On 3 April 1881 the census enumerator knocked on the door of no. 7 Snow’s Yard in Stafford. John and Bridget Kearns lived in that cottage. The Kearns family had been amongst the first Irish to settle in the town, having been there since the 1820s. The couple said that their 10-year old son Thomas was living in the house with them and he was duly listed on the return. They were lying. Thomas was actually in Stafford Workhouse. He was listed there on the same night. Whilst he might have been ‘normally’ resident at no. 7, he was still incarcerated in the Workhouse a year later and described in the records as an ‘orphan’.
The Poor Law overseers presumably knew a lot about the troubled Kearns family and they probably labelled Thomas an orphan because he was known not to be John and Bridget’s real son even though Bridget had registered him as such on 22 March 1871. One possibility is that he was actually the illegitimate child of John and Bridget’s daughter Hannah, conceived when she was working as a young servant girl. Although she would only have been about fourteen at the time, such was the fate of many girls forced into service. Another possibility is that she was raped by one of the many lodgers who passed through the Kearns’ unregistered lodging house. The possibility of an incestuous pregnancy by her father cannot be ruled out either. Whatever the truth, poor Thomas seems to have been brought up by his disgruntled and neglectful grandparents. It was they who off-loaded him into the Workhouse for at least some of his childhood.
Thomas Kearns’s route to the workhouse was just one instance of the ways Victorian people could become entangled with the Poor Law system. Although clearly of Irish ancestry, Thomas Kearns grew up as a Staffordian and his contact with the Workhouse was one of thousands amongst the poor, both Staffordian and Irish, who spent time there during the 19th century. The last post looked particularly at the Workhouse’s role during the Famine immigration in the later 1840s. We saw that many Irish passed through the casual wards and temporary accommodation erected during the crisis year of 1847.
By 1851 Workhouse affairs had returned to ‘normal’, and at the time of the Census that year there were only four Irish-born out of the 177 ‘inmates’ inside its walls. As the graph shows, in the succeeding decades the Irish-born were never present in large numbers in the Workhouse.
Fig. 1: Inmates at Stafford Workhouse, Census Enumeration Returns 1841-1901
What is also apparent from Figure 1 is that the number of people who were ‘pauper inmates’ in the Workhouse rose over time, especially after 1871. The rise was partly a reflection of general population growth in the Stafford Poor Law Union area but it also resulted from trends within the Poor Law system itself. The static picture of the number of inmates actually present on Census nights fails, however, to capture the endless churn of people entering and leaving the Workhouse. This can be seen from the Admission and Discharge Registers. Not all the Registers have survived for the Stafford Workhouse but Figure 2 shows the number of admissions for the complete years that do exist in the records. It is apparent that in the early years of the Poor Law Reform Act the numbers being admitted and discharged were much higher than in later years. By the 1860s and early 1870s the numbers were half what they had been in the 1840s and they only rose somewhat again after 1880.
Figure 2 also shows that the number of Irish admitted to the Workhouse remained relatively modest – an average of 6.6% of people over the whole period. The Irish were, nevertheless, over-represented in proportion to their numbers in the Stafford area. That was inevitable because, like the Kearns family, many were poor and living on the economic margins. The Famine crisis of 1847 stands out. In that year 92 Irish people were recorded into the Workhouse but that figure is undoubtedly a gross underestimate. Between 16 July and 27 September 1847 the flood of destitute Irish was so great that Workhouse staff gave up registering admissions and no data survives from that period. Admissions of Irish people remained above average to the end of this group of complete records in 1851.
Figure 2: Admissions to Stafford Workhouse, 1843-1900
A major factor affecting admissions to the Workhouse was the state of the economy. When times were hard, particularly in the ‘Hungry Forties’, many people of working age were forced into the Workhouse through unemployment. The upturn of the economy that took place during the mid-Victorian boom was reflected in a decline of admissions between 1858 and 1872. This was a time when farming prospered in the Stafford region and the town’s shoe trade was growing fast. Conversely, the higher numbers entering the Workhouse after 1880 reflected in part the ‘Great Victorian Depression’ which began in 1874 and lasted until the end of the century, with only slight improvement around 1889. Farming went into decline because of imports of cheap food from overseas and Stafford’s shoe trade began to experience competition from the USA. So Workhouse admissions were to some degree a barometer of economic trends.
