Change Is All Around Us

Every second of the day, things change. Some lives begin, some lives end, new ideas surface whilst other things fall out of use. A little while ago I saw a tv item about a person who was considering ending his life by jumping off a motorway bridge. Thankfully they were persuaded not to, it was clearly a call for help. But in another instance one person sadly did end their life and the police had to close the road for several hours until absolutely all evidence of the tragedy had been cleared away. It was sad to learn of this, but also sad to learn that some people were found simply sitting in their cars until the motorway could be re-opened and were angry and frustrated by the delays this event had caused. It seems that some people get upset and annoyed about things that they cannot control, just as when the day dawns and the rain falls. Surely we should do our very best to cope with that change. In the latter instance there were queues of traffic on the motorway, perhaps cars getting low on fuel along with children getting fractious, lorry drivers having to park up because of the hours they were allowed to drive, people missing holiday flights or perhaps even cruises. Things happen that we can deal with, whilst at other times we cannot. As a family we all enjoyed going on holiday and getting to North Devon was considered part of that holiday. We saw places we would otherwise not have known about, I was taught map-reading and learned a good sense of direction. When traffic jams occurred we looked around at other vehicles, learning makes and models, identifying registration plates to see where they were registered and how old they were. It all helped to pass the time. As time went on and I got older, I did my level best to try to minimise the stresses and strains of whatever I was doing, at least as best I could. I would plan ahead, managing the things that I was able to and not getting wound up over things that I could not reasonably control. So far as holidays were concerned, I would pack my bags the night before. If I was going abroad, perhaps flying from London, I would go down to a nearby hotel the night before. On the flight, where I could I noted where we were, although I will admit that on journeys back from the U.S.A. I tried to get a flight that left at a time such that I was back at Heathrow in the morning! It meant that I was able to sleep for much of the flight and was refreshed when we landed. I tried to make the best of my circumstances. Likewise on my lovely cruise holiday I went down to Southampton the day before the cruise began, so I would be there in good time and not be delayed or unduly stressed. The weather during much of the cruise was very good, so it wasn’t often that the sea was rough. I became used to that, in fact the gentle rocking movement was quite relaxing. At least I considered it that way, sadly a few of the other passengers weren’t quite so comfortable. But they were the ones who also wanted air-conditioned coaches on our bus tours and not all places had those. Some folk became quite agitated, angry even. Over the years I have seen how both stress and worry affects different people in vastly different ways. Some would always see the negative side to a situation, others a very positive one and a few had a balanced view of things. Something I was taught many years ago and really liked was a prayer that I later found out was known as the Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as follows:

Serenity Prayer.

It seems to me, especially since being in the Care Home I am presently in, how we can so easily lose sight of what one might consider to be the ‘bigger picture’ and concentrate too much on the minor things that are important but not quite as vital. I recall a very good film where some people found themselves stuck in a lift which had stopped between floors. One person decided that they were going to ask his girlfriend to marry him, whilst others had similar positive thoughts so all but one person waited patiently for help to come to get them freed. Except this one dear lady who wanted there to be immediate action. She may not have liked what was happening to her as she was not in control of what was happening, but others calmed her down. She finally sat down and frantically searched right through her handbag, calling out “Where are my Tic-Tacs???”. She could not grasp why everyone else was looking at her… At various points in our lives I am sure that all of us will have various difficulties to overcome. It may be within ourselves, with a relative or a friend. It is never easy at such times to simply stop, take a deep breath, then consider what options we have. In this Care Home there are some inmates who have dementia, they are unable to think rationally or logically. One inmate, sadly no longer alive now, would go around the place ’tidying up’, moving things around. Except they moved such things as ‘wet floor’ notices, which meant other inmates could wander around and slip on a wet floor. Covid-19 has been a real problem as many of the inmates get into a routine, which ordinarily is good, but when they need to be isolated for a while rather than mix with others in the dining room or tv lounge, they have difficulty in understanding. I have learned that dementia does make some folk behave like young children. Equally, some want certain things laid out in a particular way, like pot-plants, but due to the inmate’s age the plants are sometimes knocked over and so the soil goes everywhere. It is also for that reason that most inmates have meals together the dining rooms, as it is easier for Carers to tend to them. Some inmates need bibs, others are coaxed into eating, though I know in my case I have had to be careful how much I eat because the food is good and I am sometimes given too much!

I have said before about following rules and regulations, in particular how important it is that we follow them. In the early days of train transport and other motor vehicles, especially where certain rules and regulations were put in place. Over the centuries of the human race we have had rules and regulations and a major one is quite well-known, this being the Code of Hammurabi. It is a Babylonian legal text which was composed c. 1755–1750 BC. It is the longest, best-organised, and best-preserved legal text from the ancient Near-East and is written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian and is purported to have been written by Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. The primary copy of the text is inscribed on a basalt or diorite ‘stele’ (plural stelae), some 7ft 4 1⁄2in (2.25m) tall. A stele (pronounced ’Stee-Lee) or occasionally ‘stela’ when derived from Latin, is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected in the ancient world as a monument. The surface of the stele often has text, ornamentation, or both and these may be inscribed, carved in relief, or painted. Stelae were created for many reasons. Grave stelae were used for funerary or commemorative purposes. Stelae as slabs of stone would also be used as Ancient Greek and Roman government notices or to mark border or property lines. They were also occasionally erected as memorials to battles. For example, along with other memorials, there are more than half-a-dozen steles erected on the battlefield of Waterloo at the locations of notable actions by participants in battle. Traditional Western gravestones may technically be considered the modern equivalent of ancient stelae, though the term is very rarely applied in this way. Equally, stele-like forms in non-Western cultures may be called by other terms, and the words ‘stele’ and ‘stelae’ are most consistently applied in archeological contexts to objects from Europe, the ancient Near East and Egypt, China, as well as Pre-Columbian America. The stele showing the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in 1901 at the site of Susa in present-day Iran, where it had been taken as plunder six hundred years after its creation. The text itself was copied and studied by Mesopotamian scribes for over a millennium. The stele now resides in the Louvre Museum. The top of the stele features an image in relief of Hammurabi with Shamash, the Babylonian sun-god and god of justice. Below the relief are about 4,130 lines of cuneiform text, one fifth contains a prologue and epilogue in poetic style, whilst the remaining four-fifths contain what are generally called the laws. In the prologue, Hammurabi claims to have been granted his rule by the gods “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak”. The laws are in a ‘casuistic’ form, expressed as logical ‘if…then’ conditional sentences. Their scope is broad, including criminal, family, property and commercial law. Modern scholars have responded to the Code with admiration, at its perceived fairness and respect for the rule of law and at the complexity of Old Babylonian society. There has also been much discussion of its influence on Mosaic law, primarily referring to the Torah or the first five books of the Hebrew bible. Despite some uncertainty surrounding these issues, Hammurabi is regarded outside Assyriology as an important figure in the history of law, and the document as a true legal code. The U.S. Capitol has a relief portrait of Hammurabi alongside those of other lawgivers, and there are replicas of the stele in numerous institutions, including the United Nations headquarters in New York City and the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Babylonian territory before (red) and after (orange) Hammurabi’s reign.

