Liverpool Workhouse

Brownlow Hill Workhouse, © University of Liverpool. The site is now the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

The Poor Law Institution, or Work House, on Brownlow Hill had been a shelter for Liverpool’s destitute from 1771 until 1928 when the revision of the Poor Laws brought the property on to the market. In 1800 one thousand inmates had been on its register, in 1900 over four thousand,  over half of whom were Catholics. Many of them were Irish people driven from their own country by famine. In 1930 the Catholic diocesan authorities purchased the nine acre site for £110,000, as the site for the new Roman Catholic cathedral. The workhouse was a tough hard place.

The following is taken from Tom Burke’s ” Catholic History of Liverpool “, 1910. He is not a disinterested party. He was Liverpool born and bred, with Irish parents. He was for many years, a magistrate, councillor, and Alderman on Liverpool City Council where he represented Vauxhall ward as a member of the Irish Nationalist Party.  None of this really detracts from the power of Tom Burke’s writing, or his analysis of politics in the city. The original footnotes from the book are bracketed, and in italics, along with a couple of additional explanations of mine also in bracketed italics.

Another public body came into existence as a consequence of the new Poor Law, [1834]  the Liverpool Board of Guardians, better known by its official title, the Select Vestry. The first elections resulted in the return of a solid phalanx of Tories, due to the extraordinary behaviour of the returning officer. Dr. Bilsborrow, late Bishop of Salford, described the Guardians as ” that awful Protestant body,” [ In a conversation with the writer at St Charles , Aigburth Road,] and good reason he had for so naming it. In 1839, under the old law, Father Parker, of St. Patrick’s, reported that during the month of October, he had heard the master of the workhouse school, addressing the children in the schoolroom, say that ” every Catholic would go to Hell with a Testament in his hand.” Of the hundred children thus addressed a small proportion were Catholics, and in their presence he held up a wafer, with the blasphemous observation, ” this is the God of the Papists. “ An inquiry was held, and the charges sustained, but the Orange party would permit no punishment beyond a mild censure. In 1841, Father John Dawber asked the Vestry to allow him the use of a room in which to say Mass, and in a very modest appeal pointed out that it was a great hardship for old and infirm people to be compelled to rise early in all kinds of weather, and walk half-a-mile to hear Mass outside. The ” Liverpool Courier,” the Conservative organ, opposed this proposal as ” an act of Popish aggrandisement.”

The Vestry held its meetings for the first year with closed doors, the ” Liverpool Mercury,” which took the most active share in bringing about a change in its composition, describing it as ” the secret conclave.” The Liberals and Catholics joined in a cordial union to alter its complexion, and at the Easter of 1845, returned Messrs. Bright, Thorneley and Maynard, to fight for equality and open dealing, against twenty-six of the most illiberal men who ever possessed a share in the government of the town, municipally or parochially.

The Select Vestry had decided, in obedience to Dr. McNeill, that no religious service of any kind for the Roman Catholics should be permitted inside the workhouse. Mr. Bright sought to remove this restriction by a proposition that the use of the dining hall be allowed for the celebration of Mass. The Rector of Liverpool was, ex-officio, the Chairman of the Board, [ This anomaly was removed by Mr. Gladstone’s Parish Council Act, 1894.]  and on this occasion he declared that the law of the realm did not contemplate the performance of any religious ceremony, other than those in conformity with the laws of the Established Church. No doubt this was a perfectly accurate statement, but it did not help to remove an irritating restriction from a Catholic point of view, or prevent gross abuse from the point of view of good administration and discipline, inmates being allowed to go out on Sundays, without supervision, if they declared themselves to be Catholics, whether they were so or no. [ Bedclothes, linen, &c., were stolen by the inmates, who declared themselves Catholics in order to get out and sell the articles thus obtained.]  Mr. Bright’s motion was rejected. At the same meeting it was decided to ask permission from the Bishop of Chester to allow Divine Service to be held for the Protestant inmates of the Kirkdale Schools, in the dining hall of that institution.

Mr. Bright observed that as the Rector had objected to Divine Service for Catholics in a dining hall, he ought surely, on ecclesiastical or rubrical grounds, to object in this instance. Mr. Rector Brooks did not reply, but a Mr. Bremner retorted, “ No ! not at all ; the one is Popery, the other the Established Church.” The language of this gentleman was so offensive that five Conservatives voted for Mr. Bright’s motion. It was urged that, as sixty-one inmates, owing to ill-health, were unable to attend Mass outside, a room might be set apart for the purpose of a private celebration. But to no avail. Mr. Bremner represented the whole trend of Tory Protestantism.

Catholics and Liberals, at the following elections, made one supreme effort to secure further representation, and carried eleven seats out of twenty-one. Three out of four overseerships also fell into their victorious hands. Mr. John Yates, junior, was the first Catholic Poor Law Guardian. The concession of a room was granted, and peace prevailed for a short time. In the Council, Mr. Blackburn, member for Vauxhall Ward, made a last despairing effort to break down the policy of exclusion embarked upon by the Church party, but failed, and never again did Catholics appeal to that Municipal body for any concession.


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