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The Northern General Hospital, Sheffield
Photograph courtesy of Local Studies Library Sheffield

Fir Vale Workhouse, Sheffield

The need for another workhouse in Sheffield had been mooted around for many years when finally the Board of Guardians decided to purchase a piece land measuring 44 acres at Fir Vale at a cost of 16.800 The architect was James Hall and tenders were put out for the building of the workhouse and the furniture. The total cost of the venture was expected to be around 180,000. On Sept 16th 1878, Alderman Richard Searle laid the foundation stone with great ceremony. He was a Currier by trade and also Chairman of the Board of Guardians. Being situated in the country, the workhouse was considered to be well away from the sounds and smells of the town as well as being out of sight of it. It was to comprise of 6 departments. The main building was to provide accommodation for the paupers, the asylums to house 200 men and women separately and situated away from the main building. The school was for 200 children. The main hospital block was to accommodate 366 patients: this was to be built on the pavilion plan. The fever hospitals were to be separated from the other buildings by a road and a boundary wall. The vagrants' wards were to be situated by the main entrance and a quarter of a mile away from the other buildings. The new workhouse was said to be one of the largest institutions in the country. Sadly the vagrants' cells were knocked down in 1993 to make way for yet another car park.

A celebratory dinner was held after the laying of the stone at the Black Swan in Snig Hill, Sheffield (known locally as the Mucky Duck). The workhouse was finished in 1880 and immediately put to use. By the time the census enumerator called in April 1881 the workhouse had 484 residents including 21 staff & relatives. The formal opening of the workhouse took place 22nd September 1881 in bad weather.

From its opening and certainly until the NHS came into force in 1948 the Masters and their families lived in. The downstairs rooms were used for administration purposes (just as they are today) and the rooms on the upper floors were used to house the Master, Matron, their family and other staff. Only a door separated the Master's private life from his working life. The Matron had no cooking, cleaning or laundry to do as selected inmates acting as their 'servants' did all this. In the 1940s, one of the old ladies would enter the Master's private quarters at teatime to 'put the Master's slippers to warm, ma'am.'

People requiring either indoor or outdoor relief would have to first apply to the receiving officer. The able bodied poor who received a ticket for indoor relief would be sent to the receiving ward where they would spend their first night. After being inspected by a Medical Officer they would then take a bath and put on the drab, coarse workhouse uniform while their own belongings were bundled up and kept in store for their discharge.

The workhouse was more or less self-sufficient. The women would be employed to help in the laundry and the kitchens. They would also assist with the nursing of the sick and the making of uniforms for the inmates. The older more infirm women would look after the younger children in the nursery. The men folk would be employed in the grounds helping to provide a further supply of food grown to supply the needs of the inmates. In later years Longley Hall Farm and the Goddard Hall estate were bought as a means of providing a plentiful supply of cheap food. The men would also undertake general labouring jobs and the cutting of wood. The vagrants in return for their keep would have to chop a certain amount of firewood before they went on their way. Even as late as the 1960's as many as between 60 90 vagrants were still being given a bed for the night.

In 1888, after much thought the Guardians boarded out 40 children into foster homes seeing it as a much better alternative than the children being brought up to mix with the other workhouse inmates. It was also decided to build on the previous Goddard Hall Estate the Headquarters, receiving home, three cottage homes and a children's hospital forming what became known as the Smilter Lane Children's Homes. The site had its own entrance and was self-contained. The cottages were called Rose, Ivy and Hawthorn though in later years Hawthorn was divided up and called Fern and Daisy. There was also The Beeches, another cottage that housed children from the workhouse around 1901. This was situated on the Barnsley Road side of the hospital. In a later map this is shown with the word 'Dispensary' alongside it. A few years ago some digging work was going on in the vicinity of where the Beeches had stood. A large amount of broken pottery was unearthed but only 2 small broken pieces were found to have the words and crest of the Sheffield Union Workhouse. All the children including those in foster homes outside the workhouse would attend the local schools and Sunday schools according to their denomination and were intended to be part of the community rather than separate to it. They were on the whole better cared for than many of their contemporaries: well clothed, fed and seen by both the doctor and the dentist on a regular basis. Each child would have duties to undertake within the home such as shoe cleaning, making beds or perhaps polishing floors. They would also be put to a trade such as shoemaking, tailoring, joinery and in the case of girls sent to a domestic training school.

