Down and Out in Shelford



            When the Welfare State was created in 1948, it sought to put an end to the five great social evils which beset the country: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Whether we’ve succeeded in that noble goal, you’ll have to decide for yourself.  But what happened to you before the days of cradle-to-grave provision, if you were poor, or sick or disabled? In these pages I’m going to tell you something about how it was.


Being poor

            For most of our history, most of the population has been poor. There have always been rich people. Some of these were rich beyond our wildest imaginings. But their numbers were relatively few, and it is the small people who numbered the greatest part of the population in any village. It is these people that I’m interested in here.

            Christ, of course, said that the poor are always with us, and it was as true in Shelford as it was everywhere else. Being poor was largely down to your place in the social order, and until recently the social order was regarded as a natural and immutable thing. Things were at their most extreme in Medieval times, when there were lords, their free tenants and serfs, who were not free at all. But even after the Middle Ages, it was regarded as a natural state of affairs that some should be rich and powerful, while others were poor and owed the rich their deference. Most poor people were fatalistic about their position. Maybe it wasn’t great, but there was little you could do about it. This is not to say, however, that people couldn’t rise and fall in the social order, and people did, all the time. But the system itself remained firm – rich was rich and poor was poor.

            So, if you were poor, how did you cope, and was there a safety net? The answer to this depends on when you are talking about, and so I’ll break this down into different periods.


Chesterton Union Workhouse

            If you have read the other pieces on the 1830s (in particular Class War in Shelford), you will be aware that there was a lot of social tension around – in the village and throughout the country, and most of it centred around poor relief.

            The better off – the people in good houses, the farmers, the shopkeepers, the businessmen (brewers, maltsters, corn merchants – these were the Shelford businessmen) – wanted to see poor relief reformed.

            The labourers, on the other hand, were entrenched. They had few available options for changing their lives. The strategy favoured by Norman Tebbit, of getting on their bikes, was not really an option, and not only because they didn’t have bikes! They were tied to their home village by the notion of Settlement which decreed that you were only entitled to poor relief in your own parish. So if you went to London or Halifax or Hull and fell on hard times, they would hasten to ship you back here, not pay you poor relief. So, to up sticks and leave was a big risk, especially for someone who had no money to speak of. Unless you had family or connections where you were going. So, far better to stay here, where the network of family and friends was here to support you.

            But the rich were determined to break the stalemate by delivering a hefty kick up the backside to what they perceived as a bunch of idle skiving labourers. And this kick up the backside was the workhouse.

About The Workhouse

            The government introduced a reformed poor law system in 1834. It was designed to reduce the poor rate, and get those labourers back to work. It was to do this by building Union Workhouses where the idle and shiftless labourer was to learn the error of his ways. But why did the innocent and needy have to go there too? As always, because the alternative was too expensive.

            The Poor Law became a function of central government, taken out of the hands of the parish. The country was carved up into Poor Law Unions, and Great Shelford, together with 37 other parishes running from Cottenham and Willingham in the north, to Longstanton in the west, Chesterton in the east and Stapleford, Cherry Hinton and the Shelfords in the south became part of Chesterton Union.

A workhouse tale

            James Waters was a blacksmith in the village. His wife died in 1853, aged only 35, leaving him with his five children. According to the newspaper, he had become “embarrassed in his circumstances, which preyed on his mind. He had frequently been heard to say he feared he should go to gaol for debt, and his five children would have to be sent to the workhouse ”. In his depression he turned to drink, and thus compounded his troubles, neglecting his work.

            “For several weeks past, during his hours of dissipation, he had sometimes stated that he would lay down on the rail, and let the train run over him. But none who heard him make the statement for a moment believed he intended to do so”. Unfortunately, they were wrong.


 The Road and Rail some 50 years later, about 1901

            “After getting up at about 11 o’ clock on Monday… he went through his shop, not speaking to his son or journeyman, and called at two or three beer-shops in the course of the next two hours  (remember, no licensing hours in those days), at each of which he had half a pint of beer: at all the places at which he called it was remarked of him how unusually serious, dull and melancholy he was, in some instances making no reply when addressed. The last of those places – a beer shop called the Road and the Rail – he left soon after one, and was seen no more alive. Upon the 11.30 train from London nearing the… bridge (this was the London Road railway bridge, between Shelford and Stapleford), the fireman fancied he saw something across the rails under the bridge but owing to there being a heavy curve on both sides of the spot, he could not tell what it was – in fact he could not see it at all until near the moment of passing over it. After passing over, the steam was shut off, the brake tightly applied, the whistle sounded for the guards to apply their breaks, and signals given to some porters and workmen near the spot to go back along the line. After proceeding as far back as the bridge, the body of the unhappy man was found, but so mutilated, the head being severed from the body, and otherwise mangled, as scarcely to be recognized by those who had previously known him”.  Imagine the horror of those who found him, and imagine the distress of his children. The incident must have sent shockwaves all round the village.

