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The Fareham Workhouse scandal

In 1836, three little boys from Bishops Waltham Workhouse were transferred to Fareham Workhouse. They were William Warren, Robert Withers and Jonathan Cooke, all aged between 4 and 5 years old.

Fareham Workhouse had a school and the boys were moved to give them a basic education. But they never settled at Fareham and were treated harshly by the staff. They were eventually returned to Bishops Waltham, but their story reached the Poor Law Commissioners in London. When the boys left Bishops Waltham, the Workhouse Master reported that they were in good health and had got over problems of bed wetting within 2 weeks of arriving. The move to Fareham must have upset the boys because on their first or second night they had wet or soiled their beds.

Today we know this can be caused by stress, but attitudes in the 1830s were very different. The children were punished for what their 'dirty habits'. As their punishments failed to stop the problems, they became more severe! The editor of 'The Times' used their story in a speech to the House of Commons to expose the harsh realities of workhouse life. A Committee was set up to look into what had happened at Fareham Workhouse. The interviews with staff and inmates paint a picture of life in the Victorian Workhouse that seems brutal by today's standards.


It was hoped that if the boys were made to feel ashamed, they would stop themselves from wetting the bed, or soiling their clothes. Children were made to wear a dunces cap and stand on a stool, or in a corner. The Schoolmistress was also allowed to hit pupils with a birch rod. When none of this worked, the staff tried other punishments.


The schoolmistress had brought a set of stocks to the workhouse school from her previous private school. Their use had not been agreed by the Workhouse Guardians. A child's feet would be fastened into the stocks, which forced them to sit or stand uncomfortably, sometimes with nothing to lean against. Although they were only supposed to be used for short periods, sometimes children were kept in them for 5 or 6 hours.


Another punishment was to give them half of their usual amount of food for 2 or 3 days a week over a month. This also had no effect on the boys and the Schoolmistress became concerned that they were becoming weak and ill. They were put back on full amounts again and another method of punishment was considered. As none of the punishments had stopped the boys from wetting and soiling their beds or clothes, the frustration of the Workhouse staff and other inmates grew. They had to wash the boys and their clothes and other children had to share their beds with the boys. The Master of the Workhouse was worried that this might make the other children ill. At the end of January 1837 he decided to isolate Robert Withers and Jonathan Cooke and put them into an outhouse.

Cruel treatment

For ten days, the two little boys were kept on their own in an outhouse. You can see a life sized model in the Museum. It had a cold stone floor and no fireplace - occasionally a hot air stove was used to warm the space. The boys were allowed out when their clothes were clean and dry, but often they had to remain in bed when their clothes were being washed.

After ten days, along with William Warren, they were returned to Bishops Waltham. The local Doctor agreed that they were fit to travel the eight miles in a covered cart. When they arrived, the Master of the Workhouse at Bishops Waltham was shocked to find that the boys were very weak. They were not able to stand up or walk without assistance, and could not eat properly.He immediately went to find a doctor and the Guardians. The three boys were nursed back to health at the Bishops Waltham Workhouse, but Jonathan Cooke needed special care and nearly died.

The Bishops Waltham Workhouse Master reported the case to the Poor Law Commissioners who were responsible for the Workhouses. They investigated the story and found that the staff at Fareham Workhouse were guilty of negligence. By April 1837, Robert Withers and William Warren had left Bishops Waltham Workhouse to live with family friends. Jonathan Cooke carried on living at the Workhouse. We don't know what happened to any of the boys in their future lives.