West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

MEMORIES OF
PONTEFRACT WORKHOUSE


MRS AUDREY MILNER

I was born on the 2nd January 1915 at 3 Paradise Hill, Pontefract, at a time when the Great War was still being fought. Paradise Hill was situated on the opposite side of the road to Pontefract Workhouse which was also known as Northgate Lodge. Only one block of the original workhouse remains, which was the hospital block. It is an impressive three-storey, brick-built building which is now a block of apartments and is a listed building. Further down the road from Paradise Hill towards Back Northgate still stands the original Gasworks and people who know or live in or around Pontefract will be familiar with these landmarks.

My mother, Olive Woodhead, (nee King), was born in 1889 at 3 Northland View, which was very near to Paradise Fields. She was just a year older than my father, Frederick Woodhead, who was born in 1890. At the rear of Paradise Hill was a long backyard where two other families lived. In one house lived Mr. and Mrs. Heckingbottom, and their son Fred, who was a familiar figure in the town. Fred was a self-employed window cleaner and was seen regularly in Pontefract cleaning the shop and office windows around the town. He was known to many people and always had a cheery 'good morning' to say to all. Next door to the Heckingbottoms lived the Wright family whose son George Wright later became the Mayor of Pontefract.
Both the workhouse and Paradise Hill were close to Pontefract town centre and led into Cockpit Lane and Front Northgate, which is now the café side of the bus station. On one corner of Cockpit Lane stood Mayfields the Vet, and on the other stood Mrs. Tomlinson's grocery and sweet shop, later to become that other well-known Pontefract landmark, Mrs. Bullock's corner shop. Mrs. Tomlinson's son later became Headmaster of Love Lane School when the school divided into two separate schools for boys and girls. It later merged into one school which I eventually attended until I was fourteen years old and started work.

During the years of the Great War, my father worked as a fitter at Fryston Colliery and later at the Prince of Wales Colliery in Pontefract. He worked throughout the night whenever there was a problem with the machinery, and the next morning I would take him his breakfast down to the fitting shop. I also used to meet him on a Friday, which was pay day, and he would give me a one penny for sweets. I had a brother and a sister and we had a happy family life. As a child, I remember when the first wireless arrived. We had what was known as a crystal set, and to listen to the wireless, a headset was required. As there were five of us in the family, my father used to put the headphones in a basin so that we could all hear it. The wireless worked on batteries and every week a man delivered a new battery and collected the old one for the charge of six old pence.

Like some other families, the only means of lighting in our home was by means of a gas mantle, which was run by a gas meter slot which took pennies. We had no carpets in our home and had stone steps; there was also no hot water.

The first school I went to was the infants school in Northgate, the original building is still standing and now houses Lloyd's pharmacy. Some years later, my family moved to Kings Mead where we had hot and cold water and a bath. Much later, when my parents were elderly, I looked after them both until they died, my father being 91, and my mother 90.

In 1942, I went to work at the workhouse as an assistant cook. It is situated opposite Pontefract cemetery, which is perhaps not the best site for the residents. Many who lived there had no choice but to stay all their lives, and records state that many also died there.This was a time of great hardship and poverty, unknown by today's standards, and long before the advent of the welfare state and the modern benefits system as we know it today. The original title was Pontefract Union Workhouse and it was built in 1862-1864. It was a large place and consisted of several separate buildings, which were added to over the years. The men's block was built in 1867, and the laundry block was added on in 1897. The gatehouse, office, and porter's room in 1898, and a women's block in 1904. It also had a male casual block, its own kitchen, dining room and administration block, and a kitchen garden where vegetables were grown. Another block housed the wood chopping area. There was a female and children's block, and a separate block for male inmates, and an Infirmary block which also had padded cells for inmates who required transferring to the asylum. (Known as Stanley Royd, which I believe was a mental hospital?) A nurses home provided accommodation for the resident nurses and was in the grounds. Electricity was not installed in the workhouse until 1935.

The people who lived in the wokhouse had the unenviable title of being known as ‘inmates’. This is within living memory and will be remembered by some readers of The Digest, as the workhouse itself did not stop functioning until the middle of the last century. The hospital block remained open until much later and was used as a geriatric hospital.

I knew many of the staff when I worked in the workhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Pickett were the Master and Matron. After Mr. Pickett died, Mrs. Pickett worked in the laundry at Pontefract General Infirmary, which was also run by a matron. The next Master and Matron of the Pontefract Workhouse were Mr. and Mrs. Blaza, (one of their sons, Anthony, has an estate agency business in Pontefract and is known to many people). Mr. Peacock was the porter when I worked at the workhouse and his wife, Mrs. Peacock, was the assistant Matron. Miss Papworth was in charge of the laundry, and my Aunt Doris was a seamstress. The bulk of her work consisted of repairs and alterations, such as repairing torn or worn sheets. As a child, I regularly used to visit my Aunt, our house in Paradise Hill being only a short walk away. Many of the permanent workhouse staff were given accommodation in the grounds. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Pickett and Mr. and Mrs. Peacock having their own houses, and Miss Papworth and my Aunt Doris also had their own accommodation.
The workhouse was a formidable place and was looked upon by everyone with both fear and dread in equal measure, of people who were destitute, poor and had nowhere else to go. It was a place to be feared by many, and often the only option for the homeless who lacked the basic necessities in life, including a roof over their head.

