Workhouse Memories

As a child, I remember how often the word ‘workhouse’ cropped up in conversation between my parents. In the Twenties work was scarce, and as a builder, my father was always pleased when there were jobs to do at the local workhouse at Doddington.
So I have mixed feelings about the very bleak and rather ugly buildings which silhouetted against the fen sky and looked very cold and uninviting. The master and matron, Mr. Mrs. Jack Hill were both tall and important-looking, – Mr. Hill with ruddy complexion and very portly, and Mrs Hill large bosomed with a regal bearing, they always made us very welcome. As they had had one son, I was made a great fuss of when visiting with father. While he went off with the aster, I would trot round beside Matron on her rounds.
Going at different times of the day, I saw various activities – morning visits to the laundry were brief – I didn’t much like the large steam filled areas where the poor (and to me very old) ladies sweated profusely as they laboured over coppers of boiling laundry, some wielding dollies, other with blue bags preparing to whiten the sheets, and others scrubbing obstinate stains on the scrubbing boards, the sort which later we saw used by skiffle groups.
Visits to the kitchen were more interesting. I had never seen such quantities of food be prepared – mountains of potatoes and vegetables, and always the smell of cabbage cooking, which seemed to permeate the whole building. I never saw the dishes of appetising food we had at home – no joints of roast beef or leg of lamb, but mainly stew or mince.
The long rooms – like Florence Nightingale Wards, and used for sleeping, had rows of narrow iron bedsteads – everywhere spotlessly clean but uninviting and Spartan.
The women all wore long drab cotton dresses, grey or brown, protected by an equally long apron and usually laced up boots. As Matron walked around, she would stop and chat – with odd instructions about their appearance – “Go and collect a clean apron” – or, to an old man, “Let me look at you cap – it’s getting greasy. Get it changed” – or “You need another jacket”. These old men worked in the garden and did all the odd jobs about the place.
What I found distressing as I grew up was to see couples who had been happily married for many years who could no longer afford a home of their own, and now in the workhouse they were separated – probably only meeting briefly at mealtimes – although I always hoped they spent part of their evenings together.
I couldn’t help noticing the difference between the bareness of the residents’ rooms and the cosy comfort of the flat of the Master and Matron where we usually finished up at the end of a visit for a cup of tea and home-made cakes.
The time I enjoyed visiting the most was at sunset on a summer evening when, standing at the front of the workhouse, we could watch the tramps wearily wending their way up the drive, knowing that they would have wash down, clean clothes and a good meal. After a nights sleep, they would be up early, breakfast, and then they would be expected to do morning’s work for the workhouse before leaving it to walk to their next port of call. In this area, the workhouses at Wisbech, Doddington and Ely were bases for these wandering vagrants. In the summer they would venture further a field and sleep under a hedgerow – begging food or earning the odd shilling by doing casual jobs. At these times, strangers would turn up as others wandered into our area.
The washroom for the tramps was outside – divided into cubicles, and as they took off their clothes, they slung them over the door having collected clean underclothes and whatever other clothes they needed replacing.
I always wondered why anyone would chose to live in a workhouse but eventually realised that if you were short of money and could not afford to run a home of your own, then this was the only course open to you – unless you had family willing to help out. So I made up my mind to put away money for a rainy day – living in a workhouse didn’t appeal to me although I enjoyed my visits.
My father was also an undertaker and for many years had the contract to make the coffins for the paupers who died at Doddington, Wisbech and Ely; these were buried at the expense of the parish. The price of a plain pitch pine coffin was three guineas. Screwed to the lid was a metal breastplate with the name and date of death. Inside was a plain white lining, no frilled edging or embossed shroud. I often wandered into the workshop – I helped tack the pillows with sawdust and stitched them up, and was sometimes allowed to hold the coffins as the bubbling boiling pitch was poured into the cuts which were made so that the case could be bent to shape.
At Christmas times, I went with Pa to parties – the dining room (boardroom at Doddington where meetings are still held) would be gaily decorated – everyone was in a festive mood as we played games and tucked in – it must have been the highlight of the year for the inmates.
The Matron and Master retired, and Doddington workhouse was changed to fulfil another function. As a hospital, it was completely refurbished and over the years has been added to and become a great asset for the local people who up to this time had to make the journey to Addenbrookes at Cambridge for hospital treatment – few people had cars, so it meant a long train or bus journey.
With the out break of war it became even more useful as it was used not only by the local people, but by airmen taken ill at the many airfields situated in East Anglia and also by Italian prisoners of war who were drafted to this area to help with the land work.
As a member of the Chatteris Red Cross detachment, I did turns on duty to help with nursing at Doddington. Of my involvement I have many vivid memories – the first time I reported for duty having biked from Chatteris – very apprehensive of what I should be asked to do and knowing it would be a complete change from school teaching – I was sent to a male ward – the Sister-in-charge was male and I had a feeling he was going to test me out and enjoy doing so! First job – blanket bathing – curtains around – necessary equipment assembled, we started. The young airman took one look at me and said “I don’t want to be bathed by her. She’s not a nurse – she’s a school teacher and I danced with her at the place in Chatteris a fortnight ago!”
The next patient was a very large Italian prisoner of war who spoke very little English – I suppose it was quite a while since he had felt the female touch, need I say more.  I couldn’t get away quick enough, much to the amusement of the male nurse.
One day in the ladies ward, a dear old soul called me as I passed her – she’s slipped off her rubber ring, so could I help her – this I did, only to find that five minutes later I had the same request – and on and on and on – eventually the Sister said perhaps I didn’t understand, but the old dear only wanted attention, and if I stopped every time to help, I wouldn’t be doing anything else – so for a while I ignored her, but later was able to have a little chat and hopefully she understood.
Another time, I accompanied the Sister, and we took a male patient to have heat treatment – unfortunately having switched it on, she left me saying she’s be back before the treatment was up – the poor chap started going pink, and then red, and he started to complain loudly – I looked out of the door – no-one in sight – I turned off the switches and at last got the right one – much to the relief of myself, the patient, and the Sister when she came back and found how long she’d been out!
I enjoyed the time I spent helping at Doddington, but realised that I was more suited to my chosen career.
Some twenty five years later I was admitted to hospital with severe stomach pains – it was my first stay in hospital and I was amazed – such efficiency – such cleanliness – the whole ward was washed down daily – walls, beds, floors, lockers – I’d never seen such industry, but with Sister Pom, everything had to be spot on – a hard taskmaster, but one that was appreciated. As was the resident consultant – Dr. Alan Conway, a bachelor – I well remember a visit from him at 10.00pm the first night, much to my surprise, he did a ward round before 6.00am the next morning.
By now the old building was still recognisable, but the drab rooms had been painted and curtained, giving a much brighter and more cheerful effect.
The facilities now seemed endless – an X-Ray Department, Physiotherapy,  a block to accommodate visiting Consultants for Out-Patients, Friendship House – a wing for the young handicapped people, a Day Hospital. As I member of the Peterborough Community Health Council for eight years, one of my duties was to visit hospitals in the area, and this hospital compared very favourably with others in the district. It was also a bonus to meet old Cromwell Girls on the nursing staff – not just here but at Stamford and Peterborough.
But time marches on and eventually there were changes – the old building was not economical to run, it was difficult to find qualified nursing staff who were willing to settle in the middle of the Fens, it was not economical to bring in Consultants from Peterborough and Cambridge to attend cases and perform operations – in the time they spent travelling, they could attend to more patients in their own hospitals – with advanced technology, equipment was too expensive to install in small hospitals; no scans, chemotherapy, radiotherapy etc. could be given – they could only be given elsewhere.
So when my husband was admitted in May 1994 following a massive stroke, I was prepared for changes, but had not realised the extent of these changes.
Another new building had been opened in the grounds – The Alan Conway Court for the old and infirm – those that need full-time nursing and supervision. Friendship House has ceased to function.  The Out-Patients Department was being upgraded. All wards with the exception of two have been closed, and there is a question-mark hanging over the Out-Patients Department.
West Wing 1 and West Wing 2, the two remaining wards are part of the old workhouse, with day-rooms which have been added – they are lofty and drab, with decoration and furnishings deteriorating. Fortunately these wards are being moved to more up to date accommodation, the Out Patient Department is due to move back any minute to its old refurbished and improved quarters – it looks as if many of the old buildings together with a lot of land will be surfeit to requirements – one wonders what the future holds in store for this site.

