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Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cold Comfort

The winter months were desperate times for poor families in Regency Cheshire. The wealthiest families raised subscriptions to aid the poor during particularly harsh winters, such as the one of 1819-20; nearly 5000 families in the Chester area needed help with food, fuel and bedding. If people were starving and had no jobs, they would pawn their furniture and bedding to buy food, but once those were gone, they faced real hardship. The same was true during trade depressions such as the one following the banking crash of 1825-6. Charity balls were held and soup kitchens set up to help relieve silk workers’ families in Macclesfield and Congleton.

If you were in dire need, there was the prospect of the poorhouse or workhouse. The quality of these varied hugely, but the Chester House of Industry was said by Hemingway, the historian, to be run kindly and humanely. After the new Poor Law of !834, workhouse regimes across Britain were purposely designed to be as forbidding as possible to deter applicants. Workhouse children, whose only crime was to be poor, might suffer greatly if they were ‘farmed out’ to contractors for a flat fee. The cheaper they were fed and housed, the greater the profit.

Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist told the story of a pauper orphan. You can find out more about Dickens and conditions for workhouse children in ‘Mudlarks and guttersnipes,’ my latest feature for children's magazine Aquila.

Images: Northwich Workhouse, built 1837 (now the Salt Museum). Many children under the age of 12 lived here in 1851; some were only babies. Image © Sue Wilkes.

Charles Dickens. (unknown artist) from Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography (1870.) (Author’s collection.)

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