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Also by Terry Spencer

The following studies by Terry Spencer are now available on the Knottingley website:

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century the August Bank Holiday period at Knottingley abounded in fun and frolic with the Feast as the hub of the festivities. The fair was supplemented by community sports and of the sporting element within the town none was more prominent than Knottingley Town Cricket Club.

Situated on the southern bank of the River Aire, to the north side of Aire Street, lies Knottingley Flatts. Today, the Flatts occupy only a small portion of the original layout which comprised the greater part of Knottingley Ings.

The modern image of the fair is one of outdoor entertainment for pleasure seeking people but such a concept is one which has developed over the last two centuries being born as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Prior to the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 local people relied for health care in the event of sickness or serious injury upon charitable institutions such as Pontefract Dispensary and Leeds Infirmary.

The application by Knottingley Urban District Council for a grant of arms was made to the College of Arms, London, in mid 1942.

That there was a glassworks at Ferrybridge is indisputable for it was both documented and photographed. That it was situated on the north bank of the River Aire "..where the Parish of Brotherton merges into the Parish of Ferrybridge" is confirmed by map reference. The doubt lies not in the existence or location of the furnace but with its origin.

The township of Knottingley, situated three miles north-east of Pontefract in the Wapentake of Osgoldcross, developed from a 6th century Saxon settlement in a forest clearing on the south bank of the river Aire. By the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066 the settlement had acquired the status of a manorial vill

As the process of industrialisation and urban development gained pace in the second half of the nineteenth century the provision of public spaces such as municipal gardens and parks for the purpose of public recreation and amenity became increasingly desirable.

Percy Bentley, scion of a prominent Knottingley family, was born in that town on the 18th January 1891, the son of James William and Helena Bentley, and was baptised in the parish church of St. Botolph on the 11th February.

On Wednesday, 25th September 1918, a committee previously sanctioned by Knottingley Urban District Council in meeting assembled, met in the Council Chamber at Knottingley Town Hall to consider the form of memorial to the men who had fallen during the Great War.

No less than the citizens of its larger neighbour, the inhabitants of the village of Ferrybridge decided to honour those drawn from the community and slain in the Great War.

For approximately a decade from the mid 1940's the 'K' Sisters, Marjorie and Pamela Kellett, were prominent throughout the town and district of Knottingley as all-round entertainers who harnessed their talent to providing public enjoyment and in so doing raised large amounts of money for local charities.

The new cinema, one of the earliest purpose-built picture houses in the country, was situated on an oblique strip of land some 560 square yards in extent, adjacent to Ship Lane at the junction with lower Aire Street. The hall was designed to seat 600 people: 500 in the area and 100 in the balcony.

In 1752, eighteen residents of the township of Knottingley in company with John Mitchell, the Parish Constable, agreed to be bound over in the sum of £10 each to observe the legal and moral obligations attendant upon being granted a licence as an innkeeper.

In the Spring of 1994, the recently deceased and much lamented Edwin Beckett arranged for the installation of a clock at the top of the Town Hall turret. The event was celebrated in verse by Mrs Joyce Bell who concluded her eulogy by stating that her mother, Dolly Lightowler, had always wished to see a clock set in the "bare face" of the Town Hall - a wish which had now come true.

Awareness of a link between my native Knottingley and the Prince's statue came quite recently when Mrs Shirley Bedford of Knottingley informed me that her great grandfather was the master of a barge which had transported the statue from Hull to Leeds in 1903.

It was in the course of a recent conversation with Roger Ellis that the subject of nicknames arose, following which, in an idle half-hour, I casually began to compile a list of those I recalled. My list quickly exceeded fifty in number and I was seized by a natural desire to list as many more as I could obtain.

The origin of Knottingley Band is obscure. In 1980 the Band celebrated its conjectured centenary year, the date being taken from an old letterhead of 1880.  However, a subsequent documentary source has been located which indicates that the genesis of the Band may lie much further in the past.

The burgeoning spirit of civic pride found practical expression on 29th October 1864, when a group of prominent citizens of the town formed the Knottingley Town Hall & Mechanics’ Institute Company Limited.

The purpose of this study is to consider the topography of modern day Knottingley and formulate a theoretical model concerning the development of the settlement during the medieval and post medieval eras as reflected in the field systems adopted.

An A-Z listing of Knottingley field and place names.

One of the most impressive and graceful houses ever built at Knottingley was Lime Grove. The large attached house was the residence of the Carter family and was built to the orders of Mark Carter at Mill Close, Hill Top, about 1808.

Conflict is fuelled by finance so it is unsurprising that following the outbreak of war in 1939, local savings committees were established to encourage people to curb personal expenditure and invest surplus cash in the National War Savings Scheme in order to assist the cost of the war.