Hammurabi ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC and he secured Babylonian dominance over the Mesopotamian plain through military prowess, diplomacy, and treachery. When he inherited his father’s throne, Babylon held little local control. The local leader was Rim-Sin of Larsa. Hammurabi waited until Rim-Sin grew old, then conquered his territory in one swift campaign, leaving his organisation intact. Later, Hammurabi betrayed allies in nearby territories in order to gain their control. Hammurabi had an aggressive foreign policy, but his letters suggest he was concerned with the welfare of his many subjects and was interested in law and justice. He commissioned extensive construction works and in his letters he frequently presented himself as his ‘people’s shepherd’. Justice was also a theme of the prologue to his Code. Although Hammurabi’s Code was the first Mesopotamian law collection discovered it was not the first written. Several earlier collections survive. These collections were written in Sumerian and Akkadian, they also purport to have been written by rulers. There were almost certainly more such collections, as statements of other rulers suggesting the custom was widespread and the similarities between these law collections make it tempting to assume a consistent underlying legal system. There are additionally thousands of documents from the practice of law, from before and during the Old Babylonian period. These documents include contracts, judicial rulings, letters on legal cases as well as reform documents. Mesopotamia has the most comprehensive surviving legal corpus from before the Digest of Justinian, even compared to those from Rome and ancient Greece.

The Royal City (left) and Acropolis (right) of Susa in 2007.

The whole Code of Hammurabi is far too long to detail in this blog post. Just the prologue and epilogue together occupy one-fifth of the text! Out of around 4,130 lines, the prologue occupies 300 lines and the epilogue occupies 500. The 300-line prologue begins with an etiology or study of its origination to Hammurabi’s royal authority and in it, Hammurabi lists his achievements and virtues. Unlike the prologue, the 500-line epilogue is explicitly related to the laws and begins with the words “these are the just decisions which Hammurabi has established”. He exalts his laws and his magnanimity, he then expresses a hope that “any wronged man who has a lawsuit may have the laws of the stele read aloud to him and know his rights”. Hammurabi wished for good fortune for any ruler who heeded his pronouncements and respected his stele, however, at the end of the text he invoked the wrath of the gods on any man who disobeyed or erased his pronouncements. The epilogue contained much legal imagery, and the phrase “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak” is reused from the prologue. However, the king’s main concern appears to be ensuring that his achievements are not forgotten and his name not sullied. The list of curses heaped upon any future defacer is 281 lines long and extremely forceful and some of the curses are very vivid, for example “may the god Sin decree for him a life that is no better than death”; “may he (the future defacer) conclude every day, month, and year of his reign with groaning and mourning” and “may he experience the spilling of his life force like water”. Hammurabi implored a variety of gods individually to turn their particular attributes against the defacer. For example: “may the Storm God deprive him of the benefits of rain from heaven and flood from the springs” and “may the God of Wisdom deprive him of all understanding and wisdom and lead him into confusion”. Time passed and the essential structure of international law was mapped out during the European Renaissance period, though its origins lay deep in history and can be traced to cooperative agreements between peoples in the ancient Middle East. Many of the concepts that today underpin the international legal order were established during the Roman Empire and the ‘Law of Nations’, for example, was invented by the Romans to govern the status of foreigners and the relations between foreigners and Roman citizens. In accord with the Greek concept of natural law, which they adopted, the Romans conceived the law of nations as having universal application. In the Middle Ages, the concept of natural law, along with religious principles through the writings of Jewish philosophers and theologians, became the intellectual foundation of the new discipline of the law of nations, regarded as that part of natural law that applied to the relations between sovereign states. After the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe suffered from frequent warring for nearly 500 years. Eventually, a group of nation states emerged and a number of sets of rules were developed to govern international relations. In the 15th century the arrival of Greek scholars in Europe from the collapsing Byzantine Empire and the introduction of the printing press spurred the development of scientific, humanistic, and individualist thought, whilst the expansion of ocean navigation by European explorers spread European norms throughout the world and broadened the intellectual and geographic horizons of western Europe. The subsequent consolidation of European states with increasing wealth and ambitions, coupled with the growth in trade, necessitated the establishment of a set of rules to regulate their relations. In the 16th century the concept of sovereignty provided a basis for the entrenchment of power in the person of the king and was later transformed into a principle of collective sovereignty as the divine right of kings gave way constitutionally to parliamentary or representative forms of government. Sovereignty also acquired an external meaning, referring to independence within a system of competing nation-states. Scholars expanded new writings focussing greater attention on the law of peace and the conduct of international relations than on the law of war, as the focus of this shifted away from the conditions necessary to justify the resort to force in order to deal with increasingly sophisticated relations in areas such as the law of the sea and commercial treaties. Various philosophies grew, bringing with them the acceptance of the concept of natural rights, which played a prominent role in the American and French revolutions and which was becoming a vital element in international politics. In international law, however, the concept of natural rights had only marginal significance until the 20th century. It was only after the two World Wars in the 20th century that brought about the real growth of international organisations, for example the League of Nations, founded in 1919 and the United Nations, founded in 1945. This led to the increasing importance of human rights. Having become geographically international through the colonial expansion of the European powers, international law became truly international in the first decades after World War II, when decolonisation resulted in the establishment of scores of newly independent states. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s increased political cooperation between the United States and Russia and their allies across the Northern Hemisphere, but tensions also increased between states of the north and those of the south, especially on issues such as trade, human rights, and the law of the sea. Technology and globalisation, the rapidly escalating growth in the international movement in goods, services, currency, information, and persons, also became significant forces, spurring international cooperation and tending to reduce the ideological barriers that divided the world. However, there are still trade tensions between various countries at various times, for what seem to be at times inexplicable reasons. As I have said before, the one constant in this Universe is that things change!

