St Austell: the good old days

Not everyone in St Austell was fortunate enough to be born into the right family, as was John Lovering, who we met in the previous blog. Even these days, a century and a half on, if we don’t have a house or houses to sell or a fat pension to pay for an expensive care home, surviving into old age may not be anticipated with unalloyed joy, especially given the state of the health service.

For the poor in the late 1800s things were a lot worse, with the prospect of a final resting place in the dreaded workhouse haunting the nightmares of their advancing years. True, by the 1880s and 90s things were not quite as bad as they had been in the early part of the century. Medical attention in the workhouse infirmaries had improved and the strict principles that underlay the original New Poor Law of 1834 had been somewhat ameliorated. As a result, two thirds of paupers still received poor relief in their own homes rather than having to enter the workhouse.

Ulverston workhouse, where John Matthews ended his days. Victorian workhouses were usually large buildings unsubtly impressing their message on the landscape

John Matthews was one of those unfortunates who ended up in the workhouse, but not at St Austell, although he and his mother were living there in 1861. He had been born at Liskeard, the son of a lead miner. His father left in the 1850s and John moved with his mother to St Austell. She remarried in the 1860s and John accompanied his mother, stepfather and siblings when the family travelled north to Widnes, near Liverpool. There the men got jobs in the booming local chemical works. However, John did not stay and went on to Dalton-in-Furness, lodging with various Cornish families and working as an iron miner. By 1901, still single, he was an inmate at the workhouse in Ulverston. Perhaps he had suffered an accident or industrial injury and was no longer able to earn sufficient to keep himself out of the workhouse.

The picturesque (and busy) port of Charlestown. The reality of low and uncertain wages for the dockers is less visible

Another St Austell resident who fell on hard times was Ellen Harris. Ellen spent her formative years at Charlestown in the parish. Her father had been a mariner but in 1861 was earning his living from dock labouring. He died in the 1860s, leaving his widow to be supported by three of her children who were still at home. Ellen was working ’in the fields’ in 1871, probably doing casual labour at certain times of the year for nine pence or so a day. A decade later she was the only one left to help her mother, by now 72 years old. By 1891 Ellen was living on her own in Kiln Lane, St Austell, a pauper receiving parish relief but not forced into the workhouse.

At least Cornwall saw no scandals on the scale of that at Andover in Hampshire in the 1840s. There, a rigid application of the New Poor Law resulted in the cessation of all ‘outdoor relief’ or relief to paupers in their own homes. This was combined with a draconian dose of the ‘deterrent principle’ of the new law. That aimed to deter the poor from claiming relief by ensuring conditions in the workhouse were no better than the worse outside. As those could be very bad indeed the logic of this was that workhouse inmates would have to be close to starvation levels. And at Andover they were.

An enquiry in 1845 found that the diet provided was so poor that the hungry inmates were resorting to eating the potato peelings intended for the chickens, gnawing rotten bones and eating putrid horseflesh thrown out by a local slaughterhouse. They were overseen by a drunken and over-disciplinarian workhouse master who did not hesitate to thrash children as young as three for their misdemeanours while insisting that single mothers wore a distinctive yellow badge of shame on their workhouse clothes. The good old days indeed.

One thought on “St Austell: the good old days

  1. Of course there is a terrible sadness in thinking about someone growing up close to the beautiful beaches around St. Austell ending up in a grim workhouse. Did not the sound of waves call to John? Vincent van Gogh wrote with rather ironic humour of the terrible rations he received when at an asylum in the south of France in the late 1800s.

    But the real terribleness is that the mentality which created those conditions still persists very markedly today. Therese Coffey has binned the white paper which documented 19 fewer years of healthy life for poor women (18 for poor men) and an overall decrease in life expectancy for the most poor. We saw Rishi Sunak proudly agreeing he had taken from the poor to give to the rich. We see a very strong “on your bike” mentality from others in the current government. George Orwell wrote heartbreakingly of the extreme poverty and harsh lives of tramps in Down and Out – here an extract from the Orwell website. Some of the sentences remind me of today – the essential link to the state of the economy, and the idea that a tramp has chosen their fate. Yes Orwell wrote this nearly 100 years ago, but some of the thinking persists over generations from the Victorian poorhouses through Britain in the 1920s to our present time.

    “The tramp does not wander for his own amusement, or because he has inherited the nomadic instincts of his ancestors; he is trying first and foremost to avoid starving to death.

    It is not difficult to see why; the tramp is unemployed as a result of the state of the English economy. So, to exist, he must have recourse to public or private charity. To assist him, the authorities have created asiles (workhouses) where the destitute can find food and shelter.”


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