The workhouse, together with a system of looking after the poor of Alston Moor, seems to have been established about the year 1739 by an indenture of 15th September that year, between “John Friend of Annot Walls, Thomas Vipond & others, Churchwardens,and Overseers of the parish, and Nicholas Whitfield and others; reciting that several sums of money had been bequeathed to the poor and to schools in Alston and Garrigill, and in order to better secure these funds, purchased a tenement and appurtenances at Nether Fairhill, and a fourth part of the pasture called Fairhill Pasture, then letting it, using this rental money for distribution”. The whole of the money was £274.
The original Fairhill Estate, consisting of 22 acres, with two or three acres of the new allotment, was let to Mary Yates for one year at £36.10s.0d. The estate had been let yearly to the best bidder and it was generally let to the person who had care of the poor, the workhouse for whom was situated on the estate.
On the 24th May 1775 a Committee of the House of Commons rose after sitting since the 31st March of that year. Its recommendation was that there should be a National Return of the Poor, Vagrants and Houses of Correction.
In his “Observations upon the Orders and Resolutions of the House of Commons with Respect to the Poor, Vagrants and Houses of Correction”, Thomas Gilbert stated that, “the Object of this Plan for the relief of the Poor, is to employ those who are able to work, to cherish and support the aged and impotent, and to nurse and educate to labour and habits of industry, the infants who have lost their parents, or whose parents are unable or unwilling to maintain them; to punish the idle, disorderly, and profligate, by confinement and hard labour; and to inculcate in the minds of everyone principles of religion and morality.
“The attainment of these great ends will, it is presumed, not only communicate happiness to many thousands of people in distress, but excite a spirit of industry in the country”. The main result of this was the establishment of Poor Houses, as they became known to us through the writings of Charles Dickens.
The Overseers of Alston with Garrigill’s Poorhouse replied to the National Return as follows:-
“Loaning July ye 8th 1775
Yours I received ordering a return to be made by the Master of the Poorhouse at Alston, to the Justices. We not having the same Master but a New One, I as an Overseer with others concerned has as below done in all in Our Power to give you a Satisfactory Answer.
1772 The number of persons in the Poorhouse on an Average that year was 21.
1773 Do. on an Average, 18
1774 Do. on an Average, 13.
They were employed as the Master pleased and according as they were able, what they earned we know not, the Master being removed.
The house is a Good House built of Stone and such furniture, utensils &c at least would cost £200.
1772 Disbursed for the use of the Poor £201.0s.6d.
1773 Do. £192.7s.4d.
1774 Do. £213.4s.3d.
Not many Out pensioners the first year, some few the Second year and Rather more the third. The Master had no Salary, he took them at so much a week per head in lieu of his Salary and Employed them for his Own Use and maintained them being paid regularly by Overseers Once a Month.
The house has been established between thirty and forty years and there don’t appear by any Book ascertaining the Poor Rate and that time.
Each of the above years so respectively mentioned The Poor Rate Amounted to very little more than the disbursements above mentioned.
There died out of the Poorhouse in 1772 Five persons, in 1773 Three Persons, in 1774 Two Persons. I with what Assistance I was able to Procure Have sent you the best Account I can of your several demands, and am
A few years later another report was made:-
“An Accurate & carefull Survey of the Poor House and Poor therein Contained in the Town of Alston in the County of Cumberland together with the age of Each Poor made by Thomas Stephenson, High Constable of Leath ward in the sd. County the 1st Day of July 1780.
The House consists of 1 Kitchen, 1 Parlour, 1 Milkhouse, 1 Coal Hole, 2 front Rooms above stairs with five Beds and Good Bedding, 1 Garret Room, with 2 back Rooms & 3 do. One Cow House and Hay Loft.
Names of Men Ages Do. Women Ages
Thomas Slack 80 Margt Emerson 80
Mary Arnison 60
Hann. Emerson 80
Jane Nicholson 30
Do. Boys Ages Do. Girls Ages
Thos. Kirkpatrick 10 Ann Whitesmith 10
Ann Kirkpatrick 8
Mary Do. 6
Total No. 9
(By comparison with nearby parishes, Penrith had 23 inmates and Hesket had 11.)
In the sd. House is a Master & Mistress who rent the sd. House with an Estate of 24 acres per year belonging to the Parish who allow him 1s.9d. per Head for Victuals & Fire per Week and find all other necessaries needful.”
