Unusually for me, a subject out-with Blantyre, not far away at Bothwell Road, Hamilton. The Hamilton Combination Poorhouse. I’ve recently been researching this building, given the amount of occurrences in Blantyre news stories about people in the 19th and 20th Century, ending up there, their only crime being poor.
The Poorhouse if you can imagine was a combination between hospital, prison and workhouse, combining and featuring some elements of all three institutions. It was a controversial building, even before it was built and throughout its use, prompting much debate about what should happen to people down on their luck or without the means to live safely. The poorhouse was not however a prison. People could leave whenever they wanted, for example when work became available. For many others though, the poorhouse was a place where they would spend the end of their days.
An Act passed on 4th August 1845 in Scotland granted relief to the poor whilst they were living in their homes. In more extreme cases, where it was found that the individual could not lift themselves out of poverty or through circumstance could not escape the clutches of their misfortune, they were then removed by authorities to the Combination Poorhouses. As such following 1845, there was a real growth in the number of poorhouses appearing all over Scotland.
The Beginning of Hamilton’s Poorhouse
The motion to create a Hamilton Combination Poorhouse was passed a Parochial meeting in August 1864. At the same meeting a committee was appointed to make enquiries. There were 22 people in the committee, 7 from Hamilton.
Considerable problems were encountered first by the committee in selecting a suitable piece of ground before eventually getting the feu for a vacant piece or land at Bothwell Road. Next task for the Committee was to select an Architect. Several plans were submitted by skilled architects before the committee settled on their favourite, by Mr. J. Grahame Peat (Hamilton)
Mr John Purdie was lead building Contractor of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse, (who also built Auchingramont UF Church). The Architect oversaw the construction which also involved other builders, Waddell Joiner, Taylor Plumber, McLaren Painter and Rae the Gas Fitter. Construction of the Hamilton Combination Poorhouse started in November 1865. In February 1866, a woman was found lying dead outside the construction site. At the time of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse being built in 1865/66 and 67, another poorhouse in Motherwell and been built (opened Oct 1866)
Staffing the Hamilton Combination Poorhouse
By early April 1867, the building was erected fully outside and internal fit-out had started. On 3rd April 1867, the Committee advertised for the senior management positions, in particular looking for a Governor at a handsome salary of £85 per annum and a matron at £40 per year.
They were besieged with applicants from all over the country. On 30th May 1867, Mr. Peter MacKenzie was appointed as the first governor having being awarded the position by the Combination Poorhouse Committee, due to his former 7 year experience as Governor of Linlithgow Poorhouse. He immediately moved to Hamilton with his wife. They lived on site and Mrs MacKenzie had a hand in running things too. They spoke to reporters at the time of their appointment, speaking of a previous 5 year experience also in the lunatic asylum in Edinburgh and their regret upon leaving there having got to known the inmates.
Dr Naismith was then appointed as the first medical officer and Mr Christie, the Chaplain.
Opening of the Hamilton Combination Poorhouse
The Hamilton Combination Poorhouse opened in on 26th August 1867 to a significant increase in expenditure and without any real ceremony. Despite 170 beds, there were few inmates initially. There were 3 dormitories, one with one single and seventeen double beds which could accommodate 34 children if needed.
Architecture, Layout & Function
Regarding construction, it initially had a very cheerful and pleasant external appearance of the time. The front was in an Elizabethan style of Architecture. On the right side of the gateway was the entrance to the porters house and a small office room for the governor.
On the left was a waiting room for paupers applying for admission , next to the medical officers room. Then there was a searching room, and a bathroom adjoining probationary bedrooms, (test dormitories of only 3 beds). A fumigating closet was placed at the end of the passage at the bathrooms for purposes of delousing and casting off the inmates arrival clothes, and changing into the provided garments.
As soon as paupers were admitted, they were placed in the probationary ward, set apart by their sex, medically examined then cleaned and clothed.
Later inmates would be moved through the courtyard away from the probationary room and out to the main building. Their first experience of this building was to enter through a wooden porch, lit by side windows and gaslights. To the right was the Committee room.
The principal staircase led to the chapel and dining room. A corridor ran the whole length of the building vented by windows at either end. To the left of the staircase was the governors bedroom and parlour. The left hand side of the building was for the males. The right for females. The front part of the building was split into 2 dayrooms for men and 1 for boys. A small dormitory was nearby for the infirm.The right hand side was similar with the addition of laundry “to occupy females”. Staircases at either side led to the upper floor.
At the back of the building was a communal dining room and chapel. I say communal, it still split the sexes, but both could use it at different times. This was a separate building measuring 40 foot x 22 foot and was 17 feet high. It was highly decorated, seats all varnished and set itself apart as more stylish than the rest of the poorhouse.
A kitchen 20 foot x 19 foot had a panty, vegetable and coal store. Beside that was a milk room and breadstore. The kitchen had a convenience window to serve through food. Above the kitchen was a belfry in which a bell was pulled to notify inmates to come to dinner.
There were work houses too. As well as the laundry, there was a straw house, mens work room and a washing house with lines of tubs on either side. The laundry room was 20 foot by 16 foot. At one side was the iron heating stove.
