Unfortunately, before 1948 Britain was a very unhealthy place for most people, there was a great deal of poverty with not much help available. There is a very strong link between bad health and poverty. Previously although the rich may generally have often had better health and lived longer than the poor because of superior living conditions and diet, they were still at risk. The main reason for this being a lack of medical and scientific knowledge and technology. Market Harborough would have been no exception. Possibly conditions were better here than larger, more urban areas like Leicester, but there was very little awareness of the links between dirt and disease.
The Romans appear to have been much healthier than the people who lived after them. It’s no coincidence that they loved having baths and clean water! However, after their departure at around 410AD the locals didn’t keep up their good habits and failed to appreciate what the Romans could have potentially done for them!
Medical knowledge was slow to advance and there were all sorts of weird and wonderful theories about how the human body functioned. Well into the 19th century it was commonly believed that disease and bad health were a punishment for bad behaviour, or that it was the will of God and had to be endured. Prayer and penitence were seen as your only chance. No wonder so many people went on pilgrimages in order to pray at the site of a holy relic such as a Saint’s mummified body (yuk!) believing it could miraculously cure them.
Even when knowledge did start to increase, particularly in the 16th to 18th centuries it didn’t have much impact. Advances in knowledge would eventually come in to its own. More successful surgery would have to wait for the development of antiseptics by Doctor Lister and anaesthetics by Dr Simpson both in the mid 19th Century.
There are some rather tenuous links between Market Harborough and significant medical and scientific breakthroughs. It had been noticed by many country people that those who worked with cows rarely caught one of the deadliest killers around: small pox. One farmer, named Benjamin Jesty, made a point of getting family and friends up close and personal with his dairy herd. It worked! In 1800, Dr Jenner came up with a theory that this was because cows had a mild version of the disease known not surprisingly as Cow Pox (who would have guessed?). If you happened to catch it the chances were, you wouldn’t get small pox. This was how the principle of vaccination was discovered. At first people refused to believe it but gradually the proof was undeniable. However, many parents continued not to get their children vaccinated. Eventually the government stepped in and a law was introduced making vaccination compulsory.
Sadly, this wasn’t entirely successful as it just made many people furious. How dare the government tell parents what they must do for their children’s welfare! Outrageous! A National Anti -Vaccination League was set up to campaign against the law. It was huge in Leicester and also Market Harborough. Eventually the government repealed the laws and vaccinations went up. Small pox was wiped out and the principle applied to other diseases.
In the early 1830s a new form of a deadly plague arrived in Britain: Cholera. No one properly understood its causes or how to treat it. Death was rapid and extremely painful. There were several Cholera epidemics, especially in overcrowded cities. Unlike the earlier Bubonic Plague, Cholera had nothing to do with fleas on rats. Some doctors thought it was caused by bad air or ‘Miasma’. Eventually Dr John Snow worked out it was in the water. He mapped out where the cholera cases occurred and noticed that it was all to do with water wells. Putting it as delicately as possible some wells had sewage in them! This was established as the cause in the 1850s. Snow’s discovery about Cholera being in water was very important as it led to further research about the transmission of other diseases.
What about Market Harborough? It hasn’t been possible to find out whether there were any Cholera cases in the town although several sources make it clear there were no cases in the first outbreak in 1833. ln 1849 there had been a big inspection of the town by the government. This revealed that many houses were damp, and therefore excellent breeding grounds for disease. There were also back to back houses notorious for bad ventilation which again was great for germs. Most of the town sewage ended up in the river which then got into the wells. In 1886 an analysis of the towns water supply revealed that most wells were badly polluted. As a result, piped water was introduced coming from the clean wells at Husband’s Bosworth and North Kilworth.
Following advice from the local Council Medical Officer a swimming pool was opened in 1896 in the interests of improving public health in the town. This was known as a ‘Public Bath’ as it had laundering and washing facilities as well as a pool, a common facility being provided by many towns and cities in the late 19th Century, so there was no shame about having to use them, unlike going to the Workhouse. In fact, these facilities were still in use in the 1950s, mainly due to the fact that many houses still didn’t have bathrooms. The ‘present day’ Leisure Centre still has the Commemorative plaque from the opening ceremony of these Public Baths.
Another contributor to bad health is poor living conditions. Market Harborough undoubtedly had its fair share of slums, in fact reference was made to them around the area of butcher’s shops known as the Shambles in the 13th Century. There were still yards and rows containing slums in existence in the 1930’s. After the First World War there had been a determined effort to clear slums and provide better housing. However, then came the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash and financial crash. There were to clear the slums, although the new housing provided wasn’t necessarily quite up to standard as originally had been hoped. Almost 100 houses were cleared, many of them in Wellington’s Yard. Many here were crumbling, overcrowded and had very poor sanitation.
