rate income was sent to the new Workhouse, both to cover the costs of maintaining the Workhouse and to continue the earlier practice of ‘outdoor relief’ to the very poor remaining in their own homes. Expectations of getting rid of outdoor relief never materialised, though numbers gradually declined during the century. The assessment of the poor rate and the determination of who qualified for relief lay with Relieving Officers, now answerable to the Board of Guardians of each union.   
While overall decision-making rested with the Charity Commissioners, each Workhouse was overseen by a Board of Guardians, elected by each parish and who elected a Chairman from their own number. Joseph Ablett of Llanbedr was the first and he was followed by the long tenures of James Maurice, a prominent Ruthin solicitor and Rev. Owen Bulkeley-Jones, Warden of St. Peter’s Church. All were from the more educated and prosperous ratepayers, who instinctively shared the Commission’s objective of keeping costs and thus the Poor Rate down and to make living conditions in the Workhouse sufficiently unattractive to deter the ‘idle poor’ from seeking relief. At the same time they had a legal and moral obligation to provide for the most destitute in their community. 


Unlike the popular belief that Guardians squandered Workhouse resources on themselves, they received no payment for their time-consuming attendance at fortnightly meetings at the Ruthin Workhouse; nor were they reimbursed their travel costs or even given refreshments. The furthest Guardian came from Nantglyn and all had to travel by horse or pony-trap. The Charity Commissioners also ensured that every penny was accounted for by means of monthly returns of activities and expenditure, submission of annual returns and visits from Commissioners. At times, the Guardians did challenge some of the financial actions of the Commissioners. 

Another check on any possible abuses was the attendance of local newspaper reporters at their public meetings (this presentation relies heavily on their published accounts, particularly as most of the Workhouse records would be destroyed in the 1960s). Conditions in the Workhouse were also monitored by the monthly visit of a Women’s Visiting Committee who looked into the care of women and children and reported their findings to the Guardians.

Day-to-day management of the Workhouse rested with paid Masters and Matrons; normally married couples, the wife dealing with female and child matters. The Guardians retained the use of Relieving Officers to assess and collect the poor rate from the 21 parishes and to ensure the eligibility of applicants to enter the Workhouse or receive outdoor relief in their own homes. Individuals could leave the Workhouse at any time.

As the duties imposed on Workhouses by the Charity Commission and the Westminster parliament grew more varied, additional staff came to be employed – a male school-teacher and a female ‘Industrial Trainer’ to provide a basic primary education and necessary practical skills for eventual employment as domestic servants and apprentices. As the bulk of Workhouse residents increasingly became aged and frail, nursing staff was also required. Free medical attention was provided by visiting local doctors, who received payment. It was almost a welfare state, ahead of its time. A paid part-time secretary was employed to keep track of expenditure and carry out a burdensome correspondence with London.

In return for their basic care – accommodation, food, clothing, and medical treatment (even burial) – all inmates, other than those too old or frail, had to earn their keep; this was a ‘workhouse’, after all.   Adult men spent several hours a day looking after the extensive and productive garden and livestock and women worked mainly in the laundry, repaired clothing or helped look after the sick. In keeping with workhouse practices elsewhere, men, women and children (save the youngest) were kept apart most of the time, having their own dormitories and tables at meal times. Meal menus were determined by the Charity Commissioners, based on medical advice. Three meals a day, with measured portions, included meat on several occasions. Ruthin Workhouse’s large vegetable garden supplemented bought-in food. That the food was adequate is testified to by ‘Tom the Brush’ (Thomas Powell Roberts, We Shall Meet on a Beautiful Shore, 1992), who spent several years of his youth there.  

Another category of resident at the Workhouse, albeit brief, were the much-disliked vagrants, found in increasing numbers in north Wales for most of the nineteenth century and beyond. Workhouses, by law, were required to give them overnight accommodation (in a separate part of the Workhouse) and a sparse breakfast, which had to be paid for by a period of breaking up stones for local authority roads. Not surprisingly, these were excluded from the Christmas festivities. 


