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Poor, but not forgotten! The remembering of a Bristol workhouse

Back in 2012, some historians from the Bristol Radical History Group (BRH) were sinking a couple of shandies, and pouring over old ordnance survey maps. As you do if you are a history geek. BRH has been active since 2006 and organised an array of events, talks and pamphlets. We are not funded externally and have the ethos of reclaiming our history.

What this group found in the map was a disused burial ground, just down the road. All of those sat around the table knew the land. Today known as Rosemary Green, it was a popular spot for dog walkers, and had a mini footy pitch. But there was nothing else, no memorial for those buried there; or info on who was buried there? Shortly afterwards we found out that it was the burial ground for the old Eastville workhouse: a massive institution imposing over the area which is now a large housing estate. The Eastville workhouse was completed in 1847, after the New Poor Law Act of 1834.

The Eastville workhouse

The New Poor Law Act of 1834 followed numerous debates amongst MPs and the well-to-do in the Times letter pages, about what to do about the poor: the casualties of capitalism. Back in the Lizzie the 1st’s day, vagabonds, and those without masters were seen as a problem. Settlement Acts could lead to vagrants being whipped, branded for a second offence, and even killed. As many poor walked the highways and byways of England, begging, and undertaking a bit of relocation of wealth, i.e. robbing.

Following Acts of parliament laid down differing laws on how to deal with those not working. Including settlement on a parish, and the Speelhamland system. The latter tied the parish poor rate to the price of bread, and size of family. While the poor got the blame, landowners also used the system to lower wages and exploit further.

The 1834 Act aimed at bringing these other bits of legislation and guidance together, but with two critical changes. Firstly, “outdoor relief” was to be phased out. Rather than getting your dole, and returning to the family abode, the poor would need to enter a workhouse where they will be put to work. Secondly, the philosophy of the “undeserving poor” was introduced. The workhouse would be a punishing place, and the poor would be castigated for being poor. I know, it sounds like something out of Monty Python. “oi you, stop being poor”. It was not only those that did not want to work, but single Mums, people with learning difficulties, the elderly, and the sick. Also, the seasonally unemployed. The workhouse was used as a threat towards uppity workers.

On entering the workhouse, families would be separated, washed, deloused and given their uniform. There were different wards for men, women and children. Inmates, for that was what they were, were fed only very basic provisions, and put to work. That work varied, but some was just pointless and deliberately humiliating and arduous. At Eastville, there were cells where the inmate broke rocks, for road gravel. There were behind a metal grill, where they pushed the stones through, thereby sizing the pieces of gravel. A days work at this, would earn the labourer a loaf, and something to drink: a weak tea typically.

There were many ways to dehumanise people within the walls of the workhouse. Perhaps the worst and most terrifying for those facing the “workhouse test” was the separation of families. But it could get worse. The parents of workhouse children were blamed for being poor. Lazy, feckless, and drunken were the usual insults. It was also the early days of eugenics and the likes. In addition, the colonies were suffering a labour shortage. So children, after being separated from families, could then be relocated to Canada and Australia, under the pretence of new opportunities, and away from the “bad influence” of their parents. In reality, it was usually an exploitive relationship, with no checks on who was taking the children away, or what happened afterwards. The child would be picked up port side, and handed over to any old nonce with a bit of land. Back at the workhouse, the parents might only find out about their child’s enforced emigration on a Sunday, when families were allowed to meet together.

Back in Eastville 2012, the historians decided to do a bit of research and quickly found that it was a vast burial ground and that just over 4000 paupers were buried there. That number didn’t include stillborn babies, who were put “under the wall”. This basically meant chucked into a hole in the ground, by the main external workhouse wall.

The burial ground had not any memorial or recognition that over 4000 paupers were buried there. They were poor, and therefore not worth remembering. While just down the road, there is a pet cemetery.

Those involved in this developing project were determined to rectify this. They leafletted the estate where the workhouse once stood, and the surrounding areas, and held a public meeting. There was a lot of interest from the local community, and the group was set up. The ethos: to research the workhouse, reclaim our history and raise a memorial to those buried and incarcerated there.

Members of the group went into local schools and continued to give public talks. Interactions with the locals gave powerful insights, on how the workhouse was used as a local bogymen. For example, one elderly resident told us that when she was a little girl, her Mum used to say to her that if she did not eat her sprouts, she would get sent to the workhouse.

Eventually, a book was written, to raise funds for the memorial. Also, every recorded burial was placed on a dataset, recoverable on the BRHG website. We have had people from all around the world contacting us regarding relatives buried in Eastville.

As research continued, so did the class anger of the historians and locals in the group. The workhouse was knocked down in 1972, and replaced by the estate and school. It was found that the graves were dug up with a JCB, put into boxes, transported to Avonview a municipal cemetery; and then poured into a hole. There was no ceremony, and still no marker. What made it worse, the Church of England had consecrated the burial ground on three separate occasions during the 19th Century. At the cost of £50 a time. Which during the period under question was a large sum, sufficient to feed the paupers properly for several months. But, the consecration was no defence against the JCBs, who dug up the graves with no effort to separate the bodies. When historians raised the memorial at Rose Green, they had to dig several meters down. Artefacts, including bone fragments, were found, including what looked like a child’s femur.

The femur found on the site

The first memorial was erected in November 2015, after raising money from Trade Unions, local charities, and the sale of the book. Local school children came down for the unveiling. After much chasing, the Church of England eventually agreed to part-fund another gravestone at Avonview cemetery, where the bodies lay now. Local dignitaries turned up, and the poor from East Bristol Workhouse were remembered.


The memorial from Rosemary Green

Why was this important? The BRHG firmly believed that working with the local community to achieve this was probably the most significant benefit to our class. Some have learnt about research techniques and are engaging with the BRHG on other projects and events. Exactly what we wanted. Furthermore, the class issues of the poor laws were widely discussed, especially with the work in schools. People were really engaged with the history and how the poor were treated. People understood that a stonemason could suffer an industrial injury, and his whole family would be put into the workhouse. That adults with learning difficulties and the elderly with dementia were tied to beds, lying in their own body fluids, and without care or support. Families were torn apart because they were poor, and in the reserve pool of labour.

But, perhaps most importantly, was the message “never again!”. With the Tories dismantling and privatising our NHS and social care, many on the front bench and their ilk want a return to punishing the poor. How many councils are now arresting and charging rough sleepers? Some of these right-wingers would bring back workhouses at a blink of the eye.

Along with debt, it would scare the working classes into poorly paid and resourced work. If they moaned, then dismissal and the threat of the Department of Work and Pensions taking away your benefits, and then to the workhouse. We are not there yet, but without cross-community class diligence, it could happen again; and become an essential weapon in the class war conducted against us, now.

Steve Mills

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