Separately inside the main building, were sick male and female wards and the matrons rooms. These looked out across to Bellshill with the most beautiful green views. Next to these rooms were clothing stores. Upstairs was a maternity unit and childrens rooms. (nurseries?) Ceilings were lofty in each dorm at around 11 3 foot high! It was noted upon opening, that discipline was ready to be administrated to inmates.
In the immediate years after opening, there was a “lunatics ward”. The average cost of keeping each was £27 or £28, which in committee reports was considered a hefty sum. As such, something was to be done and it attracted the interest of gentlemen from all over Scotland who wished to monitor and study the concept of “becoming mad with lunacy”. In a statement in June 1869, it was suggested Hamilton poorhouse would save £200 a year by doing this, (perhaps telling of how many people were in that unit.)
Engaging the Public’s assistance
In 1868, boxes were erected on the roadside outwside the Poorhouse and at the railway station and Cadzow St by 1870. Passing residents could leave newspapers, journals or magazine flyers for those inmates (lucky enough to read), who would otherwise be locked away without knowing what was happening in the world.
Families throughout Blantyre and nearby Parishes knew full well of this place and there must have been a real fear if one became unemployed, a widow or found themselves homeless through any circumstance. In the latter part of 1877, following the Blantyre Pit Disaster, several families may have found themselves here following the ejection from their homes by William Dixon Coalmasters, upon the accidental deaths of their menfolk.
Conditions in the poorhouse left much to be desired. In 1910, Mr.Dewar an inspector visited the Poorhouse and made a report, his recommendations for improvement going ignored until a follow up report in 1913.
He determined the building needed redecorated as there were half inch cracks in the walls. There were rats running through the building, the ventilation, heating and gas lighting were poor for the era, the pigsty had bad drainage and led to bad smells. The list went on. The reception room for visitors was tiny. The nurseries were too small. However, there were some positives, mainly that the food was good and that the firelighters and sticks being chopped sold well in the local area.
World War 1 Years
Mr Powers was Inspector of the Poor in Blantyre during 1914. In protest at the lack of action at the Poorhouse, he stepped down from the Committee at the Blantyre Parochial Board Meetings and his position was replaced by Mr. John Welsh. During World War 1, the poorhouse was extended in that Winter. In April 1915, there were 186 inmates, including a record 31 children. A labour master was hired at the cost of £40 per annum to manage the increased number of inmates.
In May 1916, offers were accepted from contractors to assist ventilating the building better. By September 1916, there were 147 inmates. An inspection that month concluded it should be repainted and noted that the sanitary arrangements were far from satisfactory.
In June 1917, the Committee of the Poorhouse condemned suggestions by the Local Authorities that the inmates be subjected and fed sterilised meat, that had otherwise been rejected as unfit to be sold in shops.
By September 1918, there were 125 inmates although it was noted that 8 of them were children. By this time a piggery was kept in better conditions by the inmates in the outbuildings. The head gardener at the Poorhouse had left to fight in WW1 and returned to work there, missing a leg.
A remarkable demonstration by unemployed Blantyre and Hamilton men took place on Monday 5th November 1928 outside the gates of Hamilton combination Poorhouse whilst an unemployed man form Blantyre tried to admit himself to the poorhouse.
The applicant had been accompanied through the streets of Hamilton by sympathisers. The processions was headed by three lads in kilts. One played bagpipes, the others supported his efforts by beating drums. When the applicant was admitted at the gates, there were rousing cheers from the demonstrators and cheers were heard before the crowd dispersed.
The demonstration was against Blantyre Parish Council, who some time ago had decided that every able bodied unemployed man on the poor roll who had been receiving relief should be offered accommodation at the poorhouse as an alternative to being cut off the roll completely. The wives and dependants of such men admitted to the poorhouse continued to receive relief.
Such public demonstrations were to take place a few more times following this incident, a growing contempt of poorhouses in general and a sign that something had to be done in this modern world to remove these Victorianesque type facilities.
After 1930, the poorhouse, in an effort to remove the deeply unpopular stigma of Victorian workhouses, was retitled as the “Hamilton Poor Law Institution.”
Inspector of the Poor
In June 1938 at a meeting of the Hamilton Town Council Mr Peter Aitken was unanimously appointed Inspector of Poor and Public Assistance Officer for the Burgh, in succession to Mr Alex Bryden, with the appointment taking effect from August 15.
Reform occurred in 1948, just after World War 2, when the old Poor Law Acts were revisited and decision made to abolish them completely.
This forced a change in role for Hamilton Poor Law Institution. The County Council gave the building a change in use, by removing the references to poor, and it became more of a sheltered home for those in need.
The last person left the sheltered home in early 1981 and the buildings are now no longer there. There’s a lot more to be read about Hamilton Combination Poorhouse, with the Hamilton Advertiser Records offering good detailed records if anybody else is interested in this building. I hope touching upon this building here though, gives an understanding of what some people in Blantyre endured when they were down on their luck.
From “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2016
On social media:
I had a Great Aunt, Catherine Hunter, who died there on 8th February 1912.