Caring for the Poor and the Sick


The Industrial Revolution presented problems of poverty and illness which existing institutions were incapable of handling. New measures were introduced to administer the Poor Law and to cope with the danger of epidemics from infectious diseases. Despite increasing government intervention, however, charity towards the unfortunate was as necessary as ever, in relieving the distress caused by economic and social change.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 abolished the old system of outdoor relief or casual payments to the needy. This form of parish relief had become both expensive and open to abuse. The new act was administered through Poor Law unions whose officers were elected by the rate-payers. Each union served a number of parishes and outdoor relief was only given in exceptional circumstances. Normally, able-bodied paupers could expect no assistance, unless they and their families were prepared to enter the workhouse.

George Clive, the commissioner responsible for establishing the new Poor law in Glamorgan, proposed that five workhouses should be built at Swansea, Neath, Bridgend, Merthyr and Cardiff. The Cardiff Union consisted of 46 parishes as far apart as St. Mellons, Penarth and Llancarfan. A Board of Guardians was elected in September 1836 and one of its earliest decisions was to build a new workhouse in Cowbridge Road. It was enlarged in 1881 and it is interesting to observe, that in the latter half of 1887, the number of inmates totalled 1870, exactly the population of Cardiff at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

To our modern society, conditions at the workhouse appear harsh. Once admitted, families were split up: men in one ward, women and children in another. Usually, they were only allowed to visit each other's wards for three-quarters of an hour at specified times each day, and this unnatural life continued until a pauper discharged himself and his family.

All adults worked for their food and lodging. The men broke stones, chopped wood or carried coal. The women laboured in the laundry, helped in the cleaning of the workhouse, or converted tarred ropes into balls of twine, a task known as picking oakum. Tramps and vagrants seeking a bed were forced to earn it the following morning. After being locked up in special wards, they were set to work, breaking rocks for three hours with an iron bar, until the stone was fine enough to pass through a sieved grating.

The daily meals in the workhouse were monotonous but adequate, and some inmates probably ate rather better than they normally did. The dietary tables for 1878 reveal that able-bodied paupers received 6 ounces of bread and 1(1/2) pints of gruel for breakfast. Dinner at midday consisted of bread or potatoes; soup, broth, or meat; and treacle pudding on two days a week. Supper was a similar meal to breakfast, though three times a week, cheese was served as a treat.

At Christmas time, the Cardiff Workhouse assumed a more cheerful atmosphere. In 1873, Christmas dinner consisted of beef and vegetables, followed by plum pudding and a pint of ale. The Mayor, Chairman and Vice-chairman of the Board of Guardians waited on the inmates. The Chairman presented gifts of tobacco, snuff, tea and sugar to the adults, while the children were given sweets and oranges. Meanwhile, at the industrial school in Ely, Father Christmas "from his snow white beard smiled upon the children pleasantly'. Outside the workhouse, the needy were not forgotten, and 500 tickets were distributed, inviting them to a Christmas dinner at St. John's schoolroom.

For the rest of the year the workhouse was intended to be the last refuge of the desperate pauper. No-one could anticipate more favourable treatment inside a Victorian workhouse than the lowest paid labourer outside its walls. The rate-payers, who elected the Poor Law Guardians, expected their rates to be kept as low as possible and accused the workshy of exploiting the system.

This point of view is expressed by the reporter of the Cardiff Argus in August 1888, when he paid a Saturday morning visit to the workhouse to hear applicants plead their case for assistance. He claims that most of them were women who demanded outdoor relief and "made no hesitation in declaring their contempt for an order to enter the House'. The Argus reporter, while admitting that these women and their children were "in a rather repulsive condition of dirt and rags', was adamant "that the applicants were not suffering from real destitution', but were merely parasites.

In the workhouse at Andover, the inmates were so hungry that those employed in bone-crushing ate the scraps from diseased animals. There was never a scandal of this kind at Cardiff and, before the end of the century, the harshest aspects of the workhouse were being softened. Trusted inmates were even permitted to leave the premises but, to avoid the temptations of alcohol, they were expected to return before 7 p.m.

