My grandmother, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Jones, née John, worked in the Graig Workhouse from 1927 until she took stewardship of the Officers’ Club in Cardiff in 1943. She died aged 60 in 1951, when I was three. I can just about recall her lying in bed during her last illness.
Born in Court Street, Tonypandy, Kitty married a collier. Like many other women, she became a ‘battered wife’. When her husband fractured her skull, she returned ‘home’ from hospital, retrieved her children (aged nine and six: the latter my father), and caught a train out of Tonypandy. It infuriated her great-uncle, a chapel minister. He told her he would not look at her again until she lay in her coffin, as “no wife had the right to leave her husband.”
A workhouse carer
After working as a housekeeper for people “who didn’t object to children”, Kitty moved to Pontypridd. She assumed the role of a widow to apply for an advertised position as a ‘carer’ in the Union Workhouse in Graig. Married women weren’t allowed to work then.
She rented rooms until she saved enough for a mortgage on a house in Graig Avenue. Working six 12-hour shifts a week, she took in lodgers to help care for her children. My father was close to her and, after hearing from him of the problems my grandmother encountered and overcame, I so admire her strength and resolve.
It says something of Kitty and the times that she was able to move less than six miles from Tonypandy and build an entirely new life, albeit as a ‘widow’. When my father was old enough he’d walk her to work, especially when she worked the night shift. On those walks she told him about life in the workhouse.
As a child in the 1950s, I went to Red Cross classes in a wooden building in the yard there. I enjoyed speaking to the staff if they could spare the time, because some remembered my grandmother. When I received a commission to write Hearts of Gold, I spoke to everyone I could find who’d worked there during the Depression. Most were sympathetic towards the inmates. They knew that if they lost their jobs through illness, they and their families would end up there too.
Built as Pontypridd Union Workhouse, the building later became known as Central Homes, then Graig Hospital for the Chronic Sick. It was demolished in the 1960s. The site became home to Dewi Sant Hospital. But even now, posters there state it’s ‘a hospital, not a workhouse’. Old fears die hard.
I recall the original stone buildings as vast, imposing and terrifying, with magnificent staircases and tiled walls. There were separate wards and yards for ‘male paupers’ and ‘female paupers’, and a children’s block was for babies under two. The inspection block was for ‘casuals’: itinerants needing a bed for the night were deloused before entry. Their payment for lodgings was made by chopping wood. (My father said Kitty always used the back door and outhouse after inspection duty, to ensure she wasn’t carrying unwanted guests).
An infirmary catered to cases of ‘black lung disease’, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and TB. Sufferers faced a slow death in the 1930s and 1940s. Wives often went without food to scrape together the half-crown needed to buy the medicine prescribed. There were two kinds, green and red; neither worked. But some ‘free’ remedies dispensed by workhouse staff did. The leg ulcers of colliers were treated with oatmeal and honey poultices, kinder than mercury. There was also a ‘miracle’ cough mixture of vinegar butter and brown sugar.
The Pontypridd Observer of the 1920s and 1930s chronicled heartrending accounts of unemployed miners dying of disease or pit injuries. The entire family was taken to the workhouse the day their breadwinner died because they could no longer pay rent.
Children were separated from parents and distributed among institutions according to age. Children aged six weeks to two years old went to J ward in the workhouse. Aged three to ten, to Maesycoed Homes. Aged ten to sixteen, the cottage homes near Church Village. If married couples entered together they were separated, though at least could look at one another across the dining hall at meal times (meals were eaten in silence). And they were fed and clothed, albeit sometimes inadequately.
The parent lottery
All of the incidents described in my Hearts of Gold series are based on accounts related to me by family members or workhouse staff, and checked in newspaper reports. Conditions varied enormously from workhouse to workhouse in Wales at the time. While some were better than others, many stories have been exaggerated to Dickensian levels.
I found no verified accounts of anyone being beaten or starved. However, I discovered an account of a ‘recalcitrant pauper girl’. She became violent when her ‘illegitimate’ child was taken from her arms at six weeks old. She was tried in Pontypridd Magistrates Court, sentenced to a term of hard labour for attacking staff.
Harsh by any standards, but the ‘parish guardians’ were responsible for the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children born in workhouses. Adoptions were terrifyingly simple: the putative parents would simply visit J ward and choose a child. But I do have friends who won the parent lottery while in the workhouse.
Out-of-work seamen would walk from Cardiff to Pontypridd to enter the Graig workhouse rather than the institution in the capital, which says something for the way the Graig one was run. Yes, conditions in 1920s and 1930s workhouses were hard, far from ideal, as indeed they were for most working class families outside the walls. But who knows how we would have coped in the poverty-stricken conditions our forebears were forced to endure.
People tend to forget that those who entered the workhouse were destitute because there was no welfare state. There were only parish guardians, who allocated what little money the town could spare to the poor. And to the running of workhouses during the Depression, when the pits were closed and most miners ‘on the dole’.
God bless us, every one
For the optimistic, there was always Christmas to look forward to. The Pontypridd Observer of the 1930s carried stories of town councillors serving workhouse inmates Christmas dinners of chicken, beef, vegetables, and Christmas pudding. Every male inmate was said to receive half an ounce of tobacco, and female inmates an orange and nuts. Donations of cakes and other baked goods were delivered to the workhouse by the baker Hopkin Morgan, and chocolates by the town’s shopkeepers.
The White Palace and County cinemas would open their doors on Christmas Day, offering free showings for the town’s children. The Salvation Army cooked and served free Friday night fish-and-chip suppers for poor children living on the Graig. My father carried the family radio down to the workhouse every Christmas Day, for his mother to set up in the ‘unmarried’ ward so its inmates could listen to music and comedy shows. (That’s where women disowned by their families were forced to live until their babies were born).
In the early 1960s my then-boyfriend loaned me to a friend whose girlfriend refused to go to his Christmas ‘works do’, as they’d quarrelled. I had a great evening, but became aware of an older man staring at me. My Sir Galahad of the evening insisted on “having a word”.
I reached the man first, and discovered he was a former workhouse porter who’d known my grandmother. He’d been wondering who I reminded him of.
The ghost of workhouses past
The man told me that my grandmother had had quite a temper. She was made furious by having to take water in which potatoes and other root vegetables had been boiled, and serve it to workhouse inmates as ‘soup’. She dared to complain to the Workhouse Master. Most of the staff expected her to be fired. Instead, some vegetables and even meat were left in the ‘soup’ from then on. But she still received a reprimand.
From talking to the former workhouse staff members who recalled my grandmother, it became obvious it was never an ‘us and them’ situation with the inmates. It was more a case of ‘poor dab, that could be me a few years from now’. And Pontypridd has always been a compassionate town, even when most people there had literally nothing to give.
When I see homeless addicts sleeping rough, receiving little help to combat their addictions, with only overstretched voluntary agencies to fall back on, I wonder which age was the most compassionate. Now, or the Depression?
But most of all I wonder why, after all this time, we haven’t found a better safety net for those who fall through the cracks of society. In fact, we’re letting the nets we had, which replaced the workhouses, have huge holes torn in them.