The township of Knottingley became a semi-autonomous parish in 1789 following the ecclesiastical reorganisation of that period but remaining under the patronage of the Vicar of Pontefract until it became an independent parish in 1846

Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History




Preliminary Draft May 2005



The Elizabethan Poor Law legislation was administered by the churchwardens as the appointed overseers of the parish. Materials purchased from the Poor Rate levy were stored and worked upon by able-bodied paupers within the confines of the church vestry or some more convenient adjacent building, whilst the sick and aged, too feeble or infirm to undertake manual labour, were housed in alms houses.

By the eighteenth century the sphere of activity of the parish officers had widened to encompass virtually all aspects of local affairs so that the more wealthy and important members of the local community formed an oligarchy known as the Vestry in recognition of its administrative origin, had become a standing executive committee dealing with the management of the entire township.

The effect of this administrative expansion is evident from the fact that work undertaken by able-bodied men seeking parish relief was either done within the Town’s Quarry, hewing and breaking limestone for use on agricultural land and construction of local buildings and roads, or repairing the latter, using stones gathered from the outlying fields of the township.

What provision was made for the aged and infirm during this transitional period is uncertain but it is not improbable that accommodation was provided on the site of the former manor house of the Wildbore family which stood adjacent to St. Botolph’s Church. Prior to the demolition of the manor house in 1843, to facilitate access to the limestone beneath, (1) it is known that the building was sub divided and that one part formed the town prison. It seems likely, therefore, that the parish workhouse may also have been located within the confines of the former manor house. By the late eighteenth century, however, a decision had been taken to establish a new poor house at Knottingley. The site for this development was at the junction of Weeland Road and Headlands Lane, occupied by three cottages donated sometime before by Mr. Daniel Poole as a residence for three poor widows. (2) Forest states that the poor house was built upon the site of Poole’s cottages, indicating clearance of the original buildings rather than their extension or incorporation into the new complex, but does not furnish a reason for the decision to build a new workhouse nor give a date at which the development took place. From the evidence concerning the expansion of the township during the eighteenth century it seems reasonable to suppose that the existent poor house was too small, prompting relocation. The construction of the workhouse at Hill Top must have taken place early in the nineteenth century for by the time of the Census of June 1841 twenty inmates were housed there; thirteen men and four women, all aged between 40 – 85, together with three children aged 15, 10 and 5 years. In addition, the building provided a residence for the Workhouse Master and his family and a committee room used by the Select Vestry. (3)

The site for the new workhouse was fortuitous and, indeed, may have been dictated to some extent by its proximity to the debtors prison situated only ten or a dozen yards lower down on the opposite side of the Hill Top road. A further consideration was the fact that the site of the new workhouse abutted the limestone workings belonging to the township and were thereby ideally located for the provision of labour for the able-bodied paupers. (4)

The Vestry Clerk was also the Workhouse Master and assisted with the collection of the parish rates and was designated as the Assistant Overseer and referred to as the Perpetual Overseer since unlike the annually elected Overseers of the Poor, his was a permanent position. (5)

The first recorded Clerk and Workhouse Master was James Allison who was succeeded in January 1825 by Thomas Shillito. The terms of Shillito’s appointment state his responsibility for providing provisions and coals for the workhouse at 3 shillings per head or at 2s 9d per head should the number of inmates exceed 20, for which responsibility "he have the benefit of their labour".

A valuation was taken of pots and culinary utensils which stock and valuation Shillito was expected to return upon relinquishment of his post. It was further agreed that Shillito could, at his convenience, nominate a third party as Workhouse Master with the proviso that the engagement of such an appointee end immediately should Shillito cease to be the Assistant Overseer. Termination of the position was subject to one months notice by either party. (6)

Shillito commenced duty on the 8th January 1825, but administrative change appears to have taken place within a few months of Shillito’s appointment for a Towns Meeting was convened on the 25th April 1825 at which James Miller of Ferrybridge was unanimously approved as Assistant Overseer at a salary of £70 per annum. (7) The numerous entries in the Minute Book reveal that Miller undertook the role of Vestry Clerk and Workhouse Master (8) but the fate of Shillito is unclear. In August 1833 a John Shillito gave notice to quit the Workhouse and the office of [Rate] Collector and shortly afterwards proceedings were taken against him for the recovery of money belonging to the Township and unaccounted for. (9) Whether John Shillito is Thomas under another name is uncertain and even more confusing is that advertisements for John Shillito’s replacement carried the same title and salary applicable to Thomas Shillito’s appointment but currently held by James Miller. (10)

John Shillito’s replacement was succeeded by William Dickinson who resigned the office of Assistant Overseer in January 1835 and was replaced by Peter Sharrock. (11) Sharrock served as Perpetual Overseer until 1838. In April of that year it was noted that the accounts kept by Sharrock were in a confusing state with paupers recorded as in receipt of relief payments long after the periods sanctioned by the Select Vestry, by 4-5 months in some cases. Whether the problem arose from embezzlement or merely neglect was unclear but on 1st May 1838 a special Vestry unanimously agreed to dismiss Sharrock for his "..inattention and irregularities."

