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Before It's Forgotten

Workhouse Days Remembered
(The following account of his early experience as Porter at Carmarthen Workhouse has been compiled from information provided by Mr. D. J. Evans, Carmarthen who later became Assistant Master. He was appointed by the old Board of Guardians and commenced duties in January 1929 at an annual salary of £52, plus £5 for hair cutting and shaving and emoluments which included living-quarters, and free coal and light).

In 1929 the staff at No. 1 Penlan, Carmarthen, or the Workhouse as it was still known, comprised the Master and Matron, the Porter, a female nurse, a cook and four or five maids. This might seem a small staff to be in charge of about a hundred inmates as well as a hundred or so wayfarers — tramps or vagrants, as they were called — who were admitted each week to the Casual Wards, which were housed in a separate block. But it should be remembered that duty hours were very long; furthermore, the Workhouse in those days was run by 'inmate labour', which meant that every able-bodied person had to contribute by performing various jobs, indoors and outdoors. There was always plenty of unskilled labour available, but there were skilled tailors, shoe-repairers, carpenters, masons, plasterers, bakers, boilermen and others among the inmates. Although far removed from that of Dickensian days, the regime was still strict and a far cry from conditions in today's Social Welfare Homes.

Cleanliness was the order of the day in respect of the person as well as the premises, bedding and clothing. In spite of primitive facilities the laundry work, done in a building behind the main block, was excellent. Sheets were pressed by using a huge box of stout timber, 7 feet long by 3 feet 6 inches wide and two feet deep, which was filled with stones. In the middle of the long side was a wheel with a handle and when this was turned it operated a cog system which moved the box to and fro upon rollers, which pressed the linen sheets. The stronger men were used for this job; often they were of child-like mind, but gentle and well behaved.

There was a good bakehouse in the small building south-west of the main building and backing onto Brewery Road; here all the required bread was produced by an inmate and his assistant, The bread-tins were very big, measuring 18 inches by 7 ¾ inches and 8 inches deep. The very large dining-room for the inmates had tables about 23 feet long and was in keeping with the general diet — plain and simple. For breakfast and evening meal, which were received without complaint by those poor souls, there was usually just one slice of bread, eight ounces in weight and over an inch thick, very thinly spread with margarine, a basin of tea and sometimes a small piece of cheese. On Sundays there might be a piece of cake. Soup was the main feature of dinner. For many years the bread was sliced in a small room adjoining the main kitchen by an elderly and much be-whiskered inmate, who developed amazing accuracy in producing pieces of the right weight and thickness with a large knife having a wooden handle each end of the blade and measuring more than two feet overall.

A common sight in Carmarthen during the 'thirties was the four-wheeled wagon or truck, about 4 feet square and 3 feet deep, which was drawn by a T-handle. Loaded with bags of chopped firewood, this vehicle was hauled and pushed by three or four inmates. In charge of this enterprise was an unforgettable character with a limp, who wielded absolute authority over his mates and although he was of simple mind he never erred in rendering accounts to the Master's office at the end of the day's trading. The firewood was produced in the Woodshed, which stood in the area now used as a staff car-park. The sawing and chopping was done by tramps rather than the regular inmates. Useful in the Woodshed was a man who originally came from Tasmania and had lost an arm after falling from the rigging at sea. When he was admitted as an inmate he begged to be allowed to work in the Woodshed and when his wish was at last reluctantly allowed his skill, despite his handicap, was such that his output was anything up to twice that of others. The last slender part of the block he steadied with his foot; this caused much alarm until it was realised how skilful he was. He never had an accident.

Inmates were used to help in the boiler-house, where steam was provided for various uses. If the regular man at this duty happened to be ill or otherwise not available almost invariably his place would be taken by trawlermen fishing out of Milford Haven, Swansea and Fleetwood; these trawlermen travelled from port to port between jobs or in search of work. Often employment was hard to come by and some were glad to be admitted for a few days. They all complained that the cause of their insecure employment was competition from cheap foreign labour.

Other cost-saving work done by inmates was gardening. For many years there were five large gardens, which produced enough for almost the whole year. Legislation after World War II was aimed at removing the image of the Workhouse and as a result the Carmarthen institution became known as No. 1 Penlan and no inmates, now called residents, were allowed to be employed. And so the gardens were disposed of and all the other services by inmates came to an end. The new attitude is understandable; on the other hand purposeful occupation, sympathetically supervised, often had a therapeutic effect.