This week, a familiar phrase…
The phrase “turn a blind eye” often used to refer to a wilful refusal to acknowledge a particular reality and dates back to a legendary chapter in the career of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. During 1801’s Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships were pitted against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet. When his more conservative superior officer flagged for him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye and blithely proclaimed, “I really do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory. Some historians have since dismissed Nelson’s famous quip as merely a battlefield myth, but the phrase “turn a blind eye” persists to this day.

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The History Of Rail Transport

On 21 February 1804, the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. But in fact, the history of rail transport began in the prehistoric times. It can be divided into several discrete periods as defined by the principal means of track material and motive power used. The Post Track, a prehistoric causeway in the valley of the River Brue in the Somerset Levels is one of the oldest known constructed trackways and dates from around 3838BC, making it some 30 years older than the Sweet Track from the same area. Various sections have actually been scheduled as ancient monuments. Evidence indicates that there was a 6 to 8.5km long Diolkos paved trackway, which transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece from around 600 BC. Wheeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route. The Diolkos was in use for over 650 years, until at least the 1st century AD. Paved trackways were also later built in Roman Egypt. In China, a railway has been discovered in the South-West Henan province near Nanyang city. It was carbon dated to be about 2,200 years old from the Qin dynasty. The rails were made from hard wood and treated against corrosion, whilst the sleepers or railway ties were made from wood that was not treated and have therefore rotted. Qin railway sleepers were designed to allow horses to gallop through to the next rail station where they would be swapped for a fresh horse. The railway is theorised to have been used for transportation of goods to front line troops and to fix the Great Wall.

The Reisszug, as it appears today.

The oldest operational railway is the Reisszug, a funicular railway at the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Austria and is believed to date back to either 1495 or 1504AD. Cardinal Matthäus Lang wrote a description of it back in 1515 detailing that it was a cable-type which connected points along a railway track laid on a steep slope. The system is characterised by two counterbalanced carriages that are permanently attached to opposite ends of a haulage cable, which is looped over a pulley at the upper end of the track. The result of such a configuration is that the two carriages move synchronously so as one ascends, the other descends at an equal speed. This feature distinguishes funiculars from inclined elevators, which have a single car that is hauled uphill. The line originally used wooden rails with a hemp haulage rope and was operated by human or animal power, through a treadwheel. The line still exists and remains operational, although in updated form.

A mining cart, shown in De Re Metallica (1556).

Wagonways, otherwise called tramways using wooden rails and horse-drawn traffic, are known to have been used in the 1550s to facilitate transportation of ore tubs to and from mines. They soon became popular in Europe and an example of their operation is shown in an illustration by Georgius Agricola. This line used ‘Hunde’ carts with un-flanged wheels running on wooden planks with a vertical pin on the truck fitting into the gap between the planks to keep it going the right way. The miners called the wagons ‘Hunde’, or ‘dogs’ from the noise they made on the tracks. There are many references to wagonways in central Europe in the 16th century and these were introduced to England by German miners, the first being at Caldbeck, Cumbria quite possibly in the 1560s. A wagonway was built at Prescot near Liverpool some time around 1600, possibly even as early as 1594. Owned by Philip Layton, the line carried coal from a pit near Prescot Hall to a terminus about half a mile away. A funicular railway was made at Brosely in Shropshire some time before 1604 and this carried coal for James Clifford from his mines down to the River Severn, to be loaded onto barges and carried to riverside towns. The Wollaton Wagonway was completed in 1604 by Huntingdon Beaumont (c.1560–1624) who was an English coal mining entrepreneur who built two of the earliest wagonways in England for trans-shipment of coal. However, he was less successful as a businessman and died having been imprisoned for debt. The youngest of four sons, he was born to Sir Nicholas Beaumont and his wife Ann Saunders. They were an aristocratic family in the East Midlands and there were several branches to the Beaumont dynasty. This one was based at Coleorton, Leicestershire, approximately 2 miles (3.2km) east of Ashby de la Zouch. Beaumont was therefore of gentleman status in the formal Elizabethan sense, the family owned coal bearing lands and worked them. He was involved in this coal working and eventually he began working in his own right in the Nottingham area. During 1603 and 1604, during his partnership with Sir Percival Willoughby who was Lord of the Wollaton Manor, Beaumont constructed the wagonway which ran from Strelley, where Beaumont held mining leases, to Wollaton Lane. Beaumont was a successful coal prospector and an innovator in the development of mining techniques and a key innovation attributed to him is the introduction of boring rods to assist in finding coal without sinking a shaft. His working life covered involvement in coal mining activities in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Northumberland. His coal mining and wagonway activities in the early 1600s near Blyth in Northumberland were, like most of his ventures, unprofitable but the boring rod and wagonway technology he took with him was implemented by others to significant effect. And the wagonway chain he started in the English north east was to later influence George Stephenson. In fact a major coal seam in the region was named the Beaumont Seam, commemorating his engineering efforts there. However, Beaumont lost considerable sums of money borrowed from friends and family. He died in Nottingham Gaol in 1624 having been imprisoned for debt. The Middleton railway in Leeds, which was built in 1758, later became the world’s oldest operational railway (other than funiculars), albeit now in an upgraded form whilst in 1764, the first railway in America was built in Lewiston, New York.