Sharrock’s salary ceased with immediate effect and he was given notice to remove his goods from the Workhouse by 1st June. (12) On Tuesday 15th May, Sharrock met the Select Vestry and a compromise agreement was reached regarding repayment of the money but one year further on the Select Vestry was experiencing difficulty in obtaining repayment. (13)

In addition to the management of the Workhouse and the duties of Vestry Clerk the perpetual Overseer was "..required to attend the collection of the Poor Rates, to occasionally assist the Surveyor in collecting the Highway Rates and write an assessment for the Poor and Highway and Church Rates [and] to pay weekly into the hands of the Overseers all money collected." (14)

The applicants for the post were henceforth required to provide two bondsmen offering a surety of £150 to the township. The salary was £60 per annum plus £10 per annum for the duties of Clerk and Workhouse Master. (15) There was no shortage of candidates, however, and on the 10th May 1838, Isaac Smith, having obtained the highest number of votes of the 14 attendant Vestrymen under the chairmanship of William Moorhouse, was appointed to the post. The appointment was a judicious one for Smith was to serve as Assistant Overseer for 21 years thereafter. (16)

Prior to his appointment Smith was a local schoolmaster and in 1821 was recorded as residing at Pottery Hill. (17) Following his appointment, Smith, his wife Jane, and their teenage daughter, named for her mother, resided within the workhouse, Smith’s wife being Workhouse Mistress. (18)

In his capacity as Workhouse Master, Smith was responsible for the regulation and financial administration of the Workhouse in accordance with the dictates and budget decreed by the Select Vestry committee. The method adopted by the Vestry was to put out to tender the supply of food, fuel, clothing and miscellaneous services on a per capita basis, stipulating the maintenance of minimum standards on a budget of 3 shillings per inmate.

All indications are that Smith was overworked and poorly paid. Longmate has revealed the ludicrousness of the general situation at that time in which a prison governor with adequate staff, received about £600 per annum while a workhouse master with 600 inmates, assisted only by his wife received only £80. (19) The same source has also shown that combining the posts of workhouse master and parish clerk whilst an example of financial expediency, was a mistake in terms of administrative efficiency for not only did each post demand different qualities and abilities but that each job carried a sufficient workload to justify designation as a full time post, thus promoting inefficiency and mismanagement. (20) Upon subsequent consideration the committee revealed that the "Unanimous opinion of the Vestry that Mr Smith have a new rate." (21)

A note in the Chairman’s handwriting, inserted within the Minute Book records, "That the salary paid to Isaac Smith, Assistant Master, from March 21st 1851 to March 21st 1852, be seventy pounds with house, rent coals, rates – and further, that for the above salary he shall write out and collect the poors (sic) rates, Highway rates and Church rates."

The victory was a Pyrrhic one for not only was Smith’s increase obtained at the cost of a substantial increase in workload but conditional in that "… the salary allowed to Mrs Smith of ten pounds per year shall cease from 21st March 1851." (22)

Smith’s rise in salary was therefore deflated by the loss of his wife’s income, her post being taken by Miss Mary Fox who was employed as workhouse mistress for almost a decade and a half until the closure of the workhouse in 1865. (23)

Undaunted by indifferent fortune, Smith next sought to subsidise his salary by actually tendering for the annual contract to victual the workhouse. In 1854 the award of the supply contract was confirmed by a vestry resolution dated 7th December which stated that, "… Isaac Smith be allowed 3s 6d per pauper per week for each pauper in the House and 3s per week for the washing in the House of the year commencing 9th November 1854 and Mr Isaac Smith has agreed to the same." (24)

Whatever benefit Smith derived from the transaction must have been obtained at the expense of the inmates. Smith’s own financial position was subjected to the whim of the Select Vestry committee who as the wealthiest citizens of the township and therefore the principal contributors to the Poor Rate, naturally sought to trim the cost of Poor law administration.

Smith is the epitome of the overworked but underpaid factotum dignified with the tile of Assistant Overseer and a job description which fits neatly into the general pattern of duties and responsibilities outlined by Geoffrey Oxley in his seminal study of the English Poor Law. (25) Smith’s duites covered the following areas:-

Collection of rates
Distribution of relief
Keeping of accounts and receipts
Obtaining court orders re defaulters
Checking relief entitlement
Attendance at appeal hearings by magistrates
Collection of settlement certificates
Arranging pauper removals
Preparing cases for litigation

All in addition to administering the affairs of the workhouse.

