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George Rowntree

The Reminiscences of George Rowntree
1855 -1940

written during the winter of 1935-36



Any allusions to the work of the Guardians will be sketchy.

Of local government the Poor Law has had its full share of changes and advances. The Guardians of the Poor for this district when I was a boy consisted of a certain number of
ex-officio members, including all the J.P.'s who were members of the Scarborongh County Division and other elected representatives. The electorate for the Poor law was not identical with either town or county, but, was an older body, included some owners of property, entitling members to be ejected, both women and men. The method of voting was very simple; papers were distributed, and collected a few days later, the collector being able to give "advice to voters as to how to vote. The bags containing the papers were brought to the residence of the returning officer. On one occasion a whole bag was missing, but they knew where it was likely to be, so the next morning a call was made at the Rose and Crown Inn .

When the Poor Law Act of 1894 came into force, the Scarborough Board consisted of 70 members, an unwieldy number for the work the Board had to do, 24 representing the various wards in Scarborough, and 46 representing Filey, Scalby and the various country parishes in the Scarborough Rural Area. Sir Charles Legard was the first Chairman and I was Chairman of the first House Committee, and was also Chairman of the last Board of Guardians before the work was handed over to the North Riding Public Assistance Committee.

The Poor Law Act of 1835 provided for many improvements. How many were carried out I cannot say. I have seen drawings of the houses to be built to comply with the new Act, which provided for separate housing for each class of inmate. Had these been carried out, the lot of the inmates might have been very different. But the difficulty was the expense. Separate buildings for each class resolved itself into separate rooms under one roof, with the result that in many of the workhouses today, built in the early and middle part of 13th century, the rooms were classified, and each class had its separate yard with its high stone wall, so that not only the sexes could not see each other when out for exercise, but the young "able-bodied" were unable to see any of the other inmates.

N. B. : Only last year at Malton, the owners of the ground

adjoining the workhouse, where the family drove, insisted on a wall 20 feet high being maintained to prevent the inmate., seeing beyond their yard.

The accommodation for women tramps consisted, when I joined the Board, of one gloomy room containing one sloping board with a straw mattress, the matron explaining to me that the women prefer to sleep together. "They keeps each other warm." The men's quarters were cells 8 feet long by 5 feet wide; behind each cell was a small square compartment into which 3 cwt. of large stone was placed. This quantity had to be broken and all put through a 3-inch grating. The man was supplied with a hammer and a pair of spectacles, but no chair. This accommodation I saw less than ten years ago (not at Scarborough) , when two young seafaring men were left to carry out their task. The spectacles were rusty and not fit to wear, the cell was gloomy; the men were not used to stone breaking, and so were sitting on the ground waiting for the official's next visit. The whole surroundings spelt hopelessness. Picking oakum, corn grinding and ,stone pounding were discontinued 20 years sooner in our prisons than was the case in the tramp wards.

No section of the population receives less attention from anyone than the Casuals, with the exception of Mary Higgs, who devotes her life to their welfare. In the days of the Guardians very little interest was taken in 'their welfare. A Guardian, who had been one of the most active members for over 20 years, asked me the way to the Casual wards, but he had no wish to see them. For a period I was chairman of the Yorkshire Casual Poor Law Authority; a sub-committee was appointed to visit the 68 Casual Wards in Yorkshire, and report. The condition of most of these wards was worse than prison cells and the food was not so good.

I do not wish to detract from the character of the men. Given an even hundred men, you would find human nature much the same. I could give many instances, such as, "Daddy fra Cayton," whose record of his length of time spent in gaol and in the Casual Wards was about equal. He never meant work. One thing he objected to was a compulsory bath every time he came back to the workhouse. Another man, tidily dressed, came in one day carrying a light coat over his arm. His story, which I accepted, was that he was too old to get any work, and rather than settle down in the workhouse he set off to walk round England, sleeping at the Casual Wards. He preferred the association bedrooms to the separate cell or ward. In the former he could often pick up good stories from one or another of the men who were on the "road." This man had started from Wales and followed the coast road round the south of England and up the East Coast as far as Scarborough. Another case a well-dressed boy of about 19, had been working as "boots" during the summer. I found him mated with a 6o-year-old type of tramp sawing wood.