Many years later a thorough investigation of the Workhouse situation was made and it was reported, “We have particularly enquired, whether this estate is not let for a less value, by the reason that the person who takes the land also agrees to farm the poor at a certain rate. It appears, however, that this land is let at its full value, and that the allowance for the poor varies with the times. We find, that in 1818 the estate was let at £30 a year, the tenant farming the poor at 2s.10d per head per week. In 1819, £35 was the rent of the land, and the poor were taken at 2s.8d. In the present year, as before stated, £36.10s is the rent, and the poor are taken at 2s.5d by which it appears that the rent has increased regularly, whilst the allowance for the poor has diminished”.
“The application of these rents is very irregular, the whole having been carried out to the general account of the parish poor-rate for several years.”
“The poor house is supposed to have been built long ago at the expense of the parish, by whom it is now repaired. No rent is allowed by the parish in respect of the occupation of these premises, which seem to supply the place of a farmhouse for the land.”
The daily routine for the inmates was set out by the Poor Law Commission. In the 1830s the summer time bell for rising rang at quarter to six in the morning, the time allowed for breakfast was from half past six to seven o’clock. Work began at seven and went on until twelve, when there was a one-hour break for dinner. During meals, “Silence, Order and Decorum” were to be maintained. Work recommenced by the bell at one and continued until six o’clock. Then bedtime, once more signalled by the ringing of a bell, was at eight o’clock. There was one hour of leisure each day. In winter months the inmates got the luxury of an extra hour in bed.
From 1877 comes a list of the contractors who supplied the “necessaries” to the Workhouse.
Beef and Mutton – Mr. George Dickinson. Australia meat, salt, barley, peas, tea, treacle and tobacco – Mr. George T. Thompson. Soda, rice, coffee, sugar, pepper, candles, salt petre, cheese, starch and blue – Mr. M. Tindale. Rye, meal, flour and potatoes – Mr. M. Whitfield. Coals – Mr. Thompson. The inmates had their own vegetable garden.
One hundred years on from the Return of 1775, Alston with Garrigill’s Poorhouse contained 23 inmates, which was a ratio of 1 in 300 of the total population. Daily life at the Workhouse was glimpsed from regular reports in the newspapers. In the Alston Herald of 27th Novermber1875 it was reported from the fortnightly meeting of the Board of Guardians, held at Town Hall that, “The clerk handed in a bill for £7.5s. from the Royal Albert Asylum, Lancaster, for the maintenance of one inmate belonging to this parish for the quarter ending December next. It was ordered to be paid, as was also a charge of 14s. to the Relieving Officer for expenses in conveying a lunatic to Garlands Asylum. The clerk reported that a lunacy inspector had visited the Workhouse, but had not made any remarks, and Mrs. Walton had also visited the house during the week. The Master of the Workhouse reported that Smith Elliot had been striking one of the other inmates and also himself and he had had to put him in a refractory ward. Mr. Hutchinson referred to a case of a young woman, who, he thought, might be able to take a situation if she was a little more advanced in education. She was lame of her left hand, but her right hand was good. It was agreed that she be requested to attend school.”
There were occasional treats for the poor folk. In January 1877, “the inmates of the workhouse had their annual treat of plum cake and wine, given by Miss Josephine Mabel James, second daughter of the respected chairman of the Board of Guardians (Rev. Octavius James of Clarghyll Hall), in remembrance of her birthday. Many kind wishes of long life and happiness were given for the young lady and her parents by the poor recipients and a very pleasant evening was spent.”
The newspapers of the time however give reports of the tougher side of life at the Workhouse. The mortality rate from 1876 to 1877 was regarded as high at a total of eight deaths. But it has to be borne in mind that many of the adults only went there when they were too old or infirm to work, so that their life expectancy could not have been very long in any case. In 1878 the Master of the Workhouse reported an increase in the number of vagrants to 695, a lot of them Irish, whose behaviour was very rough. The Workhouse had its own “cage” which was “used from time to time”.
The increase in the number of vagrants can be understood from the prevailing economic conditions of time. All the major railways had been built, the last being the Settle and Carlisle line, so that a lot of Irish navvies were unemployed and reluctant to return home to even worse conditions. Britain was also in the grip of an agricultural recession, while locally the lead mines were in sharp decline.
The ethic of hard labour was continued until the twentieth century. In June 1902 the Rural District Council resolved to offer the Board of Guardians 3/- (15p) per cubic yard for the stones broken at the Workhouse for the district roads. At that time an inmate cost 3s.4d. per week to keep.
The last entry in the Trades Directories for the Workhouse was in 1914. In 1919 plans were drawn up for the conversion of the workhouse buildings into a row of houses, but that particular scheme was never implemented. The Workhouse may have stayed in use until the 1920s.