With regard to the collection of the Poor Rate, Smith was assisted by an assistant collector who was paid the sum of £15 per year. When in 1852, the post was upgraded to Collector of rates at twice the salary, Smith’s remuneration was reduced pro rata. Thus from £70 per annum it was proposed that Smith "… shall have a salary of £50 per year…live in the Workhouse and provide his own and his wife’s victuals." (26)

Clearly, Smith’s situation was variable if not entirely insecure and even the above reduction did not mark the limit of his misfortune for at a meeting on the 24th June 1852, a proposition was made by Edward Hawke and supported by Samuel Smallpage, two wealthy limeburners, "That Isaac Smith’s salary as Assistant Overseer for the year beginning may 25th 1852 to May 25th 1853 be forty pounds – agreeably (sic) to the motion proposed on May 13th 1852."

The proposal was backed unanimously by the seven committeemen present. (27) So heavy were Smith’s duties, however, that by the following November, at the apparent instigation of the Vestry Chairman, John Carter, it was decided to pay Smith £30 in token of services rendered from June 1852 (28) However, in March 1858, Smith in his capacity as Assistant Overseer, was required, "… to do all the work of an Overseer except for collecting the rates", but was still being paid only £40 per annum. (29)

Overwork, added to growing age inevitably took its toll on Smith and in March 1859, after 21 years service to the Select Vestry, he submitted his resignation which was accepted and marked with an expression of thanks. (30) Intermittent entries in Smith’s handwriting in the Select Vestry minutes during the final year of his stewardship may be an indication of a breakdown in health. (31) At the annual public meeting to pass the Overseers accounts on the 21st April 1859 it was proposed, ".. that the thanks of this meeting be given to Mr Isaac Smith, the Assistant Overseer, for the correct manner in which he has kept the accounts." (32)

Clearly, the formal and publicly expressed votes of thanks was regarded as sufficient in itself and was doubly satisfying to the members of the Select Vestry and assembled ratepayers as it cost them nothing.

Meanwhile, consideration was being given to the appointment of Smith’s successor. A Vestry meeting on the 17th March had concluded that it would be preferable to appoint someone, " take charge on the entire management of the House. Collect all parocial (sic) taxes and do in every way in accordance with the Committee." (33)

With this catch-all proviso the Select Vestry broke new ground by advertising publicly in the local papers as well as having handbills printed and circulated in accordance with previous practice, that a meeting was to be held for the purpose of electing an Assistant Overseer. (34)

The job specification stated that each applicant would have to produce a bond of £200 as security, have the management of the workhouse and reside therein, collect all the parish rates, be clerk to the Select Vestry and attend to all other duties connected with the office of Overseer. (35)

At the Town’s Meeting, held in the Wesleyan schoolroom on the 25th March 1859, Edwin Senior Atkinson was elected to the post, subject to the acceptance of his bondsmen, Silvester Atkinson and John Fenton, by the Select Vestry. (36) On the 24th April 1859, Atkinson formally commenced his public work which was to continue for 37 years, concluding 1896. (37)

Atkinson’s salary was far more generous than that received by his predecessor. A Vestry resolution of a few years later, framed at the time when the Pontefract Poor Law Union had recently been established and the transfer of paupers from the workhouse at Knottingley to the newly constructed one at Pontefract was imminent, reveals the salaries paid to the Knottingley workhouse master and mistress.

"The salary of £80 per annum be paid to Mr. E.S. Atkinson as Assistant Overseer from March 25th 1862 to March 25th 1863 and to have the House to reside in until the Township shall dispose of the same. The Matron to have her salary continued at the rate of £10 per annum until the Inmates be removed and her duties cease in reference thereto." (38)

With the transfer of the inmates to Pontefract in 1866 a major element of Atkinson’s responsibilities was removed. In 1872 a recommendation was approved at the annual Town Meeting that Atkinson be appointed as a Surveyor of Highways with a good working deputy (39) and in 1880 it was proposed at the annual meeting of the ratepayers’ that his salary be increased from £80 to £100 per annum. An amendment by William Worfolk nullifying the proposal failed to find a seconder and the proposition was carried. (40)

Ten years on and like Smith before him, Atkinson was in failing health due to a combination of age and overwork. Again, the Minute Book entries in a different hand reveal absence, presumably due to illness. The early years of the 1890s were particularly strenuous as negotiations in respect of the adoption of a Local Government Board and the establishment of an Urban District Council which closely followed on, made exceptional demands on the Vestry Clerk. At the annual Town Meeting on the 5th March 1896, William Bagley formally announced the death of E.S. Atkinson and paid tribute to the loss the township had sustained by his passing and a letter of condolence was proposed to be sent to Atkinson’s wife and family. (41)

For those workhouse inmates capable of undertaking labour, work was prescribed, being regarded as desirable on moral and physical grounds, not to mention any economic return arising to offset the economic outlay.

