Off to the Workhouse With You
Originally built between 1769-1772, the Brownlow Hill workhouse, situated within the parish of Liverpool, was designed to provide shelter for up to 600 poor and destitute people of Liverpool. However, as the city grew larger and the population increased, the workhouse struggled to accommodate the growing number of inmates, who required support from the Poor Law institution. Consequently, between 1842 and 1843, the workhouse underwent an extensive development, which resulted in one of the biggest workhouses in England (and as you can see from the images below, probably one of the most ominous too).
Upon completion of the expansion, the Brownlow Hill site became home to a vast and daunting collection of buildings, which were now able to provide accommodation to 3000 poor, aged, or sick members of society, although, at times it was known to drastically exceed this. However, in 1862 the workhouse suffered a loss of inmates and buildings when the east wing, which housed the infants and children, suffered a fire which destroyed both the dormitory and church. In a horrific account The Examiner (1862) talks of the 14 ‘charred and blackened bodies of lifeless children, and the ’18 or 19 nearly grown up, and tender age, girls’ who had been burnt or suffocated to death, alongside ‘3 nurses.’
Despite the effects of the fire, and many other issues, the workhouse remained open until 1928. Eventually, the site was put up for sale and in 1930 it was sold to the diocesan authorities, for £110,000 (by today’s standards that is around £7,000,000). By 1931, the workhouse had been demolished and the nine acre site had been cleared, leaving no remnants of its past. An astonishing 34 years later, building work started on the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Liverpool, and two years after this, on the 14th May 1967, the Cathedral was opened to the public.
So Where Does Dickens Come into All of This?
Almost 107 years prior to the grand opening of the Cathedral, the Brownlow Hill site was the centre of a very different kind of public interest. In somewhat of a scandal, the Great Tasmania, a ‘sailing vessel launched in 1855’ (Stanley, 1998, Pg. 199), had docked at the River Mersey in March 1860, almost one year after it began its voyage from Calcutta following the Great Indian Campaign. When it set off, the ship was carrying roughly 1000 discharged servicemen, 60 of whom, sadly passed away during the harrowing journey back to England. While the remaining servicemen were alive upon arrival, their health was so poor that around 100 of the men were rushed to the workhouse infirmary ‘in open carts,’ as a result of ‘scurvy and associated complications, including dysentery, and pulmonary conditions’ (Stanley, 1998, Pg. 199). Sadly, the condition of the men, who had ‘left Calcutta- as fine a body of able men as could possibly be collected under the circumstances,’ was a consequence of the ‘lack of provisions and proper accommodation’ (Liverpool Mercury, 1860) on board the vessel, which was undoubtedly a result of the British Government’s failure to ensure that basic amenities were provided.
The arrival of the ship and unacceptable condition of the servicemen on board, created quite a scandal, and having been informed of the situation, the government sent an inspector from London to lead an enquiry into the matter. Unsurprisingly, this caught the attention of Charles Dickens, who visited the Brownlow Hill Workhouse in March 1860, to observe and investigate the condition of the soldiers and the cause of their poor health. However, never one to be content with merely satisfying his own curiosity, Dickens went on to use his findings to create the semi-autobiographical short story The Great Tasmania’s Cargo (1860), which featured in All The Year Round, as part of the author’s ongoing travel writing series, The Uncommercial Traveller. In the opening paragraphs of the story, Dickens…. or should I say ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ (remember these stories are semi-autobiographical), tells readers ‘ I had got back again to that rich and beautiful port where I had looked after Mercantile Jack, and I was walking up a hill there, on a wild March morning’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg.36). After researching this a little further, it would seem that the infirmary building had its own entrance and was situated near to the church and infant’s dormitory, which can be seen on Peter Higginbotham’s detailed plan on the website The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution. As Dickens always stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, located on Ranelagh Street, it is logical to assume that he would have been walking from here. However, this makes it difficult to know which hill Dickens walked up, given that both Brownlow Hill and Mount Pleasant (also on a hill), are practically next to one another and both lead to the workhouse site (although I can tell you that I have university buildings at the top of both of these hills, and neither are particularly pleasant to walk up on ‘a wild March morning’).
Before entering the wards, The Uncommercial Traveller decided to ask how the solders arrived at the workhouse, to which he was told ‘they had been brought through the rain in carts, it seemed, from the landing place to the gate, and had then been carried upstairs on the backs of paupers. Their groans and pains, during the performance of this glorious pageant, had been so distressing as to bring tears into the eyes of spectators but too well accustomed to scenes of suffering’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg. 37). A poignant image which acts as a testament to the character of Liverpool and its citizens, who were able to show compassion towards those in need, despite their own suffering. As the story continues, readers learn that the author ‘went into a large ward, containing some twenty or five-and-twenty beds. We went into several such wards, one after the other. I find it very difficult to indicate what a shocking sight I saw in them, without frightening the reader from the perusal of these lines, and defeating my object in making it known’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg. 38). The shock of the men before him was too much for The Uncommercial Traveller, who vented ‘in the name of humanity- how did the men fall into this deplorable state?’ After much discussion regarding the causes, and those responsible, the conversation begins to focus on the efforts being made to improve the health and wellbeing of the men who ‘had behaved with unblemished fidelity and bravery’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg. 36). Though the author was clearly vexed by the situation, he was able to see, and praise, the hard work and efforts of the workhouse, and stated that ‘all the arrangements of the wards were excellent. They could not have been more humane, sympathising, gentle, attentive, or wholesome. There were bright fires in every room, and the convalescent men were sitting round them, reading various papers and periodicals’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg. 39). When the story was published in April 1860, Dickens used the closing sentences to reflect upon the situation, and expressed his anguish and sorrow at having to write a story based on such a traumatic and shameful series of events. He earnestly told his readers ‘the spectacle of the soldiers in the hospital beds of that Liverpool workhouse (a very good workhouse, indeed, be it understood) was so shocking and so shameful, that, as an Englishman, I blush to remember it’ (Dickens, 1860, Pg.40).
There are no records to suggest that Dickens ever visited the workhouse on any other occasion, before or after 1860 (which is a travesty! Imagine the character inspiration that could be found). In fact, there are no official records to say that the author visited at all. However, in a letter written by Dickens on the 15th of March 1860, he states that he is ‘positively obliged to go out of town’ on ‘”All The Year Round” business’ which ‘cannot be postponed, and must be done’ (Drew, 2000). While he does not specify where he is going, the dates and type of business to which he was obliged, mean that it is plausible to suggest that Dickens’s visit to the Brownlow Hill Workhouse did take place, and The Great Tasmania’s Cargo was based on the real events. Events which made quite the impression, and despite his shame and anguish, Dickens was able to see the compassion within the Brownlow Hill Workhouse.
Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall, 1860.
Stanley, Peter. White Mutiny: British Military Culture in Indian, 1825-1875. London: C. Hurst & Co, 1998.