The workhouse in Lady Lane, which had been built in 1638, closed in 1705, and the building used for the Charity School. It was decided to re-establish the workhouse in 1726, when it was hoped that new rules for its management would eliminate poverty from the town. Once again this idea failed, and by 1729 the workhouse was in debt, and was closed. It was re-opened in 1738. The workhouse was a stone and brick building, standing in a large walled yard on the corner of Lady Lane at the junction with Vicar Lane. Several extensions were added to it in the eighteenth century, and by 1771 it consisted of 2 workrooms, a dining room and kitchen, several dormitories an infirmary, five or six cells for lunatics, lodgings for the Master and Mistress, a committee room, a dungeon store-rooms and washrooms.
The workhouse was run by the Workhouse Board or Committee, which was a committee of the Vestry of Leeds Parish Church. The Master of the workhouse was responsible for its day-to-day administration. The Committee decided who could enter the workhouse; those who were admitted were destitute individuals or families, unemployed and with no one else to look after them. Strangers in the town and those in distress also sought admission.
By 1755 the workhouse accommodated 43 men, 60 women and 53 children. Those who refused to enter the workhouse were not supposed to get any further poor relief, but in fact the workhouse could not accommodate all those who were recommended by the Committee; there was room for only about one fifth of those receiving poor relief. Most of the poor were given outdoor relief, that is they lived in their own homes, but received money from the parish. Only the worst cases, the old and the sick were admitted to the workhouse. Many of the sick already had smallpox, and other diseases, and outbreaks of sickness were common. In 1741 a quarter of the inmates died from such an outbreak.
The Workhouse Board returned people from outside Leeds to the parishes where they were born. Children were apprenticed out as soon as possible. It was the Committee who decided who would be turned out of the Workhouse, either for disciplinary reasons or because it was thought they could support themselves. The Vestry Minute Book for the Leeds Workhouse records that in November 1726:
'It's order'd that Mary Watson, who was Sent with an order from Pontefract, having but one child, Shall make provision for her Self and Child out of this House against New Years Day'.
Although the rules governing the workhouse were strict, the Master had a duty to see that the building was kept clean and that the inmates were clean and well-dressed. The diet was basic, as a weekly menu from 1726 shows.
The rules of the workhouse, 'The Rules and Orders for Relieving and Employing the Poor' were clearly set out. Children were to be looked after, and the nurses were employed to keep the workhouse clean, as well as look after the inmates.Those who did not obey the rules were punished, perhaps by confinement in the 'dungeon'. Those who told lies were 'to be set and stand upon a stool in the Dining-Room during Dinner-time with a paper fixed on his or her Breast, whereupon shall be written 'Infamous Liar', and also shall lose that meal.'
Apart from a place to live the workhouse did provide other forms of assistance to the poor. The blind were taught to play the violin, equipment was lent out so that people could provide for themselves, and some medical care was provided to the poor.
The inmates of the workhouse were encouraged to work, but most of them were too old too young or too sick to work effectively, the workhouse never achieved its original aim of eliminating poverty by setting the poor to work. It did however provide a refuge for many people – the homeless seeking shelter from the cold in winter, women deserted by their husbands, and orphaned children. They would probably not have survived without it.
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List of inmates, children, 1728
Menu, October 1726
List of apprentices, 1781
Clothing for a poor woman, 1789
The Workhouse in 1832
The Workhouse before demolition, 1936
One of the rules for relieving the poor
One of the rules