            But that wasn’t the end, because his two youngest children did end up in the workhouse. In the 1861 census, Richard Waters, who was 15, and Frederick who was 10, are listed among the paupers at Chesterton Workhouse.

             There is a little more to this story. Their elder brother, Joseph, at the age of 18, emigrated to Australia on the Boanerges, arriving in 1857. He was evidently yet another of the Shelford poor who decided that the Old World had nothing to offer him, and this of course left his younger brothers without resources. Young Frederick died, aged only 17, in “Hospital, Cambridge”. I don’t know if that means the workhouse, or Addenbrookes Hospital.

        Now this, of course, is a story that could have happened in any age – a personal catastrophe for the family – the loss of the mother, and the father’s inability to deal with it. There’s no guarantee that society can heal those wounds, but surely the workhouse was the cruellest solution.


I can’t identify James Waters’ forge – he was listed in the 1851 census at the High Street. It may be part of The Plough site, but there is no sure way to identify the premises.

The report quoted above appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle on 21 July, 1855.

Chesterton Workhouse

            Chesterton Workhouse was demolished in 2003, but it stood for 166 years, and for 111 of them, it was the workhouse. In 1948 it became an old people’s hospital. What was it like in its early days?

            It was built like a prison. It was surrounded by a wall, and that wall was topped with glass – to keep the paupers from shinning over it. Inside the wall was a building built like a cross, with four wings. At the hub of the cross was the Master’s lodgings, and from there he could keep an eye on whatever was happening. You knew you were being watched. Between the wings were exercise yards. One for able-bodied men, and one for women, one for boys,  and one – carefully divided – between the girls, and the old men. All these groups were strictly segregated.

            It was a strict regime: up at 5 in summer, 7 in winter; to bed at 8. And a workhouse meant work. It was run by a very small staff – the Master and his wife, who was the Matron, a schoolmaster and schoolmistress, and a porter who could do the heavy work and deal with troublemakers. The workhouse had been built to house 350, but mostly there were only ever about 150 in residence.

            The women provided a useful workforce, for food preparation and cooking, laundry, cleaning, nursing and childcare. The men would do jobs around the place, but mostly they were assigned to grinding corn or picking oakum. This last was a workhouse special – unpicking old tarry rope into its constituent strands – boring and horrible work, designed to make you consider making an exit as soon as possible.

            It’s odd to say this, but many of the paupers would have been better fed in the workhouse than out. They got three square meals a day. Men were allowed a pound of bread a day, women 12oz. Breakfast was bread and gruel, dinner – on alternate days – was soup and bread, or meat and potatoes. And the meat would not be of the choicest cuts – stewing meat well-cooked and no doubt with horrible gristly bits. I imagine it to be like school dinners (I grew up in the 1960s). Supper would be bread and soup, or bread and cheese. Only the elderly got a little butter, and sugar and tea. So, for the rest, dry bread (unless you dipped it in your soup) and water to drink. The children got milk.

            You were quite likely to share a bed – Chesterton ordered 50 double beds. These were not for married couples – the wards were strictly segregated. So you were quite likely to share your bed with some complete stranger of the same sex.

            The workhouse was what they called a “mixed institution”. That meant its population contained all manner and sorts of people: the respectable poor, the rough ones, occasionally a better-off person who had fallen on hard times. There were orphans, widows with children, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed. There were those they classed, in their brutal way, as idiots, feeble-minded, lunatics, the deaf and dumb, and the blind. There were people who were disturbed in their minds, and who could disrupt the whole workhouse. Part of the distress of the workhouse was to be tossed in with this ragbag of humanity, all the suffering of society in one stern building. If you came from a village, if you’d barely so much as been to Cambridge, you’d be terrified.

            I’m sure you’ve got the picture. You wouldn’t want to go there if you could help it, and you’d want to get out as soon as possible. And that’s how the powers that be wanted it. The Guardians wanted to save money, and it is almost funny – but not quite – to realize that, after all that effort, it never did.