Nor was outdoor relief ever successfully abolished, though it was more likely to be granted to an elderly person. Often it was cheaper to pay a weekly benefit to people at home, or offer special assistance with items such as clothing, than to force them into the workhouse. With the introduction of old age pensions in 1909, subsistence was paid on a regular basis, and for many older people the shadow of the workhouse was at last removed. The old workhouse in Cowbridge Road later became St. David's Hospital. Its façade shows a pleasant enough Victorian building, but until recently the grim barrack-like structures at the rear were a reminder of its original purpose.

The Ely Industrial School was erected in 1862 but, before the end of the century, it had been converted into a workhouse for the elderly and infirm. By 1908 a child in need of care was taken from the workhouse atmosphere and accommodated in one of the 21 foster homes scattered around Cardiff. These homes were administered from the Ely Workhouse, where 5 of them were situated.

The Industrial Schools Act was passed to give magistrates the power to remove from the streets children under the age of 14 who were begging, homeless, or keeping bad company. There were many such children in the rowdier streets of Cardiff and, to deal with them, the Industrial Schools Committee purchased the Havannah, an old frigate which had escorted Napoleon to St. Helena. Moored near the East Dock, the vessel became a "ragged school', where the boys were properly fed and kept out of mischief. Their industrial training was limited to such practical skills as gardening, elementary sea-cooking, mending and making clothes. The training was intended to have a nautical flavour, but few of the boys were acceptable to the merchant navy, and most of them became market porters or were employed in domestic service. The Havannah, later moved to a site near Penarth Bridge, was finally broken up in 1903.


Victorian philanthropy and compassion did much to protect the destitute from the worst consequences of an often cruel and uncaring world. The first Dr. Barnado's home in Cardiff, known as the "ever open door', was rescuing orphan children before the end of the century. By 1888 the Salvation Army was firmly established in Cardiff with citadels at the Stuart Hall in The Hayes and throughout the suburbs. On Sunday evenings, a thousand people from the "very substratum of society' attended meetings at the Stuart Hall. The Cardiff Argus wished the Salvation Army Godspeed as it "seeks to make honest men and women of those who might otherwise be pests to society'.

Nazareth House, a branch of the Sisters of Nazareth at Hammersmith, became one of Cardiff's most famous charitable institutions. The Sisters began their work at Tyndall Street in 1872 but three years later they moved to North Road, where the Marquess of Bute gave them a site and £1,000 towards the cost of building a convent. Accommodation was available for 65 orphan girls and 46 elderly people, while in 1889 an industrial school for Catholic girls was also established. Nazareth House was popular among both Protestants and Catholics, as the compassion of the Sisters made no religious distinction. Contributions to the charity came from generous benefactors, flag days and special fund-raising events. In 1910 Jim Driscoll, the famous Cardiff boxer and a staunch supporter of Nazareth House, turned down the opportunity to fight for the Featherweight Championship of the World in New York. Instead, he kept his promise to return to Cardiff to raise funds for his favourite charity.

Miss Francis Batty Shand founded the "Cardiff Institute for improving the social conditions of the blind' at Longcross in 1865. Her intention was to offer blind people the means of supporting  themselves by making mats, baskets and cane chairs. The institute at Longcross continued to assist blind people until it was bombed in the Second World War, after which the Blind Institute moved to more modern premises in Fitzalan Place.

In 1856, to save seamen from the temptations of Tiger Bay, the Marchioness of Bute built the Sailors' Home in Stuart Street. It was designed "to keep them out of the hands of land sharks who infested the Docks zone in those days, and was one of the greatest boons offered to our sailors at Cardiff'. In the later nineteenth century, the Sailors and Soldiers' Rest, founded by John Cory, offered similar facilities near the docks.