For the more robust element of the male residents, work was centred on the roads or in the Town Quarry. Less active inmates were set to perform tasks within the workhouse, washing, cooking, cleaning and even child minding were routine jobs carried out by females while the men sawed and chopped wood or picked oakum. The latter task involved the picking apart of old ropes to produce fibre used for caulking ships. Indeed, the picking of oakum seems to have formed the principle indoor occupation at Knottingley, being eminently suitable for a maritime community where remnants of rope were plentiful and the building of vessels widespread. The work was tedious and painful, fingers becoming sore and bloody as the skin was cracked and worn. To ensure that the work ethic was thoroughly instilled the Select Vestry appointed Thomas Brook, " be overlooker in the paupers workhouse when the inmates are tearing oakum." (42)

Brook, from motives of pity or from wilful neglect, appears to have provided a degree of amelioration by absenting himself from proceedings for in January 1841, the Select Vestry decreed that, "Thomas Brook be required to stay with the oakum teazers during their working hours." (43)

It appears that Brook was an inmate of the Workhouse for in October 1844 the Vestry agreed that he, " allowed his expences (sic) to go to Hull to see after his Trinity [House] money." (44)

The mission was seemingly successful for a few weeks later it was decided that Brook should pay 10 shilling per quarter from his pension. (45) The impression gained is that Brook was a former seaman, perhaps possessing an authoritarian manner, who had fallen upon hard times and was chosen by the workhouse master, with Vestry approval, to supervise the activities of his fellow inmates.

An interesting insight into such activity is revealed by a Select Vestry resolution of August 1842 that, "John Brevitt & Wife have 3s 6d per week and that the Overseers Guarantee 4 stones of old rope to tease into ocum (sic)." (46)

The precise nature of the edict supports evidence from other sources that in order to procure a certain amount of relief it was necessary to produce a specified amount of work. However, experience resulted in many parishes abandoning all attempts at profitable employment and concentrated solely on obtaining an element of productive work in return for relief. (47)

Theoretically the Select Vestry sought to minimise the cost of poor relief. One way to do this was to contract out all supplies and services concerning the workhouse. Apart from medical care, the haircutting and shaving of the inmates was subject to half yearly or annual contracts. The earliest reference to the system is in 1830 when it is recorded that William Wass and Robert Lavarack (sic) had both made application to shave the male paupers in the Workhouse at 1d per head. In August 1838, "Nathan Wass shave the men in the Workhouse next Year." (48)

In August 1843 John Lowe was recorded as undertaking the work (49) while in August 1845 it was agreed "Barber Pease have the shaving for the next half year."(50)

The following year the contract was given to Nathan Wass and to Barber Lowe again for six months from the first of September 1846. (51)

The renumeration for the work is revealed by a resolution of 23rd March 1848 which states that, "The Barbers have two pounds ten shillings per annum for shaving and haircutting the paupers in the workhouse." (52)

There is an indication that the payment may not have been sufficiently inducive to attract applicants for the work, however, for in October 1853 it was resolved that "Bradford of Ferrybridge be applied to to shave the men in the workhouse." (53)

The words "at 30s per half year" are appended in pencil, presumably at a later date, suggesting that the Select Vestry had found it necessary to increase the salary in order to obtain Bradford’s services (54) although the fact that the contract was awarded to George Hirst for the following half year at a salary of 26 shillings indicates the existence of an alternative source about that time. (55)

A further area of contract work was the provision of pauper coffins. The exclusive supply of coffins by a contracted agent appears to have commenced in 1855 when the Select Vestry was specially convened for the purpose of entering into an agreement concerning such provision. (56) Previously, the supply of pauper coffins or financial assistance for their procurement had been conducted in a less formal and piecemeal manner. (57) However, at the meeting on the 20th December 1855 the Vestry sought to regularise the supply and decreed that, "…in future the price of paupers coffins is 13s and for children 7s." (58)

The Vestry action appears to have met with little or no response from local craftsmen for in March 1856 the Vestry resolved, "That the Overseer see the joiners in the Town and request them to give an estimate of what they will make a coffin for a year at once." (sic) (59)

Following the survey it was decreed in May of that year, "That George Barton have the coffin making for the next or coming year for paupers." (60)

Again, in January 1858, "That John Dixon have the making of the coffins for the Township at the close of the year [for] the year following." (61)

