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1914: Tried for non completion of Workhouse tasks

Oakum picking in a workhouse in 1906

The Workhouse often housed tramps and the sick, especially in the winter. They were be given a bed and food in exchange for tedious tasks in the hope that this would drive them into more settled work. The conditions the endured are well described in this court account of a trap who refused to complete the task he was given. In this case with a favourable and considerate outcome.

Samuel Perkins, of no fixed abode, pleaded 'guilty to not finishing' his task at the Cuckfield casual ward that morning.

John Brazier said prisoner was admitted at 6.15pm on Thursday. Witness told him he would have l cwt of stones to pound. Prisoner said he could not do them. Witness told him he would have 4lbs of oakum to pick, and would have to stay till he had finished. Prisoner did not ask to see a doctor. He left 12ozs unfinished.

Prisoner said he had a bundle of oakum given him on Friday morning he did not know whether there were 6lbs or 4lbs He really did his very best, and had only two sticks of oakum left. The cell was a very small one, and it was dark about 4.30pm in it.

Mr Brazier said there was a window in the cell. Mr Plummer (to prisoner): Why did not you finish the task this morning?

Prisoner: I suffer from heart disease and tuberculosis, and I have been in an Infirmary for five months. I was very nearly stifled yesterday in the cell, and I wanted to get out of it.

Mr Brazier said prisoner told the Master that if he did not lock him up quickly he should do some damage.

Prisoner said they were not all professional tramps who went into these casual wards. If he had been going round the country from Union to Union he might have done the oakum in four hours, but he was not that type of man. He served the late Queen for 28 years in the Army. He had been in the 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment, and finished up in the Special Reserve. As to the oakum, all he could say was that he was not used to it, and he did his best with it.

PS Pilbeam produced prisoner's Army papers from a wallet.

The Chairman: We think the officer of the Workhouse is quite right in bringing you here, and in future you must always do the work you are ordered to do in return for being fed and having sleeping accommodation found for you. We will dismiss the present case.

Oakum - old rope

Prisoner: Thank you, Sir. I tried my best, Sir. Mr Plummer asked the Clerk a question relative to these cases. Seeing the frequency of such cases dealt with by the Bench, which was a matter of notoriety in the country, did he, as Clerk to the Guardians, know whether they got more casuals at Cuckfield Workhouse than at other Workhouses, or was it due to any treatment they received in the casual wards? Only rarely did they see cases of this kind at other Benches in the country.

The Clerk (Mr EJ Waugh), whose reply was almost inaudible to the Press, was understood to say that discipline had been slack in the past, and they now had a Labour Master who was prepared to properly carry out his duties, which accounted for the number of cases brought before the Bench. At the last Guardians' meeting it was reported that the number of casuals had gone down to 44 in the fortnight, compared with 106 for the corresponding period of last year.

The Chairman said another point was that Cuckfield was on the main road from London to Brighton.

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 17 February 1914

Notes: The preparation of oakum – a fibrous material used in shipbuilding, picked out strand-by-strand from old rope – was a common form of labour in the Victorian workhouse, as well as in Britain’s prisons.

Photo from the National Archive PRO 30/69/1663 (38) taken in 1906:

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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