Over the years the name of the workhouse has changed:

1906 Sheffield Union Hospital and Fir Vale Institution

1930 City General Hospital and Fir Vale Infirmary

1967 Northern General Hospital
(See Northern General Hospital History Project)

Many people researching their family history have come across death certificates giving 2 Herries Rd as the place of death; in later years this would often mean the hospital side of the Workhouse or the Fir Vale Infirmary.  If there is another address also on the certificate then it would mean the person was a patient rather than an inmate.

Until the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was repealed in 1953, Local Authorities were allowed to certify as insane any unmarried pregnant and therefore 'immoral' women. Often these women had their babies taken away from them for adoption though not until they had been weaned.  Unless their families were willing to take care of these women they remained 'in care' and became institutionalised.

Martha and her sister Elisa could recall being in the workhouse since 1890 but couldn't remember how old they had been when their mother took them in there as she had died shortly after this. Both Martha and Elisa had worked in the house cleaning and also in the laundry. Martha had lived in Fir Vale for most of her life but Elisa was sent into service when she was 12 years old and eventually married a man she met whilst in service. She never had any children and would never talk about this time in her life. She was very quiet and reserved, speaking only when spoken to. Neither woman could read or write. They would talk a little about their lives in the workhouse and how hard the work had been but would always say, 'We were fed, had a clean bed and a roof over our heads so we were lucky really.' After Elisa had become a widow the two sisters lived happily together in a ground floor flat with only the very basic of furniture. A table and two chairs, a double bed, lino covered floors and only a small mat in front of the fire. The only electricity they used were the electric lights with just one small bulb in each room. They said they had always been used to candles when they were younger so this didn't bother them.

Meals were cooked in an oven that was in the kitchen but that was heated by the fire in the living room - a back-to-back stove with a hob. A few years later the 'powers that be' took the oven out and put in a gas cooker. The sisters were frightened of it and needed to be taught how to use it.  In the kitchen was a cupboard containing their few pots and pans. There was a small pantry with a clotheshorse, a tub and posher, a rubbing board and three flat irons that they still continued to use. Their flat was very clean but lacked any sort of comfort and although the sisters kept themselves clean and tidy they had very few clothes. Neither of them had ever heard a radio or seen the television. They asked for nothing and said they had everything they needed. I suppose you could say they were content with their lot in life.

Because their stomachs had become so accustomed to the workhouse diet they were unable to eat normal foods. Bread had to be two days old, as they couldn't eat it fresh or it would give them stomach-ache. Dinner would be boiled mutton, cooked the previous day and with the fat skimmed off. Vegetables were added to it and then the dumplings would be made with self- raising flour and the skimmed off fat. Porridge made with water and just a little milk added to it would be eaten for breakfast. For tea they would have bread and jam but the jam would be scraped on and off making the jar last a long time.

Today very few Workhouse records remain in existence. It would seem that after the demise of the workhouse system, someone in authority decided that given the stigma attached to the system, all records should be destroyed. They 'wiped the slate clean' for those who had been inmates. Their motives, though well meant and fully understood today by anyone interested in workhouse history, created a sad loss for both our social and family history. The ones at Fir Vale are thought to have burnt in the 1970s. The Minutes of the Guardians meetings are in the Local Studies Library, Sheffield and do name some of the people and their circumstances. For the Smilter Lane Children's Homes, some of the early records are housed in Sheffield Archives.

This information has been generously provided by Lyn Howsam.

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