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Rules and regulations in the workhouse

The workhouse was a well-disciplined institution with each one having its own set of rules and regulations, which inmates were expected to adhere to strictly. The rules were usually displayed in the workhouse and read aloud on a regular basis so that even those inmates who could not read had no excuse for misbehaving.

Failure to comply with the workhouse rules was severely punished. The type of offence would normally fall into two categories: Disorderly and Refractory.

Disorderly behaviour included making a noise, swearing, trying to escape, disobeying orders, etc. These infringements were usually punished with a poor diet of bread and potatoes for a day or two, or the removal of "luxuries" such as butter or tea.

Refractory behaviour included assaulting a member of staff or another inmate, damaging property, being drunk or acting in an indecent manner. These offences might be punished with solitary confinement. Serious cases would be put before the Justice of the Peace.

Examples of the types of punishment that were handed out for bad behaviour can be seen in the Records of the Board of Guardians for Hereford Union:

On 14 February 1838 the Master reported the following punishments of the last fortnight:
"Joseph Taylor of Marden, stopped his cheese, gruel and soup for one day for breaking stone in a negligent manner and making use of ill language."

"Joseph Green of Holm, Refractory Ward for one hour for cursing and fighting with the smaller boys."

On 7 March 1838:
"Margaret Morgan, age 14, of Saint Owens - two hours in Refractory Ward for stealing Schoolmistress's gloves. Also stopped cheese, soup and gruel for cursing the other children in the schoolroom and taking bread belonging to other paupers."

(Records of the Board of Guardians, 1837-1838: Hereford Record Office, K42/215)

In Hereford we also have records of a man who, in 1837, was jailed for three months for desertion. This type of punishment, which often resulted in jail, was handed out by the magistrates.

The punishment of children was usually dealt with within the workhouse, and in Hereford Record Office are details of two six-year-old boys being caned for falling asleep in Sunday Service and of eight boys being flogged for kicking and throwing water over the schoolmaster.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]