“The House”

            So what happened to the poor of Shelford? If you applied for poor relief,  and your case was desperate, you could go to the Parish Overseers – in 1836 they were Henry Grain (younger son of Peter Grain) and Stephen Hagger. But, quite likely, you’d have to join the sorry trail of paupers from all over South Cambridgeshire who, every Thursday morning, presented themselves at the door of Chesterton Workhouse in search of relief. Getting there from Shelford was a proposition in itself. They probably had to walk. Each suppliant would be interviewed by the Guardians – perhaps not all 38 of them, but as many as attended that week. How intimidating! If you were lucky – considered blamelessly needy and not in need of care – you might be granted out relief, and you could stay in your home. It came as an allowance of bread, or sometimes money. The Guardians took no chances. You could spend money on drink, so bread was safer. But if the Guardians in any way disapproved of you, or if you needed care, it was “The House”.

            So our desperate Shelford family would present themselves at the porter’s lodge. They would have their own clothes taken from them, and given a workhouse uniform. Dad was sent off to the able-bodied men’s quarters, Mum to the women’s; the boys to the boys’ quarters, and the girls to theirs. They would not see each other in their daily lives. And so began a grim life which ended when the man found work, or work was found for him, and the family could walk away. If you were elderly, or in need of care, you probably went in and stayed till you died.

            You could, of course, leave with notice at any time. But that was the end of your poor relief.

            It is difficult to know how many Shelford people spent time in the workhouse, because the workhouse admission registers have not been kept. One source that can give us a clue is the census. If you look at the various censuses from 1851 to 1911 you will see a few folks there who were born in Shelford. This doesn’t, of course, mean they were living in the village when they were sent to the workhouse, but it’s a clue. Most years there were only two or three of them there, which suggests that huge numbers of Shelfordians didn’t end up there. Let’s hope not anyway.

            Here’s the story of another Shelford family that fetched up there:

Edward and Eadie Plumb lived in Shelford. He was a wheelwright in Tunwells Lane. But he died in 1863, aged only 34. In 1871 poor old Edith is in the workhouse with her four children: 11-year-old Julia, 9-year-old Sarah, Edward, 7 and Frederick, 4 weeks. Frederick is obviously illegitimate. His mother is described as a rag-cutter. Things had obviously got rather desperate since her husband’s death. With a child born out of wedlock, there was no chance of parish relief except in the workhouse, and that’s where they all went. But things obviously got better, because in 1881, the family were living in York Street in Cambridge. Sarah was a housemaid and Edward an errand boy. The household was keeping its head above water.

Poor Labouring Man

            Let’s fast forward to 1901, the start of the 20th century, and one which was to turn round the lives of the poor. But not just yet.

            If we look at the census, then we can see that the single most likely person to end up in the workhouse was a retired agricultural labourer, widowed or who never married. After a life, starting in childhood, of long hours, working out of doors in all weathers, doing heavy physical labour, many of them were old before their time. They suffered rheumatics or hernia, damaged backs or limbs from old injuries, and so on. Of the 144 inmates in Chesterton Workhouse in 1901, 63 were men of 55 plus. They aged quickly in those days, and though they were obliged to work as long as they could, because there were no old age pensions, many fell by the wayside. By contrast there were 16 women of 55+. All of these men were “ag labs”, or shepherds, or horsekeepers, or bricklayer’s labourers.

            There were, of course, some elderly people back in Shelford who received parish relief in their homes, but those in the workhouse were the ones who needed care, and often they came here to die. By this time the workhouse wasn’t the cruel Victorian place it had started as. The old people were treated with more kindness but it still wasn’t very lovely. And people still dreaded it, and didn’t want to be sent there.

            If you look in the Shelford burial register you will see that a steady trickle of villagers died in the workhouse. But at least they were buried at home.

            Here are a few of those Shelford elderly who died in the Union:

1877 James Matlock, 71 and Caroline Raulingson (Rawlinson), 73

1878 William Austin, 81

1881 Allen Gifford, 78

1886 William Barnes, 89

1890 James Dockerel, 79

1896 Mary Medlock, 80

1897 Edward Pearson, 83.

The end of the Poor Law

            In the twentieth century, public and especially government attitudes softened up, and there was no longer the same desire to humiliate the poor. In 1913 Chesterton became a Poor Law Institution instead of a workhouse. In 1930, the Poor Law was abolished, and replaced by Public Assistance. Unfortunately none of these changes made a huge difference. With the worst depression in history, the 1930s soon became the age of the Means Test, which was hated as much as the workhouse had been.

            However change was on the horizon. In 1948 the Labour government introduced the welfare state, and poverty was no longer a thing to be ashamed of, but something to be alleviated, by far a better state of affairs.