King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Strand Union Workhouse

Title page of book with various annotations in pencilJ Allison Smith's annotated copy of Rogers's Reminiscences After Joseph Rogers's death in 1899, Thorold Rogers edited his brother's Reminiscences for publication. This book - Reminiscences of a workhouse medical officer - is the only known published record by a parish doctor of what life was really like inside a Victorian workhouse.

The copy of Rogers's Reminiscences in the Foyle Special Collections Library is peppered with interesting annotations, most likely from the person whose name appears at the very front of the book, J. Allison Smith, a medical alumnus of King's himself. He seems to have recognized Rogers's importance, and many of his comments are highly opinionated and make for interesting reading.

Page vii of text with annotations in pencil including phrase: ignorant illiterate humbugs!J Allison Smith's annotationsJoseph Rogers began work as the medical man at the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street in 1856 (when the punitive New Poor Law had been in force for twenty years) and was deeply shocked by what he found there. When he tried to improve things, Rogers was victimised by the Workhouse Master (to whom he was answerable) and the Guardians of the Poor for the Strand Union of Parishes, who wanted things to continue as they were. Rogers had some small victories, but very little could be changed without the support of the Guardians, and they consistently backed the Workhouse Master against Rogers.

Page xv of text with annotation in pencil.J Allison Smith's comments on Rogers's salaryRogers went over their heads to the Poor Law Commission on one occasion to prevent the use of a starvation diet against unmarried new mothers in the workhouse, who were suffering exhaustion from malnutrition. Another example of an improvement made in Rogers' time there is that the workhouse 'Standing Orders' record a significant change in 1857: the chains fastened to the iron bedstead used for violent lunatics were to be substituted with leather: a small alteration, but significant and humane. When such changes were ordered from on high, Rogers found himself the focus of fierce resentment for having sought them. Various attempts were made to force Rogers out, but he was implacable in his concern for the inmates, and would not gratify the Workhouse Master by resigning.

The number of people in the Strand Union Workhouse, Rogers said, never in his time fell below 500, and of those, probably over 90% were elderly, sick, pregnant or nursing mothers, children, disabled, imbecile or lunatics, according to the classifications of the day. Those who were physically well ('able-bodied') had to serve as nurses for the rest, there being no professional or trained nurses whatever in the entire building. Thus the place was effectively a major London hospital with only one doctor, and no staff but the Workhouse Master and his wife the Matron.

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