Caring for the Poor and the Sick
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.