That the work was placed out to tender on an annual basis is confirmed by an entry in the Minute Book dated 19th May 1859, stating that, "Joiners be requested to send in a tender for Coffins & Co. for the ensuing year by next Vestry day", (62) and at the following meeting it was decided, "James Braim have the Coffin making for 1 year commencing on the 1st day of June Instant." (63)

It will be seen that the Select Vestry sought to apportion the work amongst the local joiners (in the same way that medical care was rotated amongst the local doctors) but considerations of cost were always paramount as is evident from the resolution of 21st March 1861. "Thomas Braim [to] make the Coffins for the ensuing year if he agrees to do so at the same price as Mr. Barton." (64)

The provision of foodstuffs by local traders was another way in which local Poor law administration benefited the local economy. The provisioning of the workhouse was done at the discretion of the Assistant Overseer in accordance with the specified per capita budget. In 1829 the allowance was 3s 6d per inmate and the same amount applied five years later when a special Vestry was convened to consider adjustment of the amount to allow inmates to have "3 meat days per week as a preservation against Cholera." (65)

Rather than rising, the allowance decreased over the years and as mentioned, had reduced to 3s per inmate at the time of Isaac Smith’s appointment in mid 1838. In late 1841 we find the Select Vestry convened to examine and approve the bills submitted by local traders for settlement. (66) By mid century, however, it was decided "That every article of consumption used in the workhouse is let by estimate." (67)

Just what prompted the change in the system is not easy to define. While there is no indication of impropriety by any of the Knottingley Overseers, it is a matter of record that elsewhere such officials were open to corruption or intimidation and it was in the hope of preventing misconduct that the payment of a token fee at the conclusion of the year of office was introduced by the nineteenth century, the post being unremunerative in earlier days. (68)

There would appear to have been some delay in implementing the resolution for although in November 1854 it was decided that "Everything brought into the House be contracted for", (69) in mid 1858 the Clerk was ordered to write to the Clerk of the Wakefield Guardians to request a draft specimen contract for food, shoes, clothing and fuel etc. (7) The extent to which this action represents an initiative on the part of the Knottingley authoritites or was the result of the New Poor Law system with its harsh economic realities is uncertain. Whatever the motivation and however complete the contract system it is quite evident that tendering was confined to the immediate vicinity for in 1857 it was stipulated "That the Poor House be provided [for] by the grocers of Knottingley." (71)

Again, whether the decision was taken solely in terms of benefit to the local community or on the assumption that personal knowledge of the tradesmen within the township would ensure better value for money, is open to speculation. Perhaps the Vestry members were impelled by the experience of the previous year when, for whatever reason, it was necessary to agree "Mr Smith will pay 7s extra charge for milk." (72)

In general terms little is known concerning workhouse food but given the financial constraints we may assume that the diet was drab, the staples being bread, cheese, gruel, potatoes and occasionally, meat. Nor was the quality of the food beyond questionable standard for in March 1846 the Vestry, perhaps prompted by news of the Andover workhouse scandal, resolved that "the flesh meet (sic) for the Workhouse be improved in quality." (73)

Even then, the cost restricted quality, hence the decision in September 1852 that, "The Bread Meal for the House shall be seconds and [used] for puddings." (74)

Yet whatever the shortcomings, there are lingering indications of a humane attitude to dietary provision which marks a contrast between the Old Poor Law system and the harsher uniformity imposed by the Act of 1834. Thus in 1841 it is recorded "Sarah Dyson have a bit of savoury meat and cheese." (75) An obvious sop to an old woman who at 85 was the oldest inmate of the workhouse at that time. (76) A few years later it was sanctioned that the blind inmate "William Darnford have 1lb of meat extra." (77)

The usually inaccurately rendered poem, ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ by George R. Simms, dates from 1877 and is therefore a critical comment on the Union Workhouse system inaugurated after the reform of the Poor Law in 1834. Prior to the establishment of the Poor Law Unions, Christmas Day had been marked by a treat for the inmates of many small parish workhouses of which Knottingley was no exception. An item from November 1854 by John Carter, Chairman of the Select Vestry, records "That the keeping of the Paupers in the Workhouse as to food and fuel be 3s 6d per week for the forthcoming year." (78)

Given such a degree of financial stringency one may assume that any Christmas treats for the inmates would be sparse unless supplemented by voluntary donations from sympathetic townspeople. Regardless of source, Yuletide treats there were. In December 1852, for instance, the Select Vestry resolved that "The people of the House have some beef and plum pudding on Christmas Day." (79)

Again, five years later, it is recorded that "The inmates of the Workhouse at Christmas Day have an extra dinner." (80)

The following year the vestry stipulated that the inmates of the workhouse be provided with "a good comfortable dinner" (81) while a resolution of 1859 ruled "That the inmates have a Roast Beef and Plum Pudding with a pint of Ale each on Christmas Day." (82)

Similarly, the following year it was decreed that "The old men and women of the workhouse have roast beef and plum pudding with a pint of Ale each and tobacco." (83)

The items listed formed the seasonal fare for in 1861 it was merely stated that "The inmates of the House have their usual treat on Xmas Day." (84) a sentiment echoed almost word for word the following year. Thereafter there is no specific mention of Christmas provision but presumable the customary observation continued until the transfer of the inmates to the newly opened Pontefract Union workhouse in 1865.