Looking at what care was available for the sick again Market Harborough was pretty much like other similar towns. As elsewhere and previously mentioned Henry VIII getting rid of convents and monasteries had a big impact as these had provided a lot of care. Monks and Nuns didn’t just pray for the sick which but also looked after them. Whilst the actual treatments may not have done much good, being in a warm bed and being fed nourishing food probably did have an impact. It would appear that Henry wasn’t concerned. After the dissolution of the Monasteries you could see a doctor if you could afford it, otherwise you might be lucky enough to get some help from charity.
Poverty was on the increase. By 1600 this was causing massive concern, mainly because of crime and vagrancy. In 1601 Queen Elizabeth passed a Poor Law which required every parish to do something about poverty. Many, including Market Harborough used Alms Houses. These were provided by charities, often again a bequest in some wealthy person’s will. This might be because they believed it would fast track them to heaven. However, that wasn’t always the case, many probably did genuinely want to make a difference. The help they gave was known as Alms, this often included affordable housing. There were many examples of Alms Houses in the local area. Specifically, there was ‘The Market Harborough Town Estate and Bates charity’ providing housing for the poor and other benefits for the town. The first actual record of this was in 1570 but it seems likely it was in existence before that. As yet no information has been found about the origins of this charity, who was ‘Bates” for example? There was also a similar ‘Little Bowden Town Estate’ first recorded in 1639 and a ‘Great Bowden Town Estate’ first record of which dates from 1624. In 1994 the three combined to form Market Harborough and The Bowdens Charity.
There were also places known as known as ‘The Poor House’ or ‘Workhouses’ as places where the poor could get some help, known as ‘Poor Relief’. This would have included care of the sick, especially the elderly and also children without parents. Some ‘paupers’ also got help in their own homes known as ‘Outdoor Relief’.
If you were ‘poorly’ what care would you get? Thanks to Henry VIII there was very little hospital provision available. From the early 18th century ‘voluntary’ hospitals started to open. These were funded by charity; often again bequests from wealthy individuals. Many doctors and surgeons would give some of their time working there. The first was The French Hospital in Finsbury, London. It was called this as it was funded by French Protestants known as Hugenots, who had recently arrived as asylum seekers to escape religious persecution. They did well for themselves as many were very skilled, such as in silk weaving and glass blowing.
Getting back to Voluntary hospitals these were set up in larger towns and cities. In 1818 one was set up in a cottage in the village of Southam in Warwickshire. This wasn’t that far from Market Harborough in modern terms but was quite a long journey in those days. Additionally, it only had 4 beds for local agricultural workers and their families. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone from Market Harborough was ever a patient. The first actual voluntary hospital to call itself a Cottage hospital was in Piccott’s End in Hertfordshire. The idea was to avoid patients having to make long journeys and emergency care would be much more readily available and therefore much more likely to work. For instance, if you had the misfortune to nearly drown in the canal, get gored by a bull or have cut a finger off with agricultural equipment! It was also believed that it might well be beneficial if local medics treated locals, who might be known to them. Typically, the Cottage Hospitals included some private wards which people had to pay for which helped fund them. There were also ‘Out Patient’ services and facilities for day patients as well as what we would know call minor injuries and surgical procedures.
Clearly a Cottage Hospital would be advantageous to Market Harborough. In 1910 one was opened on the Coventry Road replacing a dispensary (prescribing chemist) on that site. Just after the First World War ended in 1918 a public meeting was held where is was unanimously agreed that a fund would be set up to build a war memorial in the town square honouring those from the town who had paid the ultimate price and been killed in combat. This was built and unveiled in 1921. At the same meeting it was agreed that there would also be a ‘Peace Memorial’ to benefit the whole community. This was achieved in 1924 when an extension to the existing ‘Cottage’ Hospital was opened. There was a memorial plaque over the main entrance commemorating those who had served in the war.
The hospital also included the very latest x-ray equipment at the cutting edge of new developments in medical science. It was something to be proud of and all raised by donations and charity events. Hospital fetes were often an important event in the calendar of many villages, towns and cities. This still goes on today, such as in 2020 during the Corvid 19 pandemic charity fundraiser like Captain Tom and Tony Hudgell, who both undertook inspiring challenges to raise money for the NHS. Under the National Health Service, Market Harborough Cottage Hospital became the District Hospital. It continued to provide services for all until its eventual closure in 2017.
The benevolent Symingtons also set up a clinic in 1920, presumably for their workers. That would also have increased the amount of medical care in the town.
The Elizabethan poor law required parishes to take on some responsibility for their own poor. This allowed parishes to tell paupers to go back to where ever they had been born, so you couldn’t get poor relief anywhere else. This may have been difficult for people who did leave their local area to find work.
