There were some fascinating goings on at the local workhouse in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. It’s a place that’s always fascinated me as I was actually born there on a Christmas time at the end of 1960. By then, it had become a hospital serving much of the community. In those days, they kept women in confinement for a couple of weeks, and so my mother has fond memories of the nurses dressed in those old-fashioned starch uniforms and navy capes, coming onto the maternity wing as they held lanterns to sing Christmas carols to the new and expectant mums.
Only a hundred years previously, things were very different at the St. Tydfil’s Union Workhouse. Those who were lucky enough to be able to manage without being interned there might have struggled outside of it to make ends meet, but they often feared that dark foreboding place with its high walls and strict regime, so much so they’d rather go without then go within.
A Christmas dinner back then, according to newspaper reports I’ve scoured, was that it was the best meal of the year when the inmates were treated to a roast beef dinner with plum pudding! The rest of the year though, their meals were very meagre, often consisting of a thin watery gruel for breakfast, bread and cheese or a thin soup with very little, poor quality meat the rest of the time.
Inmates were expected to attend daily prayers at the workhouse chapel and the walls of the workhouse were adorned with biblical quotes. They were forced into hard labour as after all it was thought that Idle hands made the devil’s work! And as a consequence, women often worked in the laundry, scrubbed floors, worked in the kitchen, etc, while the men bone-crushed, oakum picked or smashed rocks. It was back-breaking work on very poor food rations.
The worst thing for most families who were forced to live at the workhouse, often through no fault of their own, was that they were split up once inside and rarely saw one another afterwards.
The coincidence of being of my being born in the old workhouse itself didn’t end there, as years later I worked there as a young student nurse and I’ve also attended meetings at the place when I worked for two charitable organisations. Maybe somehow the stories from the inmates came to me as their vibrations still existed somewhere within the confines of the old building. Sadly, the building has now been demolished and I hope, with the help of my story, people will appreciate what people in my home town and other towns up and down the country had endure once they set foot through the door.