The introduction of steam engines for powering air to blast furnaces led to a large increase in British iron production after the mid 1750s. In the late 1760s, the Coalbrookdale, a village in the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire was a settlement of great significance in the history of iron ore smelting as this is where iron ore was first smelted by Abraham Darby (14 April 1677 – 5 May 1717). He was the first and best known of several men of that name and was born into an English Quaker family that played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. Darby developed a method of producing pig iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coking coal rather than charcoal and this was a major step forward in the production of iron as a raw material. This coal was drawn from drift mines in the sides of the valley and as it contained far fewer impurities than normal coal, the iron it produced was of a superior quality. Along with many other industrial developments that were going on in other parts of the country, this discovery was a major factor in the growing industrialisation of Britain. The Coalbrookdale Company began to fix plates of cast iron to the upper surface of wooden rails, which increased their durability and load-bearing ability. At first only ‘balloon loops’, or turning loops could be used for turning wagons, but later, movable points were introduced that allowed for passing loops to be created. A system was introduced in which un-flanged wheels ran on L-shaped metal plates. It is said that a Sheffield colliery manager invented this flanged rail in 1787, though the exact date of this is disputed. The plate rail was taken up by a Benjamin Outram for wagonways serving his canals, manufacturing them at his Butterley ironworks and in 1803, a William Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway. This was a double track plateway, sometimes erroneously cited as world’s first public railway, in south London. By 1789 he had introduced a form of all-iron edge rail and flanged wheels for an extension to the Charnwood Forest Canal at Nanpantan, Leicestershire. Then in 1790, Jessop and his partner Outram began to manufacture edge-rails. The first public edgeway built was the Lake Lock Rail Road in 1796 as although the primary purpose of the line was to carry coal, it also carried passengers. These two systems of constructing iron railways, the “L” plate-rail and the smooth edge-rail, continued to exist side by side into the early 19th century but the flanged wheel and edge-rail eventually proved its superiority and became the standard for railways. Cast iron was not a satisfactory material for rails because it was brittle and broke under heavy loads, however the wrought iron rail, invented by John Birkinshaw in 1820, solved these problems. Wrought iron, usually referred to simply as ‘iron was a ductile material that could undergo considerable deformation before breaking, thus making it more suitable for iron rails. But this iron was expensive to produce until a Henry Cort patented the ‘puddling process’ in 1784. He had also patented the rolling process, which was fifteen times faster at consolidating and shaping iron than hammering. These processes greatly lowered the cost of producing iron and iron rails. The next important development in iron production was the ‘hot blast’ process, developed by a James Neilson and patented in 1828, which considerably reduced the amount of coke fuel or charcoal needed to produce pig iron. However, the wrought iron was a soft material that contained slag or ‘dross and this tended to make iron rails distort and delaminate so they typically lasted less than 10 years in use, and sometimes as little as one year under high traffic. All these developments in the production of iron eventually led to replacement of composite wood/iron rails with superior all-iron rails. The introduction of the Bessemer process created the first inexpensive process on an industrial scale for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron before the development of the open hearth furnace. The key principle is in the removal of impurities from the iron by oxidisation, with air being blown through the molten iron. The oxidation also raises the temperature of the iron mass and keeps it molten. This enabled steel to be made relatively inexpensively and led to the era of great expansion of railways that began in the late 1860s. Steel rails lasted several times longer than iron, they also made heavier locomotives possible, thus allowing for longer trains and improving the productivity of railways. The quality of steel had been improved by the end of 19th century, further reducing costs and as a result, steel completely replaced the use of iron in rails, becoming standard for all railways. In 1769 James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, greatly improved the steam engine of Thomas Newcomen which had been used to pump water out of mines. Watt developed a reciprocating engine capable of powering a wheel. Although the Watt engine powered cotton mills and a variety of machinery, it was a large stationary engine which could not be used otherwise as the state of boiler technology necessitated the use of low pressure steam acting upon a vacuum in the cylinder and this required a separate condenser with an air pump. Nevertheless, as the construction of boilers improved, Watt investigated the use of high-pressure steam acting directly upon a piston. This raised the possibility of a smaller engine that might then be used to power a vehicle and in 1784 he patented a design for a steam locomotive. His employee, William Murdoch, produced a working model of a self-propelled steam carriage in that year.

A replica of Trevithick’s engine at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, a British engineer born in Cornwall. This engine used high-pressure steam to drive the engine by one power stroke, whilst the transmission system employed a large flywheel to even out the action of the piston rod. On 21 February 1804, the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. Trevithick later demonstrated a locomotive operating upon a piece of circular rail track in Bloomsbury, London but he never got beyond the experimental stage with railway locomotives, not least because his engines were too heavy for the cast-iron plateway track which was then in use.

The ‘Locomotion’ at Darlington Railway Centre and Museum.

Inspired by earlier locomotives, in 1814 George Stephenson persuaded the manager of the Killingworth colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. Stephenson played a pivotal role in the development and widespread adoption of the steam locomotive as his designs considerably improved on the work of the earlier pioneers. In 1829 he built the locomotive ‘Rocket’, which entered in and won the Rainfall `trials and this success led to Stephenson establishing his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives for railways in Great Britain and Ireland, the United States, and much of Europe. Steam power continued to be the dominant power system in railways around the world for more than a century. Since then, manufacturers in this world have developed diesel and electric trains, combining them into more power. We have made high-speed trains and it really is amazing to see the differences which have occurred in such a relatively short space of time!

This week…
There is a well-known phrase “fine words butter no parsnips”. This proverbial phrase dates from the 17th century and expresses the notion that fine words count for nothing, whilst action means more than flattery or promises. These days we aren’t very likely to come across the phrase in modern street slang and it is more likely to be heard in a period costume drama. But the phrase comes from a time before potatoes were imported into Britain from America by John Hawkins in the mid 16th century and became a staple in what established itself as the national dish of meat and two veg. Before that, various root vegetables were eaten instead, often mashed and, as anyone who has eaten mashed swedes, turnips or parsnips can testify, they cry out to be ‘buttered-up’ – another term for flattery. It has even been said that we were known for our habit of layering on butter to all manner of foods, much to the disgust of the French, who used it as evidence of the English lack of expertise regarding cuisine!