4 thoughts on “Workhouse Memories

    Rosemary said:
    October 4, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Just reading your story,after I recognized the picture. My mother spent time in Doddington workhouse. She was admitted with her mother and Brother. my mother was born in 1926 were she spent time in the work house, in 1933 they made a rule that children under the age of about 6 was no longer able to stay, so my mother and brother plus a group of other children were taken and put into orphanages spliting up the boys and girls, hence to say my mother lost contact with her brother ever since. I recently went to find the building and thats how I was able to reconize your photo’s.


    (we also have the same initials I see)

    Sue said:
    July 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Enjoyed reading about the workhouse. I was interested as my Grandfathers first wife died in the workhouse in August 1920. On the death cert it said, The Avenue, Benwick Lane, informant John Hill the occupier (Jack) It took us a while to find out it was the workhouse, but reading your memories it is certain thats where she died. All very sad!


    Joy said:
    February 20, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    My Grandfather was in Doddington Workhouse in 1930s I was trying to find out more about him he had been an agricultural worker and was left to bring up his three children one of which was my mother His name was John Adams.

    Susan Frisina said:
    September 28, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    My name is Susan Frisina ( Dorothy Susan Upchurch daughter of Joy and Frederick Donald Upchurch) 58 Benwick Road in Doddington. I have lived in the US since 1957. I am planning a trip to Doddington next summer with my husband and would love to know more about my past and the history of Doddingto and where to go. I have many fond memories growing up; the school, the fair, picking strawberries, submitting our handy work, picking flowers and dancing New Years Eve at the meeting hall.
    Any information or suggestions are welcome.

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