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A workhouse incident – Cerne Abbas

Cerne Abbas had its own workhouse, but irregularities there in the 1840s attracted the attention of the authorities. John Newth tells the story.

The former workhouse as it is today, overlooked by the Cerne Abbas Giant

Even before the welfare state, there was an acknowledgement that something had to be done to deal with those who had fallen to the bottom rung of society because of infirmity, poverty or circumstance. Nowadays we might add ‘through no fault of their own’, but the attitude of the 18th and 19th – and even the early 20th – centuries was less forgiving. If you had to rely on support from the parish, the assumption was that you were responsible for your plight, that you had forfeited the right to any sort of privilege or even humane treatment, and that you should be made to work at the most menial and degrading tasks to earn that support. The workhouse was therefore a grim shadow that hovered over the working classes in particular, and its dehumanising effect was exploited by Thomas Hardy in writing about the ordeal of Fanny Robin in Far from the Madding Crowd and, most famously, by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. One of the most powerful passages in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie describes the terror of an old couple as they are taken off to the workhouse because the authorities have decided they can no longer look after each other – and that was in the 1920s.
Cerne Abbas’s workhouse was originally near the centre of the village. In 1837, perhaps because the site could be put to more profitable use, or because the respectable villagers did not want to be reminded of the underside of life, a new workhouse was built on the northern edge of the village, on the road to Sherborne. It actually served twenty parishes, from Godmanstone in the south to Pulham in the north, and from Cattistock in the west to Cheselbourne in the east. It accommodated 130 inmates. After it had finished its life as a workhouse, the building became a youth hostel, a school for evacuees and flats before being extensively converted to fulfil its modern function as a nursing home, the Cerne Abbas Care Centre.

The workhouse became a youth hostel between 1932 and 1955

Why should anyone want to run a workhouse? The motives and calibre of those who chose to do so must surely be open to question, and Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney are much more vicious characters in Dickens’s original than they are in Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation. Cerne Abbas’s workhouse provides its own example in an episode that began with a letter dated 14 May 1846 from John Frampton Esq, ‘Clerk to the Guardians of the Cerne Union – Cerne Abbas’ to the Poor Law Commission Office at Somerset House. In it, he asked that an Assistant Poor Law Commissioner should come to Cerne to enquire into an alleged assault by the master of the workhouse, Robert Wilson, upon its porter, Moses Bedloe.

In late Victorian times, even outside the workhouse, life in the village was simple, with water supplies still drawn from wells outside. Picture: Cerne Abbas Historical Society.

John T Graves was duly despatched to Cerne and on 17 June heard Moses Bedloe’s testimony: ‘I remember Friday May 8th. About 10 o’clock in the morning the mistress sent me out for a pint of beer. I went down as far as Mr. Bragge’s in Acreman Street, in Cerne Abbas; I did not bring the beer back; I gave it to the turnpike man, whose name was Vallis; he told me I was to give it to him; he told me master was at the door. I did not bring it into the house, because master was at the door. I came up to the door; master asked me where I had been; I told him I had been out: did not say where. He asked me where I had been; I told him I had been for a walk. I went in, into my room. He begun searching my pockets; I told him I had nothing there; he then begun beating me; he give me a black eye with a besom, and I think he had a white-washing brush afterwards. He tripped me up with his foot, and throwed me down; he struck me three or four times with the besom; he struck me on the elbow, and broke the tail off of my coat, and broke my hat. I do not know as I said anything to him, except saying that I had nothing in my pockets; I keep a porter’s book (book produced). I could not put on my coat, not well, for two or three days afterwards, from the beating I had got.’
Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s version of events was rather different: ‘When Bedloe came in I thought he had something in his pockets, and I did search him; because I had known him to bring in things that he did not ought to. I did not see him give the beer to Vallis. I was in my office writing when I saw him coming in at the front gate. I met him at the front door; asked him where he had been; he said he had been for a walk. I then searched him, and he abused me very much; called me a rogue and a rascal; said it was a pity that such a man should ever come into a house like this. I took up a broom and told him to go and sweep the yard, after he called me those names. He would not take the broom, and then I gave him a pair of scissors to cut some grass, to trim the walk. He told me he would not do it. I then took the scissors out of his hand, and in doing so the point came into contact with his coat and tore it a little. There was some scuffling before this. It was when I searched him; he was rather rusty, and struggled. It was then I tripped him up. I do not deny giving him a black eye with the broom. I struck him with nothing else; I struck him two or three times.’
Possibly aware that his testimony did not show him in a very good light, Robert Wilson the following day sent to the Poor Law commissioners a ‘humble petition’. He reminded them that ‘he filled the said office of master for nearly seven years, during which time not a single complaint has been made against your petitioner’ and that ‘your petitioner has each successive year, received the thanks of the Board for the manner in which he has discharged the duties of his office.’
He pointed out that he had a wife and two children depending upon him for support, his wife holding ‘the office of matron of the said workhouse’, and that no complaint had ever been made by a pauper against either of them for ill treatment. He then entered full Uriah Heep mode: ‘Your petitioner regrets having struck the said porter in a moment of irritation provoked by his conduct, and by the opprobrious epithets applied by him to your petitioner. Your petitioner is fully convinced he has acted indiscreetly in so having struck the said porter, and is sorry for having so done. Your petitioner therefore humbly prays that you will be pleased to retain him in his said office; and that your petitioner will henceforward be more circumspect in his conduct, and avoid offence to every person in the discharge of his duties of his office.’
Almost three weeks went by, then John Frampton wrote again to the Commission on 6 July, this time with something of a bombshell: ‘I am directed … to report that the master absconded from the workhouse on Saturday night last, about 12 o’clock, and has not since been heard of. He is charged with an improper intimacy with the nurse, Mary Ann Hix, a pauper, and with assaulting another pauper, and the matron his wife.’ He attached statements from inmates. One said that she had seen Mary Ann Hix and Robert Wilson together, ‘she in front and he behind her’. Another reported: ‘The master came into the house through the boy’s yard; I heard mistress accuse him with being in the garden with M.A. Hix, when master replied it was a d—d lie; he became very violent, and ordered all to leave the kitchen: I told him it was true, upon which he upset his wife first and afterwards pushed, struck, and upset me.’

The former workhouse as it is today. The former isolation wing is at the left of the image.

Ironically, the Commission had already decided that in the matter of the assault upon the porter, Wilson was at fault and that he would have to be dismissed. This latest information only confirmed their verdict: ‘We, the Poor Law Commissions, hereby declare that we deem Robert Wilson unfit for the office of master of the workhouse of the Cerne Union, in the County of Dorset; and … we do hereby remove him from the said office, and order and direct the said Robert Wilson to cease to exercise and perform the powers and duties of the said office.’
So ended the squalid little episode, one which reflected the rawness of life in the sinkholes of Victorian society.

  • The Dorset Online Parish Clerk website (www.opcdorset.org) holds many documents of great historical interest, painstakingly transcribed by volunteers. The documents relating to the case were transcribed by Michael Russell, and the author acknowledges his debt to him and to the website.

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