It was the first day back for Kendall Prosser and the Living at Home History Group at Salem Methodist Church in Smallthorne. Kendall had organised a talk by Sid Bailey a well known local teacher and historian. I had booked the day off work to attend this and do some other research.
As the exercise group left and the History group gathered, Kendall went to fetch Sid who is now in his 90’s (born 1922) and when he arrived, Sid took his place at a table in front a dozen or so interested folk.
Sid gave a talk on the Workhouses and surmised that he was probably the only person in the room who could actually remember them first hand. The talk was not at all what I expected, as it was about his parents and how they went on to run a workhouse.
Sid was captivating with his accent adding to his humour when he was in full flow
Sid described how his parents met and how his father changed profession to work with his mother who was now a nurse at Chell. They went on to move to Oxford before moving to run a workhouse in Oswestry. Sid graphically described the dark walls and the poor conditions. He remembers that the walls were ‘workhouse green’ for the top half and dark brown for the bottom and when lit with only 3 gas lights a long hallway could be very foreboding.
Sid goes on to tell how his parents would use their guile and persistence to make sure things were improved. Walls were painted in brighter colours, the guardians were worn down until they provided gas and water directly to the building. General improvements were made but not without a lot of effort. His mother would persuade the local businesses to provide goods and services and his father besides initially using the sluice gates of the neighbouring farm to get extra water acquired some very old corroded pipework to convince the governors that the gas supply was not safe, a brilliant ruse that had the desired effect.
Sid described how Christmas dinner would be served to the inmates by local dignitaries, staff and other people of higher standing. He described the two kinds of inmates, those who were long term and those who used the casual wards/tramp wards. Some tramps used the casual wards to get a bath before walking on to their next stop and would earn their stay by doing some work around the building.
Other improvements for the inmates were Christmas shows including a Pierrots show at least one of those years. There was also the introduction of radio which was becoming popular in the late 1920s and how the inmates were in wonder at The Kings Speech broadcast on Christmas Day.
A bolder step was trip organised to take those who could go to the seaside. Though the governors/guardians were in doubt the trip was successful with everyone on their best behavior, even having a meal served to them in a restaurant that had been prearranged. Sid describes how those going on the trip were given a coin or two to spend and how instead of spending it on themselves they bought souvenirs for those that didn’t travel.
This is only a brief summary of the hour or so that Sid talked for but it was totally captivating and one
thing that Sid was keen to point out was how throughout this early part of his life he was taught respect and humility for all people regardless of their situation. A great life lesson and reminder for us all.