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Some 20th Century Changes

After my research for last week’s blog post on workhouses, I felt that there had to be a bit more to the story, so I continued looking and this led on to law in general. Now that is an absolutely huge subject that I cannot possibly hope to encompass in my blogs, but I can perhaps highlight a few things we have either forgotten or simply were never told about, as the law can be a fascinating insight into the priorities of a particular period in time and quite rightly it is constantly changing. For example, in 1313 MPs were banned from wearing armour or carrying weapons in Parliament, a law which still stands today. Others, such as the monarch’s guards, are still permitted to carry weapons, just not MPs themselves. It’s easy enough to see the chain of events that prompts laws to be written or changed. For example, since around 2013, when driving along a three-lane motorway, rule 264 of the Highway Code states that “You should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear. If you are overtaking a number of slow-moving vehicles, you should return to the left-hand lane as soon as you are safely past.” Middle-lane hogging is when vehicles remain in the middle lane longer than necessary, even when there aren’t any vehicles in the inside lane to overtake. So in a hundred years’ time, this law might be seen as a historical curiosity, although it was heartily welcomed by many drivers. So for rather obvious reasons, some laws are still standing whilst others have been dropped as they are inappropriate in the modern day. But go back to the late 19th century and there were the Locomotive Acts, or Red Flag Acts which were a series of Acts of Parliament which regulated the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on British public highways. The first three, the Locomotives on Highways Act 1861, The Locomotive Act 1865 and Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878, contained restrictive measures on the manning and speed of operation of road vehicles. They also formalised many important road concepts like vehicle registration, registration plates, speed limits, maximum vehicle weight over structures such as bridges, and the organisation of highway authorities. The most draconian restrictions and speed limits were imposed by the 1865 Act, also known as the ‘Red Flag’ Act, which required “all road locomotives, including automobiles, to travel at a maximum of 4mph (6.4km/h) in the country and 2mph (3.2km/h) in the city, as well as requiring a man carrying a red flag to walk in front of road vehicles hauling multiple wagons”. However The 1896 Act removed some restrictions of the 1865 Act and also raised the speed to 14mph (23km/h). But first, let us go back to earlier times. For example, the First Act of Supremacy 1534. Over the course of the 1520s and 1530s, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that changed life in England entirely, and the most significant of these was this First Act of Supremacy which declared that Henry VIII was the Supreme Head of the Church of England instead of the Pope, effectively severing the link between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, and providing the cornerstone for the English Reformation. This change was so far-ranging that it is difficult to cover every effect that it had. It meant that England (and ultimately, Britain) would be a Protestant country rather than a Catholic one, with consequences for her allies and her sense of connection to the other countries of Europe. It gave Henry VIII additional licence to continue plundering and shutting down monasteries, which had been huge centres of power in England, with really significant consequences in that their role in alleviating poverty, and providing healthcare and education was lost. It led to centuries of internal and external conflict between the Church of England and other faiths, some of which are still ongoing today. In fact, until 1707, there was no such thing as the United Kingdom. There was England, and there was Scotland, two countries which had shared a monarch since 1603 but which were otherwise legally separate. But by 1707, the situation was becoming increasingly difficult, and union seemed to solve both sides’ fears that they were dangerously exposed to exploitation by the other. England and Scotland had been at each other’s throats since a time before the nations of ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ even formally existed. The Acts of Union did not bring that to an end right away, but ultimately these ancient enemies became one of the most enduring political unions that has ever existed. That isn’t to say it has gone entirely uncontested as in 2014, a referendum was held on Scottish independence where 55% of voters opted to remain in the union. We should also recall 1807, when the Slave Trade Act was introduced. In fact Britain had played a pivotal role in the international slave trade, though slavery had been illegal in Britain itself since 1102 but with the establishment of British colonies overseas, slaves were used as agricultural labour across the British empire. It was estimated that British ships carried more than three million slaves from Africa to the Americas, second only to the five million slaves which were transported by the Portuguese. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends to give them their proper name, were a nonviolent, pacifist religious movement founded in the mid-17th century who were opposed to slavery from the start of their movement. They pioneered the Abolitionist movement, despite being a marginalised group in their own right. As non-Anglicans, they were not permitted to stand for Parliament. They founded a group to bring non-Quakers on board so as to have greater political influence, as well as working to raise public awareness of the horrors of the slave trade. This was achieved through the publication of books and pamphlets. The effect of the Slave Trade Act, once passed, was rapid. The Royal Navy, which was the leading power at sea at the time, patrolled the coast of West Africa and between 1808 and 1860 freed 150,000 captured slaves. Finally, in 1833, slavery was finally banned throughout the British Empire. In the first few decades of the Industrial Revolution, conditions in British factories were frequently abysmal. 15-hour working days were usual and this included weekends. Apprentices were not supposed to work for more than 12 hours a day, and factory owners were not supposed to employ children under the age of 9, but a parent’s word was considered sufficient to prove a child’s age and even these paltry rules were seldom enforced. Yet the wages that factories offered were still so much better than those available in agricultural labour that there was no shortage of workers willing to put up with these miserable conditions, at least until they had earned enough money to seek out an alternative. It was a similar social movement to the one that had brought an end to slavery that fought child labour in factories, it was also believed that reducing working hours for children would lead to a knock-on effect where working hours for adults would also be reduced. The Factory Act of 1833, among a host of changes, banned children under 9 from working in textile mills, banned children under 18 from working at night, and children between 9 and 13 were not permitted to work unless they had a schoolmaster’s certificate showing they had received two hours’ education per day. So the Factory Act not only improved factory conditions, but also began to pave the way towards education for all. Then, just two years later, a law against cruelty to animals followed. Until 1835, there had been no laws in Britain to prevent cruelty to animals, except one in 1822, which exclusively concerned cattle. Animals were property, and could be treated in whatever way the property-owner wished. It was actually back in 1824 that a group of reformers founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which we know today as the RSPCA. Several of those reformers had also been involved in the abolition of the slave trade, such as the MP William Wilberforce. Their initial focus was on working animals such as pit ponies, which worked in mines, but that soon expanded. The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, for which the charity’s members lobbied, outlawed bear-baiting and cockfighting, as well as paving the way for further legislation for things such as creating veterinary hospitals, and improving how animals were transported.

The RSPCA began by championing the rights of the humble pit pony.

Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, when a woman married a man, she ceased to exist as a separate legal being. All of her property prior to marriage, whether accumulated through wages, inheritance, gifts or anything else became his, and any property she came to possess during marriage was entirely under his control, not hers. There were a handful of exceptions, such as money held in trust, but this option was out of reach of all but the very wealthy. Given the difficulty of seeking a divorce at this time, this effectively meant that a man could do whatever he wished with his wife’s money, including leaving her destitute, and she would have very little legal recourse. But the Act changed this. It gave a woman the right to control money she earned whilst married, as well as keeping inherited property, and made both spouses liable to maintain their children from their separate property, something that was important in relation to custody rights on divorce. The Act was not retrospective, so women who had married and whose property had come into the ownership of their husbands were not given it back, which limited its immediate effect. But ultimately, it was a key stage on the long road to equality between men and women in Britain. It is clear that 1870 was a big year in British politics so fas as education was concerned. This is because before then, the government had provided some funding for schools but this was piecemeal and there were plenty of areas where there were simply no school places to be found. This was complicated by the fact that many schools were run by religious denominations, as there was conflict over whether the government should fund schools run by particular religious groups. As has been seen, under the Factory Act 1833 there were some requirements that children should be educated, but these were frequently ignored. Previously, industrialists had seen education as undesirable, at least when focusing on their ‘bottom line’, as hours when children were in education represented hours when they were not able to work. There were some factory jobs that only children could perform, for instance because of their size. But as automation advanced, it increasingly became the case that a lack of educated workers was holding back industrial production so industrialists became a driving force in pushing through comprehensive education. The Education Act of 1870 didn’t provide free education for all, but it did ensure that schools would be built and funded wherever they were needed, so that no child would miss out on an education simply because they didn’t live near a school. We take it for granted now, but free education for all was not achieved until 1944. At the end of the First World War, the Representation of the People Act 1918 is chiefly remembered as the act that gave women the right to vote, but in fact it went further than that. Only 60% of men in Britain had the right to vote prior to 1918, as voting rights were restricted to men who owned a certain amount of property. Elections had been postponed until the end of the First World War and now, in an atmosphere of revolution, Britain was facing millions of soldiers who had fought for their country returning home and being unable to vote. This was clearly unacceptable. As a result, the law was changed so that men aged over 21, or men who had turned 19 whilst fighting in the First World War, were given the vote. But it was also evident that women had contributed hugely to the war effort, and so they too were given the vote under restricted circumstances. The vote was granted to women over 30 who owned property, were graduates voting in a university constituency or who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register. The belief was that this set of limitations would mean that mostly married women would be voting, and therefore that they would mostly vote the same way as their husbands, so it wouldn’t make too much difference. Women were only granted equal suffrage with men in 1928. Then in 1946 came the National Health Service Act. I personally think that we should be proud of our free health service, especially after I learned what residents of some other countries have to do in order to obtain medical care. In 1942, economist William Beveridge had published a report on how to defeat the five great evils of society, these being squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Ignorance, for instance, was to be defeated through the 1944 Education Act, which made education free for all children up to the age of 15. But arguably the most revolutionary outcome of the Beveridge Report was his recommendation to defeat disease through the creation of the National Health Service. This was the principle that healthcare should be free at the point of service, paid for by a system of National Insurance so that everyone paid according to what they could afford. One of the principles behind this was that if healthcare were free, people would take better care of their health, thereby improving the health of the country overall. Or to put it another way, someone with an infectious disease would get it treated for free and then get back to work, rather than hoping it would go away, infecting others and leading to lots of lost working hours. It is an idea that was, and remains, hugely popular with the public.


As I said last week, there had been several new laws with the gradual closure of workhouses and by the beginning of the 20th century some infirmaries were even able to operate as private hospitals. A Royal Commission of 1905 reported that workhouses were unsuited to deal with the different categories of resident they had traditionally housed, and it was recommended that specialised institutions for each class of pauper should be established in which they could be treated appropriately by properly trained staff. The ‘deterrent’ workhouses were in future to be reserved for those considered as incorrigibles, such as drunkards, idlers and tramps. In Britain during the early 1900’s, average life span as considered as about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. By the end of the century, it was about 75 and 80. Life was also greatly improved by new inventions. In fact, even during the depression of the 1930s things improved for most of the people who had a job. Of course we then had the First World War, where so many people lost their lives. So far as the United Kingdom and the Colonies are concerned, during that war there were about 888,000 military deaths (from all causes) and just about 17,000 civilian deaths due to military action and crimes against humanity. There were also around 1,675,000 military wounded. Then during the Second World War, again just in the United Kingdom (including Crown Colonies) there were almost 384,000 military deaths (from all causes), some 67,200 civilian deaths due to military action and crimes against humanity as well as almost 376,000 military wounded. On 24 January 1918 it was reported in the Daily Telegraph that the Local Government Committee on the Poor Law had presented to the Ministry of Reconstruction a report recommending abolition of the workhouses and transferring their duties to other organisations. That same year, free primary education for all children was provided in the UK. Then a few years later the Local Government Act of 1929 gave local authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals, although outside London few did so. The workhouse system was officially abolished in the UK by the same Act on 1 April 1930, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 almost 100,000 people were accommodated in the former workhouses, 5,629 of whom were children. Then the 1948 National Assistance Act abolished the last vestiges of the Poor Law, and with it the workhouses. Many of the buildings were converted into retirement homes run by the local authorities, so by 1960 slightly more than half of local authority accommodation for the elderly was provided in former workhouses. Under the Local Government Act 1929, the boards of guardians, who had been the authorities for poor relief since the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, were abolished and their powers transferred to county and county borough councils. The basic responsibilities of the statutory public assistance committees set up under the Act included the provision of both ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ relief. Those unable to work on account of age or infirmity were housed in Public Assistance (formerly Poor Law) Institutions and provided with the necessary medical attention, the committee being empowered to act, in respect of the sick poor, under the terms of the Mental Deficiency Acts 1913-27, the Maternity and Child Welfare Act 1918 and the Blind Persons Act 1920, in a separate capacity from other county council committees set up under those Acts. Outdoor relief for the able-bodied unemployed took the form of ‘transitional payments’ by the Treasury, which were not conditional on previous national insurance contributions, but subject to assessment of need by the Public Assistance Committee. The Unemployment Act 1934 transferred the responsibility for ‘transitional payments’ to a national Unemployment Assistance Board (re-named ‘Assistance Board’ when its scope was widened under the Old Age Pensions and Widows Pensions Act, 1940). Payment was still dependent on a ‘means test’ conducted by visiting government officials and, at the request of the government, East Sussex County Council, in common with other rural counties, agreed that officers of its Public Assistance Department should act in this capacity for the administrative county, excepting the Borough of Hove, for a period of eighteen months after the Act came into effect. Other duties of the Public Assistance Committee included the apprenticing and boarding-out of children under its care, arranging for the emigration of suitable persons, and maintaining a register of all persons in receipt of relief. Under the National Health Service Act 1946, Public Assistance hospitals were then transferred to the new regional hospital boards, and certain personal health services to the new Health Committee. The National Insurance Act 1946 introduced a new system of contributory unemployment insurance, national health insurance and contributory pension schemes, under the control of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Payment of ‘supplementary benefits’ to those not adequately covered by the National Insurance Scheme was made the responsibility of the National Assistance Board under the National Assistance Act 1948 and thus the old Poor Law concept of relief was finally superseded. Under the same Act, responsibility for the residential care of the aged and infirm was laid upon a new statutory committee of the county council, the Welfare Services Committee and the Public Assistance Committee was dissolved. Our world is constantly changing!