There were bright occasions even in the old Workhouse. Around Christmas it was pleasant and there were colourful decorations hung about. With Christmas dinner extra fare was provided and there was even beer — the gift of a local brewery— for those who wanted it. Occasional visits were also arranged by local organisations to provide entertainment, sweets and tobacco. Every Saturday afternoon the inmates were allowed to go out into the town, but before leaving, all in their best, their names were recorded by the Master. They also wore their best clothes for religious service in the dining room on Sunday afternoons, when only a few were reluctant to attend. Church clergy and chapel ministers took it in turn to conduct the service and the Sanky and Moody hymns were sung with joyful enthusiasm.

Conditions began to improve in the mid-thirties, by which time the new regime under the County Council's Public Assistance Committee, which had replaced the old Board of Guardians, had settled down to its administrative task.

The main block, which housed the inmates, was known as The House. The 'knights of the road' were accommodated in another block known as the Casual Ward; otherwise it was called the Tramp Ward and to those who sought shelter there it was The Spike. This block was on the upper side of the main entrance and abutted Penlan road. The rule for casuals, or tramps as they were generally called, was two nights for one day's work, e.g. a tramp admitted on Monday night would work Tuesday and be discharged at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. But at week-ends those who were admitted on Friday night would work on Saturday and were allowed to remain until Monday morning; whereas those who arrived on Saturday night were kept in on Sunday, made to work on Monday and discharged on Tuesday morning. Most preferred to stay one night, thereby being free to leave next morning. Sometimes tramps would arrive on Sunday night, having been turned out of their last place on Sunday morning. Discharge on Sunday morning was against the rules of the West Wales Vagrancy Board, but it was practised in some places, the excuse being excessive pressure on accommodation. Usually the number of tramps and destitute but not habitual wayfarers accommodated each week was about a hundred; often, on Sunday night, there would be forty-five staying in the Casual Wards. When tramps failed to complete the journey between one workhouse and another in the same day they begged shelter in barns and lofts provided they undertook not to smoke. Conditions in the Casual Wards were bad and cleanliness was not up to the standard which prevailed in the House, but there was a gradual improvement and diet got better. The wards were cramped and there were inadequate facilities for the maintenance of cleanliness. There were two day-rooms, each measuring 10 feet by 8 feet; there was also a small open fire, which heated a copper cylinder to provide all the hot water there was. Some tramps used the open fire to cook food they had begged. An enamel bath was fixed in one of the day-rooms. Adjoining the day-rooms was a long passage, in which there were benches for use when the place was full. The passage also gave access to ten cells, which were locked at night when occupied. A wooden fold-away board about the size of a narrow door served as a bed; this could be folded to the wall during the day. Upstairs there were small dormitories containing eight or ten beds, narrow iron frames with wire mesh to hold fibre mattresses. The help which the Porter relied on came from one of the casuals, either voluntarily or after persuasion, who was universally known as the Tramp Major. One such, although harmless, roared and cursed terribly in an effort to terrorize the others into submission, but they took little notice of him. More than a third of the casuals were Irish, many of them ex-Servicemen, who had come to seek a better life without much success. Some of them did casual work around the farms. One such Irishman had difficulty in bargaining terms with a Welsh farmer who had little English. At last the farmer managed to say, 'I give two shillings, eat yourself'. To which the Irishman replied, 'Two shillings and I eat you'.

Conditions improved in time. Shower-baths were installed and a steam disinfector was connected to the boiler to treat clothing infested with fleas and lice. The clothing was put into a container, from which air was then drawn out before steam was injected. Anyone doing this kind of job usually daubed his own clothing with paraffin to ward off contamination. Each tramp had a bath on admission, after which he was given a night shirt of very coarse calico as well as a towel. All had to come naked for their shirts. They were also provided with slippers, but few used them on the stone-flagged floor, partly covered with coconut matting. Their clothes, which they were not allowed to take into the cells or wards, were stored away, but by some magical ingenuity some would still manage a surreptitious smoke although smoking was forbidden. The shirts were numbered to ensure that a tramp received the same garment each night of his stay. There was never any problem in accounting for night shirts when tramps were discharged, because each was required to hand in a garment with the appropriate number before he could depart. Towels were not so strictly controlled and occasionally one would be missing — usually the dishonest tramp kept his own and purloined another's to hand in. But steps were taken to stop this abuse. On discharge each tramp was given a 'bread and cheese' ticket. In those days there were casual wards in the Institutions at Llanelli, Llandeilo, Lampeter and Narberth and on each route there was an appointed shop where the ticket could be exchanged for bread and cheese. Sometimes old hands who were addicted smokers were able to persuade a sympathetic shopkeeper to supply tobacco instead.

