Pictures at a Workhouse (after Mussorgsky…and Emerson, Lake and Palmer!)

‘Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Workhouse’, Hubert von Herkomer (1878)

On the 7th of January this year, The Sun newspaper ran the startling headline:

Lags to Riches: prison chiefs blasted for blowing £12 million of taxpayers’ money on TVs for lags

It reported that the authorities had been criticised for buying 128,000 flat screen TVs for prisoners. Predictably, The Sun had no trouble finding members of the public who were outraged by this generosity. One commented that, ‘It’s just another slap in the face for victims who think those behind bars should be punished and not handed out treats’, and others called it ‘an utter waste of money’. Yet a hundred and fifty years ago a very similar row erupted in the papers over the purchase of pictures which were bought to make the workhouse in Huddersfield a less cheerless places for inmates. Clearly, there’s nothing new under The Sun!

The topic back then was raised in The Huddersfield Chronicle (4 April 1863) by an anonymous correspondent who accused the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, Mr Clayton, of profligacy and wasting ratepayers money for buying pictures. ‘Judge [the Board’s] amazement’, he wrote, ‘when the bill was presented. Instead of a few shillings, thirty-one pounds ten shillings were the figures! £31.10s!’ He asked, ‘how many doors has an Overseer to call [on] before he can collect that sum? How many months will it take one of the weavers of Sheepbridge, the cloth-dresser of Paddock, or the delver of Cowcliffe, to earn that sum?’ He calculated that each picture had cost on average nine shillings, and (echoing The Sun’s outrage) wondered why the money could not be better spent for the benefit of the deserving poor who struggled to pay their rates.

In response, Mr Clayton stated that the pictures had been purchased on the advice of the Commissioners of Lunacy, and he thought that it ‘reflected more honour on [the Board] than almost any other act which they had accomplished’ (Huddersfield Chronicle, 18 April 1863). Unfortunately, when the accounts of the Union were examined later in the year, the auditor clearly disagreed. He issued a surcharge for the value of the pictures, deciding that the ‘cost [was] both excessive and an illegal use of ratepayers money’ (MH 12/15080/38537). Furthermore, far from being restricted to the imbecile wards, as recommended by the Commissioners for Lunacy, a grand total of seventy pictures had apparently been spread across both the old and the new workhouses. The full list was provided in correspondence between the Board of Guardians and the Poor Law Board, including details of where they were hung (MH 12/38527 and MH 12/15081).

Distribution of Pictures at the Huddersfield Union Workhouses (MH12/15081, 4 February 1864)

Perhaps surprisingly, the surcharge was subsequently overturned by the Poor Law Board which stated that the pictures could be counted as furniture and as such the Guardians had the authority to buy them (even though it did tend to agree with the Auditor that pictures were not really proper furniture for a workhouse – MH 12/15081, 1 Feb 1864). Even more surprisingly, given what we think we know about workhouse life, the use of pictures to cheer up dismal interiors appears not to have been uncommon. A report in the Daily News, in December 1871, described the walls of St Pancras workhouse as ‘thickly hung with pictures’, while those of the day room at Basingstoke apparently had ‘a liberal supply of pictures [to] relieve…their monotony’, according to the Hants and Berks Gazette.

Tantalisingly, the list from Huddersfield only gives the titles of the pictures, which makes it difficult to confirm exactly which ones were purchased; but we can at least get a feeling for the tastes of the guardians. There were a number of landscapes, including ‘The Rush Gatherers on Loch Corrib’ (possibly by James John Hill), ‘Early Summer’, ‘Town and Castle’, ‘Bay of Naples’ and ‘The Rifle Corps at Hyde Park’ (possibly by C.J. Culliford).

‘Grand Review of the Volunteer Rifle Corps by her Majesty the Queen’, C.J. Culliford (1860)
‘Rush Gatherers on Lough Corrib’, James John Hill (ca.1860)

There were several battle scenes, some from the Crimean War and three different views of the battle of the Alamo. A few (though perhaps not as many as might have been expected) had religious themes, including, ‘Christ on the Cross’, ‘Christ Stilling the Tempest’ and the ‘Baptism of Christ’. Several titles imply a taste for Victorian romanticism – ‘French boys Birdsnesting’, for example, ‘Child-like ‘Innocence’ and ‘Does She Love Me’ – while it is to be hoped that the ‘The Old Shepherd’s Last Mourner’ did not make its way onto the walls of the Old Mens’ Day Room!

‘Birds Nesting’, Francis Hayman, R.A. (ca.1741-1742)
‘The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner’, Sir Edwin Landseer (1837)

Again, there were surprisingly few portraits among the pictures: two of Napoleon, but only one of Queen Victoria, a picture entitled ‘Regal and Imperial Cortege in Paris’ which had been published in the Illustrated London News (25 August 1855) to commemorate a visit to Paris in that year.

‘Regal and Imperial Cortege in Paris’, Illustrated London News (1855)

In fact, it’s quite possible that several of the pictures on the Huddersfield list came from the Illustrated London News, which produced regular ‘Coloured Supplements’. Readers were encouraged to frame these inserts and hang them on their walls, and it seems likely that they became a common feature in workhouses as well. An article in the Globe & Traveller of 30 November 1895 indicates this custom was well-established by the end of the century. It noted that they were prized possessions in workmen’s houses, and urged readers to send unwanted colour plates to their local workhouses for inmates to frame and hang them on the walls.

As Dr Andy Gritt from Nottingham Trent University noted recently, images of workhouse interiors are difficult to find, especially in colour, so it is hard to know what they actually looked like. Judging by the number of pleas from newspaper correspondents for the public to donate pictures, it seems likely that they were regularly used from at least the middle of the nineteenth century to relieve otherwise drab walls. Huddersfield may not have been typical in spending quite so much on them, but contrary to expectations it seems that such pictures were not generally of a particularly improving or educational nature, either: instead, they were there primarily to add colour and little brightness to workhouse inmates’ lives. One suspects that, had it been around back then, The Sun would not have approved!

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