Christmas in the Leicester Union Workhouse

Many of the best-loved elements of a modern-day family Christmas stem from the Victorian era when traditions like Christmas trees, exchanging cards and gifts and the customary turkey dinner first became popular.

Photo of Leicester Union Workhouse and staff held by The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

For those who could afford it, a Victorian Christmas was a time of great cheer, but it proved an altogether different experience for families at the opposite end of the spectrum. In Leicester, as elsewhere, this distinction was most marked in the case of those impoverished adults and children who had no choice but to spend their Christmas in the Leicester Union Workhouse.

By the first half of the 19th century, the system of providing poor relief for those unable to work because of age, infirmity or temporary unemployment had reached breaking point in cities like Leicester. Legislation regarding poor relief dates back to 1601, when each parish was legally responsible for caring for its own poor. This initially took the form of "outdoor relief", meaning that recipients of poor relief usually could stay in their homes. In time, though, the inevitable discussions on how to make the system more cost-effective began to emerge, and some parishes began to build workhouses to house the poor. 

In 1834, new legislation was passed which effectively meant the end of outdoor relief, meaning that those in need of help were now compelled to enter a workhouse. With larger workhouses now required to cope with the increasing demand, local parishes were encouraged to unite and form a union to share building costs. 

Eight local parishes in Leicester formed a union to build a large new workhouse on Sparkenhoe Street in the city. Upon completion in 1838, the Leicester Union Workhouse could hold up to 650 "inmates" – as the unfortunate occupants of workhouses were called – making it one of the largest in the country. 

Conditions inside 19th-century workhouses were designed to be deliberately harsh to ensure that people only entered them as a last resort. Men and women were segregated, and children over the age of seven were separated from their parents. Those who were considered fit enough to work were given punishing tasks. The workhouse diet was also notoriously grim, often consisting of little more than bread, cheese and the infamous gruel: a thin, watery porridge. 

Even at Christmas, there seemed to be no respite from the unremitting misery of workhouse life. Under the terms of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, union workhouses were not permitted to use their funds to provide extra treats for their inmates during the festive period. Fortunately, in Leicester, as in many places across the country, the generosity of strangers meant that its workhouse inmates could usually enjoy a decent meal at Christmas.

In December 1848, the Leicester Journal reported that two local philanthropists had, "with a praiseworthy zeal", collected charitable donations from local residents to ensure that inmates of the Leicester Union Workhouse could enjoy a decent meal that Christmas. Not all approved of this philanthropic gesture, as it was still commonly believed that many of those who ended up in the Workhouse were little better than lazy ne'er-do-wells, deserving of their fate. It may be no coincidence that the Leicester Journal juxtaposed this report with one highlighting the plight at Christmas of "the honest, independent, suffering poor, who by their own exertions have kept themselves from that last resort of human wretchedness – the parish poor-house".

Leicester was in the midst of another social welfare crisis at the time, with high unemployment placing an increasing strain on its provision for the poor. The Leicester Union Workhouse was bursting at the seams, and soon after, plans were put in place for the building to be extended significantly. By 1856, it could accommodate up to 1,000 inmates, all living in close proximity. This made them particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, not helped by the standard workhouse diet, which provided little essential nutrients. 

In 1860, the Leicester Mercury reported that 751 inmates had been treated to their customary Christmas dinner of roast beef and potatoes, followed by plum pudding. Even this does not sound exceptionally nutritious, with a distinct lack of vegetables. However, oranges and nuts were distributed to the children as a treat. Male adults were treated to a pint of ale, with half a pint for the women.

Similar reports, entitled "Christmas in the Workhouse", appeared in the Leicester newspapers most years. By the 1870s, the festivities were becoming a little more elaborate. Efforts were made to decorate the workhouse dining hall, and, in addition to the customary Christmas dinner, an additional special treat was usually planned for one evening over the festive period. Everyone enjoyed a "bun and slice of cake for tea", following which the workhouse children took part in a special concert attended by the inmates and several local dignitaries. 

Attitudes to the Workhouse were slowly beginning to change by this date. Victorian authors, like Charles Dickens, did much to draw public attention to the plight of the poor and the failings of the workhouse system through stories like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Fellow writer George Robert Sims also campaigned vigorously on these twin issues. Although it has since been much parodied, his melodramatic monologue, 'It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse', hit a nerve with the general public upon its first publication in 1877.

One typical "Christmas in the Workhouse" report from the Leicester Journal in the 1870s revealed that as the inmates tucked into their Christmas dinner, "many visitors thronged the hall and expressed themselves highly pleased with all they saw". Little wonder this behaviour began to attract criticism as patronising and demeaning to workhouse inmates. In 'It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse', Sims made a pointed reference to benefactors who "put pudding on pauper plates" arriving "in their furs and wrappers to watch the charges feast; to smile and be condescending". 

Eventually, this practice was stopped, and by the 1890s, the local Leicester newspapers were actively discouraging members of the public from visiting the Leicester Union Workhouse on Christmas Day. 

Reports on Christmas in the Leicester Workhouse continued until just after the First World War. However, they became considerably different in tone from those employed in the early Victorian era. The poor law system was only formally abolished after the Second World War when significant changes were made to the welfare state, at which point the buildings of the former Leicester Union Workhouse were converted for use as a hospital for the elderly. 

Following the hospital's closure during the 1970s, the premises were demolished, leaving behind little trace of what was once the most feared building in Leicester. 

Spare a thought this festive season for all its former inmates who were compelled to spend Christmas in the Leicester Union Workhouse through no fault of their own.

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