He told me his story, and I assisted him to get from Bainbridge, where I met him to Heckmondwike. Work was found for him in North Wales. I had more than one letter from him, and gathered that he was lonely amongst oldish men; this he might have stuck if he had not had an accident and broken his collar bone. When he got better he wrote me again. The desire to move on overcame all other inducements. He had no one on the spot to give him a hand. One other instance: Two men had palled together for ten years, using the Casual Wards from time to time; the one quite an old man, the other young; they were no relation, but, from their ages, might have been father and son. The old man's health broke down. The choice was the workhouse for the old man, and the younger to fend for himself. This the young man would not do; rather than send the old man to the workhouse, he took a garret. Each morning the young man carried him down two storeys to a backyard, where he could get fresh air and sunshine, and then went out to look for work. He picked up odd jobs which he shared. Winter came on, and the older man died. The other was then free. With the loan of a spade as his sole capital, he took a job to pull down some old property; for the first two days his back ached so badly that he nearly threw up his job, but he pulled through; in time he got a job with a grocer in the south ; there he learnt how to roast Coffee. He married, and the last I heard of him was that he and his wife were running a little greengrocer's business.

The change from the Guardians to the County Councils is an immense improvement, and might have taken place much earlier had it not been for the action of the Guardians themselves, who were opposed to any change,

The Assessment Committee, of which I was Chairman, was a sub-committee of the Board of Guardians; their duty was to hear complaints of householders who thought that the Overseers had valued their property too highly and to adjust the same. Prior to the war this was comparatively easy, but the war upset everything. The values of the larger properties were difficult to arrive at. For instance, one private house that had a mortgage on it for £2,000 was sold during the last year of the war for £1,150; other properties were divided into to many flats, in one case twelve separate lets; another, with three or four flats, let for £300, and had been rated on £70. Large mansions and moorland were impossible to maintain at the old figures. Thanks to the reasonableness of the Agents, the Assessment Committee was able to agree on a figure until such time as a fresh , valuation was made of the whole district.

There were some very hard cases, and others with a humorous side. I will quote one.

The owner of the Pavilion Hotel had not been satisfied for several years, so at last he appealed to the Quarter sessions at Northallerton in December 1922. The Assessment Committee thought that they had a very good case. So, well armed with King's Counsel and Valuers, we went some 60 miles to the Court of Quarter Sessions at Northallerton. The Court was presided over by a barrister of good repute, with two women and two men to comprise the bench of Magistrates. Amongst the witnesses was Mr. Charles Laughton, now so well known as a brilliant actor. I sat in the Court next to him, when suddenly he jumped up and sat down six feet away, saying, "I forgot we are enemies to-day. ' The case dragged on until Charles Laughton was called to give his evidence.

When he appeared in the witness box it was difficult to believe that he was the gentleman who had been sitting next to me. His bright look had gone, and a simple dull expression faced the Court. When the King's Counsel was cross-examining him, 'the following is as near as I can recollect what was said :

K.C. to C. Laughton: You are here to represent your father?
C.L. to K.C. : Fatherís not well.
K.C. : What position do you hold?
C.L. : Mr. Laughton is my father.
K.C. : We want you to tell us about the receipts of the hotel.
C.L. : What do you say? Father never shows me the books.
K.C. : You know that there is a perfect stream of visitors

who come for the week-end to the Pavilion Hotel, and go out to Ganton for golf?

C.L. : What did you say? (The question was repeated).
A perfect stream ? No; I should say only a trickle.

The case had been on from 11 o'clock in the morning; the valuer for Mr. Laughton kept the case in his hands until nearly four o'clock. It was evident that the Bench wanted to catch the 4-30 train, and quickly gave their verdict for a reduction to a figure actually lower than Mr . Laughton had intimated his willingness; to accept.

Mr. Charles Laughton told me himself that he had never been in a court before in his life, and yet, with his inimitable power as an actor , he carried the bench.

The children from the Poor Law Institution's first Childrenís Home came up to Riseborough once a year. On one occasion a thunderstorm came on and the children had to come indoors for shelter. After the party was over, Granny's purse was missing. There was nothing to connect any of the children with it, as she had been in the town all morning, but she was not satisfied, and went to see the Matron. The Matron had her suspicions, as one boy had been spending more money than he should. He was therefore interviewed; he was about 10 years old. The boy not only denied any knowledge of the purse, but gave a very plausible account of how he had had a certain small sum of money given him by an uncle, a soldier, whom he met in the town. Nothing in word or looks betrayed this boy in any way. I told Granny that she should not go further; however, she was not satisfied, and asked that the Matron and I would leave the room. In a moment Granny put her hand on his shoulder in a gentle manner and said, " Now, Harry, tell me where you have put the purse." "In the coal hole," was the equally prompt answer.

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