This week, an amusing image for a change…

Invisible tape.

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Whilst researching for this blog post, I learned that a man I was once at school with had written about workhouses in the town I grew up in, so I have included his findings, with thanks. From Tudor times until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, care of the poor was in fact the concern of individual parishes. Over in Whittlesey there are records of meetings of the charity governors between 1737 and 1825 and it is known that a workhouse was in existence in the old Tavern Street (later Broad Street) in 1804 and this building was virtually a hospital for the aged of the town. Before the inception of the Whittlesey Union, the parishes of Whittlesey levied a rate and doled it out as outdoor relief to people in their own homes, but by 1832 there was quite high unemployment among farm workers, especially in the winter, so the rate levied in Whittlesey was very high. At that time the workhouse housed thirty people, mainly the old and orphans, but sometimes able bodied men were taken in during the winter. Then the 1834 Poor Law Act was passed in order to build more workhouses and to make it more difficult for the poor to obtain cash handouts, so a new building was started on what was at that time Bassenhally field. The new workhouse had accommodation for sixty inmates and was also a lodging house for vagrants who wandered from one workhouse to another. The inmates received three meat dinners a week and the children received no education. Then in 1851 the workhouse was extended to accommodate one hundred and fifty inmates and then in 1874 a further extension was added, at a cost of £8,000. This workhouse, also now known as ‘the spike’ because of its clock tower, housed over two hundred people. Whilst they were staying there, men were employed on a farm or sack making, outdoor relief was still available to some people but able-bodied men had to enter the workhouse with their families in order to obtain relief. Men, women and children were segregated although parents had access to their children for one hour per day, whilst single unemployed women were forced into the workhouse to obtain relief. Some people stayed in the workhouse for the rest of their lives, and indeed the copy of the workhouse register in the local museum shows that in the majority of cases the reason people left was death. On Sunday mornings, inmates attended the local St.Mary’s church, husbands and wives were allowed to meet on Sundays but were segregated in the church, the women sitting in the front of the pulpit and the men along the wall on the other side of the north aisle. In the 1920s the main function of the workhouse seems to have been the care of the sick, infirm and elderly women with young children and orphans. Local people were cared for in the main building, but also overnight accommodation was provided in a separate building for tramps and vagrants who were expected to work, chopping wood or picking oaken, the chopped wood being sold to the townsfolk. Then in 1930 the board of guardians was disbanded. At the end of the 1930s the building was used by Coates school whilst its own building was undergoing repairs and shortly afterwards the building was demolished. The need for poor law institutions disappeared with the introduction of the National Assistance Act in 1948 and this founded the National Assistance Board, which was responsible for public assistance. Derived from national insurance contributions, the Board established means-tested supplements for the uninsured. Then in the early 1950s, the Sir Harry Smith school was built on the site. As a result, my old secondary school is on the site of what was at one time a workhouse where children were not taught!

Whittlesey Workhouse cellar, unearthed beneath the car park of Sir Harry Smith School during renovation work in 2011.

Following the Black Death, a devastating pandemic that killed about one-third of England’s population between 1346 and 1352, the Statute of Cambridge in 1388 was an attempt to address the labour shortage. This new law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. According to a historian, the fear of social disorder following the plague ultimately resulted in the state, and not a ‘personal Christian charity’, becoming responsible for the support of the poor. The resulting laws against vagrancy were the origins of state-funded relief for the poor. Then from the 16th century onwards a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were willing to work but could not, and those who were able to work but would not, between the genuinely unemployed and the idler. Supporting the destitute was a problem exacerbated by King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries which began in 1536. They had been a significant source of charitable relief and provided a good deal of direct and indirect employment. The Poor Relief Act of 1576 went on to establish the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it. Then the Act for the Relief of the Poor Act in 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through either age or infirmity, were unable to work. The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a ‘house of correction’, the precursor of the workhouse, where the ‘persistent idler’ was therefore to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the impotent poor, the old and the infirm although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as ‘outdoor relief’. This was in the form of money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish. In Britain, a workhouse was a total institution where those unable to support themselves financially were offered accommodation and employment. In Scotland, they were usually known as poorhouses. The earliest known use of the term ‘workhouse’ is from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon, reporting that “we have erected with’n our borough a workhouse to set poorer people to work”. However, as a result of mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. The New Poor Law of 1834 attempted to reverse the economic trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse and some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates. Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones and crushing bones to produce fertiliser. As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm, and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities. It was not until the introduction of the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law finally disappeared and with them the workhouses.

Poor House, Framlingham Castle.

This ‘Red House’ at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk was founded as a workhouse in 1664. The workhouse system evolved in the 17th century, allowing parishes to reduce the cost to ratepayers of providing poor relief. The first authoritative figure for numbers of workhouses comes in the next century from ‘The Abstract of Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor’, which was drawn up following a government survey in 1776. It put the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales at more than 1,800, or about one parish in seven, with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. This growth in the number of workhouses was prompted by the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, which obliged anyone seeking poor relief to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually for no pay. This system was called indoor relief and the Act helped prevent irresponsible claims on a parish’s poor rate. The growth was also bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act in 1782 which was intended to allow parishes to share the cost of poor relief by joining together to form unions, known as Gilbert Unions, to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. The able-bodied poor were instead either given outdoor relief or found employment locally. Workhouses were established and mainly conducted with a view to deriving profit from the labour of the inmates, and not as being the safest means of affording relief by at the same time testing the reality of their destitution. The workhouse was in truth at that time a kind of manufactory, carried on at the risk and cost of the poor-rate, employing the worst description of the people, and helping to pauperise the best. By 1832 the amount spent on poor relief nationally had risen to £7 million a year, more than ten shillings per head of population, up from £2 million in 1784 and the large number of those seeking assistance was pushing the system to the verge of collapse. The economic downturn following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century resulted in increasing numbers of unemployed and coupled with developments in agriculture that meant less labour was needed on the land, along with three successive bad harvests beginning in 1828 and the ‘Swing Riots’ of 1830, reform was inevitable. In 1832 the government established a Royal Commission to investigate and recommend how relief could best be given to the poor. The result was the establishment of a centralised Poor Law Commission in England and Wales under the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, also known as the New Poor Law, which discouraged the allocation of outdoor relief to the able-bodied, with all cases offered ‘the house and nothing else’. Individual parishes were grouped into Poor Law Unions, each of which was to have a union workhouse. More than 500 of these were built during the following fifty years, two-thirds of them by 1840. In certain parts of the country there was a good deal of resistance to these new buildings, some of it violent, particularly in the industrial north. Many workers lost their jobs during the major economic depression of 1837, and there was a strong feeling that what the unemployed needed was not the workhouse but short-term relief to tide them over. By 1838, five hundred and seventy-three Poor Law Unions had been formed in England and Wales and these incorporated 13,427 parishes, but it was not until 1868 that unions were established across the entire country. Despite the intentions behind the 1834 Act, relief of the poor remained the responsibility of local taxpayers, and there was thus a powerful economic incentive to use loopholes such as sickness in the family to continue with outdoor relief as the weekly cost per person was about half that of providing workhouse accommodation. Also, outdoor relief was further restricted by the terms of the 1844 Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order which aimed to end it altogether for the able-bodied poor. As a result, in 1846 of 1.33 million paupers only 199,000 were maintained in workhouses, of whom 82,000 were considered to be able-bodied, leaving an estimated 375,000 of the able-bodied on outdoor relief. Excluding periods of extreme economic distress, it has been estimated that about 6.5% of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time. After 1835, many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind brick walls, so-called “pauper bastilles”. The commission proposed that all new workhouses should allow for the segregation of paupers into at least four distinct groups, each to be housed separately between the aged and impotent, children, able-bodied males, and able-bodied females.