There were, nevertheless, changes in the role of the Workhouse which were reflected in who ended up there. The New Poor Law aimed to make the Workhouse so hard and forbidding that people would only enter for a short period through unemployment, utter destitution or domestic crisis. The fact that admissions in 1851, for example, were approaching four times the number of actual inmates enumerated in the Census shows the relatively short stay and turnover of entrants. The majority of adult inmates were people of working age who stayed as short a time as possible.
Figure 3. shows the age and gender breakdown of Workhouse inmates in 1841. Well over
Figure 3: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1841
half were children under sixteen, a shocking statistic which belies any romantic notions of the cohesive Victorian nuclear family. When we look more closely (Figure 4) we see that over 60% of those children appeared to be unattached to any obvious parent in the Workhouse. They seem to be complete orphans. Some may, of course, have been sent to
Figure 4: Children in the Stafford Workhouse, 1841
the Workhouse by their parents or other relatives living in the town, just as poor Thomas Kearns was in 1881. We cannot know how many were in that situation or had in fact been completely abandoned to the Poor Law system. Figure 3 also shows that there were twice as many young women in the 16-30 age group in the Workhouse than men. The obvious reason is that they were single parents suffering the Victorian prejudice against sin, illegitimacy and poverty. They accounted for over one third of the children in the institution (Figure 4).
Move on forty years to 1881 and we see the role of the Workhouse changing (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Age and gender of Stafford Workhouse inmates, 1881
Children now formed only about 30% of the inmates, nearing half the proportion in 1841. The Workhouse had now switched in large measure to being a grim de facto old folks home, particularly for middle-aged and old men with nowhere else to go. When I noticed this I speculated that many of these men would have migrated to the Stafford area from elsewhere and once they could no longer work were forced into the Workhouse because they had no local relatives to care for them. I was wrong. Over 70% of them were local – from Stafford town or the immediate countryside around. Over 40% had never married and had reached a lonely old age with no one to take them in. The same proportion were widowers and loss of their marriage partner had similarly left them alone but also, in many cases we must presume, abandoned by their surviving children. It is striking that these same fates happened far less to older women, despite their greater likelihood of survival into old age. Perhaps old women, as grandmothers, had a greater use value as carers in the family economy than ‘useless’ old men with no experience of domestic work. Over 60% of these men had either worked as farm labourers or in Stafford’s boot and shoe trade. Both were occupations bedevilled by intermittent and often poorly paid work and when old age came many had no savings and little work to keep them going. The Workhouse was the only refuge for such men.
What of the Irish? In 1881 there were fifteen Irish-born inmates (Figure 6) and in most ways they conformed to the pattern discussed above. Most were men over 45 years old and indeed well into old age. Ten of them had been farm labourers, the majority from
Figure 6: Irish-born inmates of Stafford Workhouse, 1881
the mid-west area of Ireland from which many of Stafford’s Irish originated. The five women were, or had been, domestic servants or similar. Three of the Irish were in the Workhouse tramp ward thus emphasising an opposite role for the institution as a temporary refuge for the homeless on the road. With their miserable circumstances all these Irish people represented some of the human wreckage of the Famine, its aftermath and the fractured relationship between Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century.
 For the history of the Kearns family in Stafford see my book Divergent Paths: Family Histories of Irish Emigrants in Britain, 1820-1920, (Manchester University Press, 2015), pp 82-94.
 Stafford and Stoke Record Office, D659/1/4/52, Stafford Poor Law Union Indoor relief List, 1882/3.
 The Stafford Workhouse registers are held in the Stafford Record Office under ref. D659/1/4/1-13; the basic admission and discharge data can be found on the Staffordshire Names Indexes website at https://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/default.aspx?Index=E