Deprivation suffered by these people was extreme compared to what we call hardship today. They were often in distress with little or no medical care and spent their lives wandering from place to place, which is often the situation for the homeless even in today's modern world. People only went into the workhouse as a last resort. Many had fallen on hard times, or were too old to work, or were ill and could not look after themselves. People knew that once inside the workhouse they would rarely have the means to leave, and it was not unusual for them to stay all their lives until they died. Many had no means to pay for a funeral themselves, and if this were so, they were buried at the bottom of Pontefract cemetery in what was known as the pauper's area in a pauper's grave. When a person became ill, the Master sent a notice of illness to their next of kin informing them that they could visit upon presentation of the notice. If someone had died, a notice of death was sent to their relative, requesting the relative to contact the Master if they wished to make their own arrangements for the funeral. This is also within living memory, and is poverty on a scale that is unheard of today, with our modern benefits system.

Housing was both in short supply and overcrowded, and many people took in lodgers in an attempt to make ends meet. When a person became ill or too old to work, or could not be looked after at home, entry to the workhouse often became the only option.

Dr. Bloomfield was one of the G.P's in the town and used to provide some of the medical care. He lived in a big house on Spink Lane at the bottom of Northgate and was in easy reach of the workhouse and the residents of the town. Dr. Teddy Bloomfield, Dr. Bloomfield's son, also practised in Pontefract and had his premises at the bottom of Mill Hill.

There was a stonemason who had his premises very near to the workhouse at the top of Cockpit Lane. He could be heard chipping away making his headstones. Many who lived in the workhouse had to pass Mr. Heseltine's premises every day to walk into town, or to go to Mrs. Bullock's corner shop, or to spend the small amount of pocket money that they were given in the town, and would have heard the chipping away at the headstones on a regular basis.

A small group of inmates from the workhouse used to congregate outside Mrs.Bullock's corner shop at the top of Cockpit Lane from time to time and stand and talk together. All appeared sombre, dejected and downcast.

Everyone who lived in the workhouse and who could work was given a job to do. For the men this could mean chopping wood or breaking up stones or any other work that was deemed suitable. For the women this could be working in the laundry, the kitchen or other similar work.

When I worked in the kitchen, every morning the women inmates came in to do the cleaning. They also cleaned out the fireplace, which was a black leaded fireplace and had an open coal fire. They used to fill the boilers up with water, which was then heated by the fire, and this was used to provide the hot water for the kitchen. Food was kept in a box with a net at the front. Mr. Peacock the porter was in charge of all the provisions and everything was accounted for. The cook made a list of what was needed for each meal and presented it to Mr. Peacock and he used to give her the food.

Every evening at six pm, winter and summer alike, in rain, sunshine or in snow, a number of tramps would arrive at the workhouse gates near the porter's office (opposite the cemetery), and wait to be admitted and given a bed for the night. Next morning after breakfast, which usually consisted of a bacon sandwich, they had to move on and find somewhere else to stay the following night. It was a sad life and one to be avoided at all costs if possible.

Inside the cemetery were two churches, one for the Catholics and another for the Protestants. These two churches were joined by an archway, which can still be seen today. There was a caretaker for the cemetery, a Mr. Pavers who lived in the lodge at the cemetery entrance. There were also some elaborate funerals with black plumed horses pulling a black hearse.

On a Sunday evening, there was a church service, which was held in the dining room. A man called Jack Robinson, who lived in a house called "Beechwood" on Wakefield Road, which is still standing today, used to come in to give the service.

Each Christmas, the tradesmen of the town used to supply the workhouse with Christmas trimmings and these were made into paper chains by the inmates.

When I left the workhouse, I went to work as a cook at Carleton Children's Home, before becoming a cook at Gordon Street School in Featherstone, where I stayed for eight years. I then worked at Regent Street School, staying there until my retirement in 1976.

My husband, Matthew George Killingbeck, was a rear gunner during World War Two and flew with 10 Squadron Halifax Bombers. He used to do twenty-eight trips in the air, followed by a grounding of six months. When his sister got married, she asked him to give her away and so he applied for his leave two weeks earlier than it should have been so that he could attend the wedding, which he was granted. He had only one more trip to do on his return from leave. When he went back, the crew that he usually flew with went off on their leave and he was asked to fly with another crew. He never came back from this last trip, as they were shot down flying over Berlin. There were no survivors. He was thirty-years old. We had been married for six years and had a two-year-old daughter.

I have seen many changes during my life, and now live with my daughter and her husband, although I still like to get out and about and take part in several enjoyable activities.

Mrs Audrey Milner


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