The Board of Guardians of the Oakham Union came into being as a result of the Poor Law Amendment Act, and held its first meeting at Oakham Castle on 30th April 1836. One of the Board’s first duties was to build a new workhouse for the whole Union to replace those which had served individual parishes, and it achieved this within about 18 months. The whole process is well documented in the early minute books which survive in the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland. These minute books form an extensive series but this one for 1864-68 has come to light only recently, so we have taken the opportunity to make it available on-line, taking advantage of the clerk’s partial indexing of the volume to make consultation easier.
If one thing is clear from the minute books, it is that to be one of the Guardians was by no means a sinecure. Guardians were expected to be regular in attendance at the fortnightly meetings – though on one occasion in this minute book only one turned up and the meeting was cancelled. There was much routine business, and the Minutes themselves are appropriately formulaic and repetitive. However, one soon begins to appreciate how much local information is in fact to be unearthed from these seemingly dry pages.The minute book shows that the workhouse was indeed the focus of the Guardians’ activities, as well as the general administration of the Poor Law, but they had also acquired responsibilities for the control of public nuisances and disease, which led eventually to their becoming rural sanitary authorities. The workhouse itself was subject to external inspection, and we see that in response to recommendations made by the inspector a number of improvements were put in hand in January 1868, including better
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furnishings such as rocking-chairs in lying-in wards, wooden floors instead of brick, new boys’ and girls’ wash houses, and dayroom ventilation. It was decided, however, that bathrooms for the children were not requisite.Much of the business was concerned with regulating and approving the finances of the Board and of the workhouse – managing parish contributions, paying bills, seeking tenders for supplies such as candles, coal or coffins, monitoring the expenses of the Master of the workhouse, agreeing or contesting payments of relief for paupers in or from parishes in other unions. From the details of invoices and tenders we learn, for example, the names of many local tradesmen who had dealings with the workhouse, some with businesses that would withstand the test of time such as Wellington the chemist or Crowson the brewer, others less familiar such as Haddon the barber or Sewell the tinman. We also see the difficulty the Board had in obtaining tenders for supplying flour, one of the staple commodities needed for feeding the inmates.The accounts show how much was expended on the maintenance of paupers in residence or on out-relief, on medical fees and contracts including those for vaccinations, and on maintaining lunatics in the asylum in Leicester, not to mention the salaries of workhouse staff and the clerk to the Board, who was granted a pay rise in recognition of the growing burden of paperwork. Medical certificates led to the payment of out-relief of paupers for illnesses or ailments ranging from Grace Neals’ ‘piles’ to John Wade’s ‘disease of feet’.As to nuisances, we find for example that Jno Barlow’s privy on Cold Overton Road, Oakham, was ‘injurious to the health of the inhabitants of the adjoining house’, and he was instructed to abate the nuisance, and that legal action was threatened against Mr E G Baker for allowing the discharge of industrial effluent from the Langham brewery into the stream there. There were also complaints about the unpleasant state of another stream, that running past Oakham from the Braunston road to the Uppingham road, but these were dismissed as unfounded by the Board.Now that this hitherto missing volume has been brought to light and made available here, there is good opportunity to explore it in detail in conjunction with other contemporary sources such as census records, parish registers and local directories, and to throw light on local families and their way of life. This will all add to our picture of social conditions in this part of Rutland in the mid nineteenth century.The workhouse built by the Board in 1836-7 on Ashwell Road survives to this day, as does its longcase clock, in the Rutland County Museum (see Rutland Record no 2 (1981)). This is more than can be said for the Master’s worn-out carpet – which, as these minutes show and despite the inspector’s recommendation, the Guardians felt could last another few months before needing to be replaced ... nothing changes!