Extra rations were not, however, confined to Christmas Day. In some workhouses additional treats were provided on New Years day or Holy Thursday (Good Friday eve). (85) At Knottingley the time of the annual Feast in early August was commemorated for in 1849 we find "The people in the workhouse to have 16lbs Beef extra for the Feast", (86) and in 1851, again at Feast-time, "That the house have a double quantity of meat next week." (87)

The Minute Books afford a few glimpses concerning the material upkeep of the workhouse. Shortage of funds appears to have dictated that maintenance work was of a sporadic and piecemeal nature. In June 1842 for example, the workhouse window frames were painted but there is no mention of associated features such as doors, gutters and fall pipes etc. (88) Again, in May 1858, it was resolved that the building be painted. Robert Wilson was asked to examine the building and provide two estimates: one for undertaking the work using his own materials, the other stating a daily price with the materials being supplied by the Select Vestry. Indications are that the latter mode was adopted for the record shows that Wilson was employed at a cost of 3s 6d per day. (89) Another aspect of cost cutting is evident from February 1860 when John Earnshaw was employed to underdraw the kitchen ceiling, the materials being supplied by the Vestry at the township’s expense. (90) In July the same year the exterior of the workhouse was ‘slapdashed’ and in Autumn the windows were repaired and a cover fitted over an open sewer. (91) Despite the apparent concentration of effort it is clear than maintenance was irregular and infrequent for examination revealed that many of the windows were too dilapidated to repair and had to be replaced. The cost of the remedial activity is unrecorded but the situation was closely monitored by the Vestry committee, which, following the conclusion of the work, requested the House Book be produced for its inspection. (92)

A further structural change, doubtless prompted by considerations of health, saw the removal of the indoor privies, outside toilets being built in the workhouse garden in June 1855. (93)

Improvisation was a necessary feature. When a dresser was required in June 1859, it was built by the Rate Collector, James Brown, rather than being purchased from one of the local joiners. (94) However, despite the advent of postal, telegraph and railway services during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the township remained a close-knit community for several decades thereafter and when specialist work was required it was invariably obtained from within the local community when possible. Thus the decision to light the workhouse by gas in December 1856, resulted in the engagement of Mark Stillings, a local plumber and glazier, to fit the apparatus. (95) Again, the decree of 1857, quoted earlier that the food for the workhouse be provided by the grocers of Knottingley, is a further example of the desire to retain within the town an element of the money contributed to the Select Vestry as rates. (96)

As shown above, a careful and frequent check was made of expenditure in both the context of actual cost and the nature and circumstances which dictated financial provision. Thus in December 1858, we find a resolution, "That Mr Smith provide by the next Vestry an account of the number of men, Women & Children in the Workhouse and also an account of the number of rooms and beds and how many sleep in each bed."

And again, some months later, "That there be a statement laid on the table containing the average amount of Smiths work, Wheelwright work & Co., per year…" (97)

When changed circumstances disrupted the financial status quo, as in the case of an extra charge for milk supplied to the workhouse in 1856, it was necessary to obtain the sanction of the Select Vestry before payment was made.

Nowhere is the practice of fiscal economy more evident than in the case of pauper burials. When, in 1846, a native of the town, residing as a pauper in a neighbouring parish, died, the Select Vestry was sent a bill for 10 shillings to cover the cost of burial. The Vestry sought legal advice as to whether the district coroner had the power to compel payment and then determined "That the 10s demanded for the funeral of John Hartley be not paid." (98)

Early in 1862 the Poor Law Board issued a special order directing Knottingley and neighbouring settlements to be incorporated into a Poor Law Union designated as the Pontefract Union. The Select Vestry unanimously agreed to comply with the order and carry out its provisions and directions. The reorganisation was a delayed consequence of the legislation of 1834 which had sought to establish a uniform system of control featuring the abolition of outdoor relief and its replacement by accommodation in "well regulated workhouses". As it was envisaged that such institutions would need to be large in order to cope with the various classes of pauper, it was deemed advisable to allow parishes to join together to establish Poor Law Unions of sufficient size. Whilst welcomed by the governing classes who stood to gain most financially from the envisaged reduction of administrative costs, there was considerable opposition in some quarters. Political radicals not only championed the moral right of the poor relief but were also worried about the implications of a large bureaucratic centralised body such as the proposed Poor Law Commission. As a result, the power of the Commission was curbed, one check being that the newly instituted Poor Law Unions could not be compelled to build workhouses, a fact which explains the delay of almost three decades between the act and its implementation at Pontefract.

