A Nice Little Workhouse

AmwellHertsJames DAY was born on 8 March 1815 in Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire.  He married in August 1840 and in the following year, working as an agricultural labourer, he was living in the hamlet of “Hamwell” with his wife, Elizabeth. Close by in this little green triangle, now Amwell, was the cottage of his parents, Thomas Day and Elizabeth née WEBB. Unusually, the younger Days didn’t bring their first child into the world until the summer of 1845 but went on to have six more.

To supplement his meagre wages, James took in lodgers – farm labourers and a blacksmith’s apprentice – and Elizabeth further boosted the domestic economy by working at home as a straw plaiter.

The 1861 census found the family in Hitchin, with five children at home. The second son, William, had left to be a soldier, and the birth of Alice Maria was still a couple of years away. James’ widowed father lived with them, still working at 74 as an agricultural labourer.

Ten years later, eldest son Thomas has flown and Thomas the Elder gone to that mythical better place, but three daughters and son George remain at home. Elizabeth is still plaiting straw and eldest daughter Mary is described as a farm labourer, age 19.

In 1891 James and Elizabeth are the only occupants of a dwelling in Welwyn Hill. No occupation is given for Elizabeth but, at 76, James is still working as an agricultural labourer.

By this time in my researches I had become quite attached to this family and when I discovered James in the workhouse in 1901, without his life partner, I shed a tear or two.

It seemed a miracle to discover that James’ final days may not have been as miserable as I had instantly feared.

By the early 1900s, the Welwyn workhouse had a reputation as operating a fairly generous regime for its inmates. This was, perhaps, because the town received a high proportion of its rates from railway companies rather than private householders. The Royal Commission looking at Poor Relief in 1906-9 heard that the workhouse was a small place, rather like an almshouse, with 17 inmates in residence. Each day 17.5 pints of beer were served, each person receiving it (as regulations required) under doctor’s orders.

The Workhouse, Peter Higginbotham


James died in 1902 and so did not enjoy the enlightened oversight of James Henry HILL and his wife Lizzie. In The Last Days of Welwyn Workhouse, their daughter Meta wrote: “our old people had a lovely time while they were there, they collected coloured soap, and oh, the tins of jam, etc!“

I wonder if, during his long life, James ever heard of Filey. Did he wonder what might become of his grandchildren, seven of them born in the north of England to soldier William? A second great-granddaughter of James has been a Filey shopkeeper for a number of years.

I wonder, too, what James knew about his forebears. His pedigree on FamilySearch has six generations of earlier Days – back to William who married Anne in Clophill, Bedfordshire in 1660.


2 thoughts on “A Nice Little Workhouse

  1. Good story, I recently found a relative of my own who spent the last 7 year of her spinster life in a workhouse in Cornwall, age 77-82 and labouring every day as part of her “keep”.


    1. Thanks, Brian. I suppose the dreadful reputation of The Workhouse was earned – I was just relieved that Welwyn wasn’t so terrible. Perhaps your relative held on to her dignity by working for her keep and enjoyed the company.

      Liked by 1 person

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