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The only way is Rochdale (2)


Post by Jenny Hughes

I’ve been looking at records of entertainments in Dearnley workhouse in Rochdale, from its opening in 1877. This has meant looking at huge, heavy, dusty, crumbling minute books kept by the Board of Guardians and various workhouse committees – minute books are full of beautiful handwritten script like this (from the Visiting Committee minutes, 23rd February 1888) –

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Although, towards the end of meetings, the handwriting often gets a little frayed round the edges (from the Board of Guardian minutes, 25th November 1886) –

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The requirements of the Poor Law of 1834 often meant that new workhouses needed to be constructed to accommodate the poor of each Union (groups of parishes amalgamated for the purposes of better administration of, and control over, poor relief). In 1877, Rochdale Union finally acceded to this requirement, and opened the massive Dearnley workhouse, at the cost of £85,000. A pamphlet produced to mark the opening of the workhouse points to its effective ‘performance’ across economic, sanitary, medical and educational domains. The workhouse opened with a dinner for local gentry (the ratepayers), including a tour of the workhouse and a performance by the Orpheus glee club, a gentlemen’s singing group in Rochdale.

Peter Higginbotham’s website – www.workhouses.org.uk – has some great images of Dearnley, if you’d like to find out more. It became Birch Hill hospital with the inauguration of the National Health Service in 1948 – but really by the 1930s or so the building had become more hospital for the old and vulnerable rather than ‘bastille’ for the poor. The hospital closed in 2013, with the building and site bought by property company Persimmon Homes (you can now buy a two bedroom house in the newly named ‘Birch Hill Gardens’ for £127,995).

As noted in posts on this blog, I am trying to find out about cultural activity (especially performance related activity – concerts, plays etc) in workhouses – in part (at the moment) to explore the historical roots and routes of socially engaged or applied theatre. The histories of socially engaged arts tend to start with the progressive education movement in the 19th century, leading on to the Settlement movement and politically-oriented workers theatre movement emerging between the wars. I think that performative and theatrical engagements with the poor might be a good place to look for the pre-history of this narrative. Such a pre-history might usefully stretch our understanding of socially engaged and applied theatre – its aesthetics, ethics, politics – in ways that invite a reconsideration of theatre’s engagements with excluded or economically precarious communities today.

I looked at minute books of Dearnley workhouse relating to the year of opening (1877), and then 1887 and 1897, partly to get an overview of what might have been happening in the workhouse during the last third of the 19th century (a search of the national newspapers suggested that this might be the most interesting period for me). I also thought that 1887 and 1897, being jubilee years, may have stimulated more entertainments and cultural activity than normal (I don’t think this was the case, however).

The practice of whether or not a note was made of entertainments taking place in the workhouse in the minutes seemed to change over time – there are years where many, many entertainments are listed, and then blank years – but as records often refer to things that happened previously that were not minuted (as far as I could see), I think that entertainments may have become part of normal activity, sometimes not remarkable enough to note. So, the list of entertainments I found is not a comprehensive survey of what actually happened in any way. Nonetheless, the variety and frequency of entertainments are, I think, revealing. More soon.

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