There was one day in the year when the Guardians relaxed these Spartan conditions – Christmas Day. Even the Charity Commissioners reluctantly allowed the Workhouse Master to spend £5 on this seasonal ‘treat’. With up to a hundred or so inmates (the number varied and greatly lessened by the end of the nineteenth century), clearly there was a need to find additional support from elsewhere. 

Benefactors comprised altruistic members of the local gentry and wealthier tradesmen in Ruthin, who regularly contributed to charitable appeals for other deprived groups at this time of year. Each year donations, varying from 10/6d to £2, came from such individuals as  Lady Naylor-Leyland (Nantclwyd Hall); Mr. And Mrs. George Blezzard (Pool Park); Miss Bremner (Woodlands Hall); George Dention (Llanrhaeadr Hall); Mrs. E.S. Curey (Fachlwyd Hall, Cyffylliog); and Mr. And Mrs. Stanley Weyman (Llanrhydd Hall). 

A number of shopkeepers, notably the philanthropic chemist, Theodore Rouwe, provided a range of seasonal fruit, confectionary, sweets, toys and Christmas crackers; while Ellis’ mineral waters company, Mwrog Street, supplied hampers of soda water. It is possible the Guardians also gave money, though their names do not appear in the local press accounts of the festivities.
The normally drab dining hall was cheerfully decorated by Workhouse staff and several town ladies and their daughters; who also wrapped individual presents for the residents and hung them on a decorated Christmas tree. 

Residents, still segregated by gender, sat down for their much-anticipated ‘Christmas Treat’ at 5.30pm. Roast beef and plum pudding were always served on these occasions, followed by a variety of buns, cakes, fruits and sweets for the children. Even Christmas crackers were provided for the latter to add to the festive spirit. The men could have small amounts of beer as well.
Following this unusually-rich meal, small gifts from the Christmas tree were distributed by the volunteer helpers. The presents varied from year to year, but were a mixture of the useful and the instructive. 

The number of children in the Workhouse gradually declined as government decided they should no longer have to live among increasingly aged or handicapped adults. They were always given items of clothing: the girls received gloves, handkerchiefs, mufflers, toys and uplifting books; boys were also given gloves, handkerchiefs, books and toys, and also a collar and tie. Men were given a packet of tobacco and a handkerchief; women packets of tea and sugar. Those in the infirmary ward received cake and the customary handkerchief. In 1908 the children had an additional two ‘bran pies’ (lucky dips). No games were ever recorded as having taken place.  

The dinner and distribution of gifts completed, the Workhouse residents were then provided with a programme of entertainment, given by members of the wider community, who took time off from their own domestic celebrations. This took the form of piano recitals, solos and duets and even comedy – Mr. J.W. Roberts’ “comic renderings greatly amused the inmates”. The Llanbedr Glee Club performed regularly at these occasions. In 1894 Ruthin Town Band performed and in 1907 there was a ‘magic lantern’ and phonograph entertainment on New Year’s Eve. The normal bedtime rule was relaxed on these occasions. The Workhouse Master became Master of Ceremonies in a more informal role. All these Christmas and New Year entertainments were greatly appreciated by the residents. One Guardian thought that the Workhouse residents had a better Christmas than many poor people living outside the institution. 

These annual acts of charity by philanthropic gentry and townspeople were not confined to Christmastime; gifts such as magazines and seasonal produce were also given to the Workhouse and children occasionally entertained at Llanrhydd Hall and Ruthin Castle. One benefactor even gave the children pocket money for their annual trip to the seaside at Rhyl. 

By 1930, the character of Workhouses had changed nationally, as they now became homes for the elderly. The hated name, ‘Workhouse’, was replaced and these now became Public Assistance Institutions.  Boards of Guardians were also abolished and their duties assumed by salaried public health and local government officials. In Ruthin, after World War II, the name was changed to ‘Rhyddfan’, the precursor to ‘Awelon’, when the few remaining residents moved to their new home off School Road in 1970 and the redundant building used as offices by Denbighshire Social Services. A few years later the building was demolished to make way for an enlarged Ruthin hospital. 

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