Stale Bread and Scattered Homes

Mary and Emily weren’t the only individuals pushing for social reform and welfare in Page Hall and Grimesthorpe. Before the 1800’s there had been a few attempts to deal with the increasing problem of looking after the poor across Britain. In 1601 The Old Poor Law was passed and it meant that the parish was responsible for looking after the local poor.

You might think of a ‘parish’ as a town or village which has its own church. Each parish generally chose two Overseers of the Poor, who were responsible for collecting a local tax used to fund poor relief from local householders and distributing it to those in need. Overseers of the Poor were also responsible for supervising the parish poor house or workhouse.

The Gates of the Sheffield Union Workhouse

In the 1770s – 1780s there was growing concern in Sheffield over the workhouse conditions and in 1834 the New Poor Law was made. This was designed to create a more uniform, centralised system for managing poor relief. Poor people could now only get help if they were prepared to leave their homes and go into a workhouse. Conditions inside the workhouse were deliberately harsh to discourage people from asking for help unless they desperately needed it. Families were split up and housed in different parts of the workhouse.  Inmates of all ages were made to work hard doing unpleasant manual labour such as breaking up stones. Children could also find themselves hired out to work in factories or mines.

Children working in mines, 1843

To cope with the growing numbers in the central workhouses, another workhouse was built in Fir Vale (Page Hall) in 1881, The Sheffield Union Workhouse (where Northern General Hospital is now). The new Fir Vale workhouse had six separate departments which housed 1,662 paupers (a very poor person) in the main building, 200 patients classed as ‘lunatic’ in the asylums, a school for 300 children, a vagrant ward which could take up to 60 men and 20 women and a hospital block which could look after 366 patients and had separate fever hospitals. A children’s hospital for up to 60 was also opened in 1894.

Fir Vale Workhouse main entrance

Following the building of the workhouse the Sheffield Guardians turned their attention to establishing the most appropriate way to care for the city’s pauper children and it was decided that children needed to be cared for separately from adult workhouse inmates.  So in 1888, the ‘boarding out’ of 40 young children was undertaken. In 1893, the scattered homes system was devised for the Sheffield Union by John Wycliffe Wilson. It placed small groups of children in ordinary houses scattered around Sheffield’s suburbs, under the care of a foster-parent employed by the Union.

Basketful of babies, Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897 GB124.DPA/2372/41, Manchester Archives.

Plaque on the side of Wycliffe House

The headquarters for these still stand in Page Hall today, in the grounds of Northern General Hospital. This building is known as both Chesterman House and Wycliffe House, and it was built on the Goddard estate which you read about earlier. This building provided an administrative base and could also accommodate up to 20 new arrivals, as well as a superintendent (which is similar to a manager). Upon arrival the children would receive a bath, a haircut, and a medical inspection. They would then be sent to one of the scattered homes, or stay at the headquarters until it was suitable for them to go to a scattered home.

It was also at this time (1894) that a Teacher’s Orphanage for Girls was set up in Page Hall. This orphanage was for girls whose fathers were permanently incapacitated.  The home housed 60 girls and was open till 1928.

In 1906 the Sheffield Union Workhouse at Fir Vale changed its name to Fir Vale, then in the 1930’s to Firvale House Poor Law Institutions and by the 1950’s it had been changed again to the City General Hospital and Fir Vale Infirmary (later Northern General Hospital). Although the name may have changed and potentially made it sound slightly nicer, the buildings often retained the negative associations of their former Union Workhouse days.

Sketch of the headquarters with residence