Members of the Probus Club of Coleshill were pleased to welcome Mrs Val Preece to their meeting on 7th June. The talk on the Coleshill Workhouse we were about to hear originated as one of the studies undertaken as a part of the Georgian Coleshill Project that was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2003.
Up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII (1536-1539) the care of the sick, infirm and elderly had often been undertaken by the Monasteries and Convents. When these were closed by Henry’s Commissioners the duty of care was passed to the Parishes and the Poor Law Acts. These date from Queen Elizabeth’s reign – (The Overseers Act of 1598 and the Poor Law Consolidation Act of 1601). These Acts became the foundation of administration of the Poor Law for the next 200 years! Overseers of the Poor were appointed in each parish and a Poor Law Levy or Rate was raised on the tax paying citizens that funded the workhouse and the payments made by the Overseers. Paupers appearing before magistrates in a town who had no means of support could be summarily returned to the parish of their birth that had responsibility for them rather than they be a burden where ‘they were not entitled to be’! There was no such thing as a welfare state before 1948!
Coleshill Workhouse from an illustration by Val Preece
for the ‘Georgian Coleshill’ Publication in 2003
The Workhouse in Coleshill was set on Blythe Road roughly opposite the Road from the Parish Church on the left hand side as you leave the town – where there is a block of 1960’s maisonettes. Researchers (Family Historians) are very fortunate since there is an extensive collection of surviving documentation, including accounts, indentures and magistrates records for Coleshill Workhouse in the County Record Office at Warwick. These include lists of inmates year by year, how much they were paid and from these accounts it is possible to see what was purchased and it shows that residents were well catered for with beef being a predominant commodity. Mrs Preece said that any one studying their own family history that originated in or around Coleshill should be sure to look at these records.
Most people tend to think of Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’ or ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ when Workhouses are mentioned and the social stigma associated with them. However from her studies Mrs Preece said the inmates of Coleshill faired much better than in other parts of the country. The able bodied were expected to work for their keep; for men this often meant working on keeping the roads within the Parish in good repair, and women were sent out to the fields at harvest time, others who had young children may have been used as ‘wet-nurses’, some girls went into service. Children were employed in picking up stones and filling baskets with these that were then sold to the turnpike trusts for road maintenance.
In addition to this there were extensive gardens at the rear and they grew much of their own produce including onions, leeks, carrots and melons. Pigs were reared and their manure may well have been used for ‘hot-beds’ for the melons. They also made their own bread and Ale and sold any surplus vegetables locally.
Mrs Preece had traced the stories of two women (among many) who applied to the magistrates for aid because they were pregnant and inmates of the workhouse as they had no means of support. The first was Susannah Taylor, she was required by law to name the father of her child which she did and being unmarried they were made to get married by special licence and the costs incurred can be seen in the accounts. The other, Sarah Harthill applied for relief three times due to pregnancies by different fathers. She was born in Nether Whitacre in 1775. There were no records to show that any of these three fathers were ever arrested or came before the magistrates and it is thought that they were most likely wealthy members of the community, may have already been married and met their obligations by cash payments to the Overseer’s to pay for support of the children. Thus the workhouse formed a 19th Century version of the infamous Child Support Agency – probably with more success!
Many Children over the age of 10 were sent out into Apprenticeships in the neighbouring towns; this got their living expenses away from the Parish and provided Birmingham, Coventry and other local towns with a source of supply. It is doubtful if any of these children ever saw their parents again! Boys went into the trades of the Industrial Revolution. For example Sarah Harthill’s eldest child, a boy called Samuel was made an Apprentice Gun Lock Filer to a Moses Smith in Aston, so he became settled in Aston as he worked there and off Coleshill’s books. During the Napoleonic Wars (1793 – 1815) there was high demand on Apprentices (cheap labour?) in Birmingham’s Gun Trade. But Coleshill boys also went to Atherstone for the Felt Hat Manufacture; Brick layers and makers were at Kingsbury and there were even some shoemakers at Maxstoke.
Girls usually went into service or were apprentices in the art of housewifery. Others went to Joseph Peel’s cotton mills at Fazeley to learn weaving and spinning. There was an unsuccessful attempt to set a spinning school at Coleshill ion 1802-04. Some were even placed in Coventry’s Ribbon making industry.
Upsetting records were found that showed that this factor was very evident in the workhouse of the 18th and 19th Century with a list of prices paid for coffins ranging from 5s 6d (£0-31) for infants up to 5 years old to 14s (£0-70) each for children over 14 years old.
Coleshill Workhouse was closed in 1836 when the Board of Guardians of the Meriden Union Workhouse took over responsibility for Coleshill’s poor. In spite of much opposition from the gentry of Coleshill who even wrote a letter of protest to the Government of the day, the prominent signature was that of Rev’ George Digby, the Vicar of Coleshill and probable brother of the Lord of the Manor: all to no avail. There are fewer surviving records for Meriden than Coleshill and it is not so easy to draw comparisons but it is known to have been a much harsher existence. The meat ration was less – and could be withdrawn as a punishment. Families were segregated no mixing of men and women! Children were only allowed one hour a week with their mothers’ – on a Sunday afternoon and this also could also be withdrawn as a punishment. Much more similar to the Charles Dickens stereotype in his novels!
It was a most interesting talk that makes you realise that perhaps things are not so bad in the 21st Century (and most unlike the gentrified works of Jane Austen’s novels). For readers who are interested there is more detail of Coleshill’s Workhouse and Poor Law in Mrs Preece’s Chapter of the book Georgian Coleshill that may still be available from the Market Hall in Coleshill.