It was common to see tramps searching the pavements and gutters for discarded cigarette ends; the tobacco was recovered from these 'stumps' and stored in a box until there was enough to roll cigarettes with papers bought or begged. Some had an ingenious cigarette-lighter, which was made by burning a piece of linen and placing the ash carefully in an old tobacco tin; a pencil would be split and the lead scraped to a powder over the ash. When the box was opened to the air a razor blade would be used on a flint to cause a spark to fall into the box and produce a glow sufficient to light a cigarette. Such a device would serve for six months or more.

Many tramps were ex-Servicemen and one who was always concerned about them was Col. Lloyd of Castell Pigyn, who lost a leg in the First World War*. He used to visit the Casual Wards and do whatever he could to help in the rehabilitation of those unfortunates who had lost their self-respect. Another visitor was the Rev. Hugh Rees, the Bishop's messenger, whose unorthodox manner made him acceptable to many who would otherwise have turned away. These visits were also welcomed by the staff, whose social life was very restricted. For many years the Porter's off-duty time was one half-day every Wednesday and after the religious service on Sunday afternoon, but only once a fortnight. This was because only two men were employed — the Master and the Porter — and it was desirable that a man should be on duty to deal with unruly behaviour which sometimes, but usually unpredictably, arose. Mostly, trouble resulted from drunkenness, more often than not because of addiction to methylated spirits.

The rule in all Casual Wards was that no casual or tramp was to be admitted to the same place within a month of discharge, but sometimes the order was difficult to enforce, especially on cold or wet nights or in the case of a person with sore feet; in any case, the law was that nobody should be forced to sleep out because of destitution. Even so, old hands who tried to get away with it too often had to be dealt with firmly. Sometimes tramps would not arrive until nine o'clock at night, whereas no food or dressing for sore feet cases were provided after 8 p.m.; in such cases it was a matter of personal judgment as to how far the rules should be stretched. As already stated, tramps and casuals were required to work for the food and shelter they received. One of the tasks was stone-breaking and for this purpose there were six cells, each with a stout wooden door and a barred peep-hole. Each cell was about 5 feet long and 3 feet 6 inches wide and had a small skylight. These cells were lined against the boundary wall adjoining Penlan road and set in this wall at a lectern angle at the end of each cell was an iron grille 2 feet 6 inches high by 2 feet 3 inches long. The grille comprised holes 1? inches in diameter, through which stone, broken with a hammer, was screened. Because of constant hammering, the centre of the grille had worn into a larger hole about three inches in diameter, so that a lot of the screened stone was larger than the prescribed size. The broken stone fell through the grille and was conveyed along a chute (one for each cell) onto the roadside, where it was collected by a council lorry for road-work. The cells were always locked while they were occupied and this ensured that stone could be disposed of only through the grille; without this precaution, wily characters were apt to dump their unbroken stone in another cell or elsewhere while not observed. One of these grilles has been deposited at the County Museum, Abergwili, but the cells were demolished when the brick wall and railings were erected below the present caretaker's quarters.

The Porter's Lodge was on the lower side of the main entrance and consisted of two rooms, with a huge bedroom upstairs. The living-room, which had the staircase in one corner, had 12 feet head-room. There was no indoor toilet or bathroom, not even a cold water tap. The adjoining room, the parlour, had unplastered brick walls which were whitewashed, and a vaulted ceiling of brick, also whitewashed. The thick door to this room was reinforced with sheet metal, ⅛" thick, on both sides; the space between the saddle roof and the vaulting was filled with a conglomerate of large stones and some kind of clay. It seems that the reason for this security was that the room, in the last century, was the register office for births, marriages and deaths, and this is where civil marriages were solemnised. Next to this room was the mortuary, which had three cold, grey slabs. Inmates who died at Penlan were buried in paupers' graves at Carmarthen cemetery, where an area of land was set aside for this purpose.
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