The Carlisle Union Workhouse, opened in 1864. It later part of the University of Cumbria.

In 1836 the Poor Law Commission distributed six diets for workhouse inmates, one of which was to be chosen by each Poor Law Union depending on its local circumstances. Although dreary, the food was generally nutritionally adequate and according to contemporary records was prepared with great care. Issues such as training staff to serve and weigh portions were well understood. The diets included general guidance, as well as schedules for each class of inmate. They were laid out on a weekly rotation, the various meals selected on a daily basis, from a list of foodstuffs. For instance, a breakfast of bread and gruel was followed by dinner, which might consist of cooked meats, pickled pork or bacon with vegetables, potatoes, dumpling, soup and suet then rice pudding. Supper was normally bread, cheese and broth, sometimes butter or potatoes. The larger workhouses had separate dining rooms for males and females, but workhouses without separate dining rooms would stagger the meal times to avoid any contact between the sexes. Religion played an important part in workhouse life: prayers were read to the paupers before breakfast and after supper each day. Each Poor Law Union was required to appoint a chaplain to look after the spiritual needs of the workhouse inmates, and he was invariably expected to be from the established Church of England. Religious services were generally held in the dining hall, as few early workhouses had a separate chapel. But in some parts of the country there were more dissenters than members of the established church, as section 19 of the 1834 Poor Law specifically forbade any regulation forcing an inmate to attend church services ‘in a Mode contrary to their Religious Principles’ and the commissioners were reluctantly forced to allow non-Anglicans to leave the workhouse on Sundays to attend services elsewhere, so long as they were able to provide a certificate of attendance signed by the officiating minister on their return. As the 19th century wore on, non-conformist ministers increasingly began to conduct services within the workhouse, but Catholic priests were rarely welcomed. A variety of legislation had been introduced during the 17th century to limit the civil rights of Catholics, beginning with the Popish Recusants Act of 1605 in the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot that year. Though almost all restrictions on Catholics in England and Ireland were removed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, a great deal of anti-Catholic feeling remained. Even in areas with large Catholic populations the appointment of a Catholic chaplain was unthinkable. Some guardians went so far as to refuse Catholic priests entry to the workhouse. The education of children presented a dilemma. It was provided free in the workhouse, but had to be paid for by the ‘merely poor’. Instead of being ‘less eligible’, conditions for those living in the workhouse were in certain respects ‘more eligible’ than for those living in poverty outside. By the late 1840s, most workhouses outside London and the larger provincial towns housed only those considered to be the incapable, elderly and sick. By the end of the century only about twenty per cent of those admitted to workhouses were unemployed or destitute, but about thirty per cent of the population over 70 were in workhouses. Responsibility for administration of the poor passed to the Local Government Board in 1871 and the emphasis soon shifted from the workhouse as a receptacle for the helpless poor to its role in the care of the sick and helpless. The Diseases Prevention Act of 1883 allowed workhouse infirmaries to offer treatment to non-paupers as well as inmates. The introduction of pensions in 1908 for those aged over 70 did not reduce the number of elderly housed in workhouses, but it did reduce the number of those on outdoor relief by twenty-five per cent. By the beginning of the 20th century some infirmaries were even able to operate as private hospitals. A Royal Commission of 1905 reported that workhouses were unsuited to deal with the different categories of resident they had traditionally housed, and recommended that specialised institutions for each class of pauper should be established, in which they could be treated appropriately by properly trained staff. The ‘deterrent’ workhouses were in future to be reserved for those considered as incorrigibles, such as drunkards, idlers and tramps. On 24 January 1918 the Daily Telegraph reported that the Local Government Committee on the Poor Law had presented to the Ministry of Reconstruction a report recommending abolition of the workhouses and transferring their duties to other organisations. That same year, free primary education for all children was provided in the UK. Then the Local Government Act of 1929 gave local authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals, although outside London few did so. The workhouse system was officially abolished in the UK by the same Act on 1 April 1930, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 almost 100,000 people were accommodated in the former workhouses, 5,629 of whom were children. Then the 1948 National Assistance Act abolished the last vestiges of the Poor Law, and with it the workhouses. Many of the buildings were converted into retirement homes run by the local authorities, so by 1960 slightly more than half of local authority accommodation for the elderly was provided in former workhouses. Camberwell workhouse in Peckham, South London continued until 1985 as a homeless shelter for more than 1,000 men, operated by the Department of Health and Social Security and renamed a resettlement centre. Southwell workhouse, also known as Greet House, in Southwell, Nottinghamshire is now a museum but was used to provide temporary accommodation for mothers and children until the early 1990s. How often we can pass by these buildings and not give a thought to their historical significance.

This week, a thought.
Life is a presentation of choices. Wherever you are now exactly represents the sum of your previous decisions, actions and inactions.

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