The delay in the local implementation of the Act of 1834 resulted in the maintenance of the old Poor Law system at Knottingley until 1862. Nevertheless, the New Poor Law cast its shadow over the ongoing system. A relief payment of September 1834 was pro tem "…until the orders of the Poor Law Commissioners are received." And in April 1838 the Select Vestry sought to take advantage of the new system on economic grounds deciding that the "Inmates of Knottingley Workhouse be removed to workhouses in the district", instructing the Overseers to make enquiries concerning the terms upon which the paupers would be accepted. (99) The transfer (presumably to one of the new Poor Law Union workhouses) was unsuccessful but the incident reveals the influence of the New Poor Law legislation on the situation locally.

The Pontefract Union was formally established on the 15th February 1862. The candidates for election as Poor Law Guardians to represent Knottingley on the Local Boards were John Carter, William Jackson and John Howard. On the 20th March 1862 the last resolutions of the Select Vestry concerning parish administration of the Old Poor Law system were passed although paupers were retained within the workhouse at Knottingley pending the construction of the new Union workhouse at Pontefract and the eventual transfer of local paupers there. (100)

Following the construction of the new workhouse at Headlands, Northgate, Pontefract, preparation for the transfer of Knottingley’s inmates commenced. At a Select Vestry meeting on the 30th March 1865, a decision was taken, "That as soon as the inmates of the workhouse are removed to Pontefract, that application be made to the Poor Law Board to dispose of the furniture and effects in the Workhouse belonging to the Township, reserving the office furniture & Co." (101)

As the effects were public property a Town Meeting was called to obtain the approval of the inhabitants for the proposed sale. The imminent transfer of the workhouse inmates prompted the Select Vestry to use the opportunity conferred by those attendant at the Town Meeting to seek additional approval for the eventual sale of the property. As the Committee room of the workhouse had hitherto provided the venue for the Select Vestry meetings and served as an office for the transaction of the business of the township, would no longer be required, it became necessary to obtain public approval for the acquisition of replacement premises from which the Select Vestry could administer the remaining aspects of the governance of the town. The desired approval was obtained at a public meeting held in the National Schoolroom on the 22nd September 1865. (102)

By February 1866 the inmates had been re-housed at Pontefract and steps for the disposal of Knottingley Workhouse approved. As late as the middle of 1867 however, the sale of the property was still the subject of consideration (103) The delay appears to have arisen from the failure of the Poor Law Board to confirm approval for the sale. (104) A further meeting of the town’s ratepayers was held in the Town Hall on the 20th January 1868, which confirmed the decision to sell agreed two and a half years earlier. At a meeting of the Select Vestry on the 5th March 1868, the sale of the workhouse and its adjoining premises was finally fixed for the 28th of that month. (105) The sale was eventually registered in a deed date 1st August 1868 which reveals the purchaser as William Jackson, proprietor of the Kings Mills, Knottingley, and a prominent member of the Select Vestry, for the sum of £315. (106)

Some months after the sale the Select Vestry decided to ascertain Jackson’s intentions concerning the future use of the property with a view to the town obtaining the use of the same as a storehouse for public lamps and accessories. (107) In 1871 when Forrest published his "History of Knottingley", the property was still apparently disused. (108) However, some time thereafter the property was restored to its original use as a group of individually occupied dwellings in which form they remained throughout the early years of the writer, being demolished in the early 1960s to make way for the present arcade of shops at Hill Top.

On the 11th February 1869, the Select Vestry took a decision that "…the crossing across the highway leading to the old committee room at the old workhouse be at once pulled up." (109)

The precise appearance and utility of the crossing is not known. No indication of such a structure features on the earliest O.S. map of Knottingley which dates from the mid nineteenth century and although the juxtaposition of the workhouse and Jail yard at the opposite side of the road admits of the utility of such a causeway but it is difficult to see how such a structure could exist without being a hindrance to the traffic using the Weeland Road at Hill Top.

The final reference to the Workhouse occurred thirteen years after the sale of the property when it was proposed that the money obtained from the sale should be used to fund the building of a Board School in the town. The Board of Guardians were less than happy with the suggestion, however, but following a Town Meeting which supported the proposed use of the money, reluctantly bowed to public opinion. (110)

©2005 Dr. Terry Spencer



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