Christmas Day in the Workhouse

Author: Penelope Stokes
Date published: 19/02/2013
© Penelope Stokes

In mid-Victorian times it was common for local worthies to visit their Union workhouse and supervise the festivities on Christmas Day. The poem which commemorates this, Christmas Day in the workhouse, was written in 1879 by a journalist, George Sims, and begins with some traditional heart-warming scene-setting:

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight...

before an element of acid commentary creeps in:

...And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for — with the rates...

until one of the paupers, unable to stomach the hypocritical bounty of such privileged folk, regales them at length with an anguished account of how his wife had died of starvation whilst he had tried to beg bread for her at the workhouse on the previous Christmas Day:

...Yes, there in a land of plenty
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
For a loaf of parish bread.
At yonder gate, last Christmas
I craved for a human life.
You, who would feast us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!

The ballad caught the public imagination at the time, and has been handed down, subject to creative scatological parody. Most versions conclude with unambiguous suggestions as to what the providers of Christmas pudding should do with it – something which even George Sims would not have dared to publish at the time.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be entirely cynical.

One such “worthy” in Newbury was Frank Stillman, who attended every Christmas Day at the Union workhouse in Newtown Road (later,

Sandleford Hospital, now flats), from 11am until midnight, for 40 years. Even allowing for the hagiography and deference that permeated public life in those days, Frank Stillman actually sounds quite likeable. Scion of an old-established Newbury dynasty, he joined the Newbury Weekly News in 1876 as a printer’s apprentice, finally securing the editor’s chair on the death of his precedessor in 1920. Described as “one whose mind was free from guile”, Stillman’s maxim was that if you cannot say something nice about someone you should say nothing, so his editorship probably did not shake the pillars of Newbury’s establishment. However, when in 1897 the Newbury Board of Guardians abolished the Christmas Day men’s beer ration, Frank Stillman opposed the decision vociferously, and in defiance, instituted the Two Ts Fund for the buying of Christmas tea and tobacco for the workhouse inmates; the official workhouse brew measured one measly ounce of tea to a gallon of water, but with Stillman’s funding this was raised to three or four times the strength.

The workhouse, which he always referred to as “no.99”, was the centre of Stillman’s public work, although he also raised £20,000 for Newbury Hospital and was a founder member of the National Deposit Friendly Society, among many other philanthropic works. When he died in 1929 the workhouse inmates had a whip-round and sent a wreath. The Two Ts fund still exists today as the Newbury Weekly News Parcels Fund, distributing Christmas hampers to the over-80s of Newbury.

Sources:Berkshire Family Historian

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