Hospitals in Victorian Britain were normally provided and supported through charitable organisations and endowments from rich benefactors. From 1823 the Glamorgan and Monmouthshire Dispensary, near St. John's Church, was offering outpatient treatment to the people of Cardiff but not until 1834 did its committee advocate the construction of an infirmary. Funds were forthcoming from a number of sources. Daniel Jones, a wealthy lawyer from Beaupre, donated £3,500, Bute a further £1,000, and all the money raised at the Cardiff Eisteddfod of 1834 was given to the cause. The hospital was built near the Spital Barn and was able to accommodate about thirty patients. In spite of several improvements, the resources of the hospital were strained to the limit by 1880.

Bute offered a site on Longcross Common for a new hospital and in 1883 the South Wales and Monmouthshire Infirmary was completed at a cost of £23,000. A full-time resident surgeon, who was forbidden to engage in private practice, was appointed to run the hospital. In addition, he was required to visit patients after their discharge, and for these quite onerous burdens he was paid £100, together with his board, lodging, coal and candles.

The Infirmary was a cause which drew its support from people in every walk of life. Wards were named in honour of the wealthiest benefactors, while for £1,000 a donor could endow a bed in perpetuity and recommend a patient to occupy it. The churches made a collection on "Infirmary Sunday' each April, school children contributed their pennies, and a regular subscription came from the Cardiff Corporation. Fund raising activities ranged from concerts to a week of sport organised by Lord Lonsdale.

Soon after the Infirmary opened, workmen from the mines and factories of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire participated in a voluntary scheme at the rate of 1d a week. The revenue was welcome, but the increase in the number of patients dependent on the hospital, aroused some resentment in Cardiff, where the tendency was to regard the hospital as "Our Infirmary'.

In its first year the hospital treated 1,000 inpatients and 9,000 outpatients, though it was not always easy for a sick person to gain admission. First of all, a recommendation was required from one of the Infirmary's subscribers, whose names were displayed in prominent places. At one stage there were also restrictions on "persons insane, suffering from an infectious disease or in an incurable state, and women in an advanced state of pregnancy'. Inevitably, there were sardonic observations that only the healthy need apply.

The hospital was constantly in need of money to extend its capacity, or to install new facilities such as electric lighting in 1903. The Infirmary was renamed the "King Edward VII Hospital' in 1910, when a memorial fund was launched to finance a new building programme. The University Hospital at the Heath is now the focus of medical services in South Wales and the Cardiff Royal Infirmary, which became its title in 1923, finally closed its doors in 1999 after more than a hundred years of devoted care to the community.

After the cholera epidemic of 1849, Henry Paine urged that a seamen's hospital should be founded to contain future outbreaks of disease. An old Spanish frigate, first launched in 1819, was moored near the entrance to the canal in 1866 and a roof was erected over its deck. The Hamadryad served not only seamen but also the people of Butetown for the next forty years. Treatment was free to sailors of all nationalities, and the hospital was financed with a levy of 2/- on every 100 tons of cargo carried by registered ships using the port. In 1896, to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, it was decided to replace the ship with a new hospital. The Royal Hamadryad Hospital continues to be a part of the National Health Service, but nothing remains of the old vessel apart from its figurehead and its bell.

Influenced by the Victorian concern with public health, the Corporation built a hospital for infectious diseases on Flatholm in 1896. It could accommodate 16 patients infected with cholera, yellow fever or plague, diseases most likely to be carried by foreign seamen. To deal with local epidemics, the Council built the Sanatorium, nowadays the Lansdowne Hospital, at Leckwith.

Eventually the Council assumed responsibility for the care of mental patients. The Victorians referred to them as lunatics and in the nineteenth century the lunatic asylum was attached to the workhouse. Violent patients were usually restrained by the application of the straitjacket or the use of the padded cell, but in 1908 a separate hospital for 750 mentally disturbed patients was opened at Whitchurch. It was equipped with every modern facility for the treatment of mental illness, and quickly gained a national reputation for its research into this branch of medicine.