As explained previously parishes provided Indoor and Outdoor Relief. This was paid for out of a ‘Poor Rate’, a sort of early council tax that all householders had to pay. It was flexible in that the amount of poor rate would vary according how many people required poor relief. It was cheaper to provide outdoor relief but that wasn’t always appropriate. For instance, elderly people who had no relatives to care for them. There were the disabled or people with ‘Special Needs’ as they are referred today who would have found it very difficult to find work and be independent. Also, the children with no parents and no relatives who could or would take care of them. These included orphans and ‘Foundlings’ that is babies who had been abandoned, probably because their mothers were desperate and had no means to look after them, often because the Fathers had ‘disappeared’. In those days there was very little sympathy for women who got pregnant without being married to the father, or even married women who had been abandoned.
In 1728 Market Harborough set up a Parish Poor House. In 1793 one John Tilley became Master. As such one of his duties was to teach the pauper children to read. The only reading matter was almost certainly the bible and prayer book. There are records of spinning wheels being bought so that those who could use them could do so to make a contribution for their ‘Bed and Board’. In 1801 the Poor House was rebuilt, and other buildings were also being used.
This was probably because poverty was on the increase in a big way. The population was rising whilst at the same time so was unemployment. From the 1790s until 1814 England was almost constantly at war with France and this was causing a serious recession. Land owners were increasingly getting rid of the tenants who rented their land from them in order to introduce more profitable ways of making money. This was known as ‘Enclosure’ and resulted in many farmers who rented their land or who couldn’t prove they owned them losing their farms. Remember, most would have been unable to read and write and would not have appreciated a written document known as deeds or a lease that proved they were owners or tenants with any rights. Enclosure had a big impact on the development of fox hunting in the local area.
Times were hard. The Poor Rate was going up and those who had to pay it were not impressed. There was lots of muttering about fraud and scroungers who were too lazy to work. As a result, the Elizabethan Poor Law was scrapped and replaced by The Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834.
This is where ‘Oliver Twist’ comes in to the story, remember he was the child that asked for more in the Workhouse. Under this act there was to be no Outdoor Relief. Anyone claiming poor relief had to go into the workhouse. The idea was to discourage people from going there unless they were truly desperate. Charles Dickens was very much on the side of the poor, having had a poverty-stricken childhood himself, including his whole family having to live in a ‘Debtors Prison’ because of his father. As a result, he deliberately exaggerated the bad conditions because he wanted the law changed, as did many more others. They recognised that the causes of poverty weren’t quite so straight forward as the Poor Law Amendment Act presented.
In the Workhouse families were separated so that husbands and wives were kept apart and parents usually only allowed to see their children briefly on Sundays. After the age of seven boys and girls were also separated, including siblings. It wasn’t called the Workhouse for nothing because if you could work that’s what you did, such as the daily tasks required to maintain the Workhouse. Additionally, inhabitants were expected to work to provide money for their keep in order to keep the Poor Rate down. This would often be probably laundry and sewing for the women, agricultural labouring or stone breaking (for road repairs or other building work) for the men. Pauper children would be apprenticed as soon as possible.
There is no record that the Market Harborough Workhouse was worse than any other one elsewhere. In fact, gradually during its history it would become more and more important for providing medical care and eventually would become the site of the present St Luke’s hospital. This was finally opened in 1974, but as elsewhere many old residents of the town still associated it with the ’Workhouse’.
Some of the most famous ‘guests’ at the Harborough workhouse were marchers on the Jarrow Crusade in 1936 who spent the night there in late October of that year. At this time of the great depression Jarrow had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country due its reliance on shipbuilding. The march was all about presenting Parliament with a petition asking the government to do something to help by providing Jarrow with some work. These were hard working men and many had served in the First World War. In present day terms the march went viral thanks to the BBC Radio and ‘Pathe News’ bulletins shown as part of cinema programmes, both of which were very popular at the time. The march was non-political, although it had the full backing of the town’s Labour MP, a Ellen Wilkinson, a somewhat inspirational character for the feminist movement. There weren’t that many Labour MPs around at the time, let alone Women! Some of the marchers played the mouth organ, they formed a band to provide a soundtrack to help keep up morale. Somewhere along the journey the march acquired a black labrador dog they nicknamed Paddy. There were frequent photo opportunities showing him walking with Ellen Wilkinson.
All this plus the massive publicity gave the Marchers tremendous public support. Unfortunately, the Marchers recall Market Harborough as their worst overnight stop. Although there were clearly acts of individual kindness, unlike else where there was no civic reception by the local authorities. The marchers were taken to a damp Workhouse out house with a cold damp stone floor to spend the night. This was later repudiated by local media, and undoubtedly there were locals who tried to do what they could, probably including the Workhouse staff. Apparently, the Assistant Bishop of Leicester did come to welcome them, but he had probably already been in the much larger welcoming committee the day before in Leicester.
In 2016 Stuart Maconie, journalist and broadcaster, re-enacted the Jarrow Marchers’ trip and also had a bad experience of an stay overnight as recounted in his book, ‘The Long March from Jarrow’.
Undoubtedly workhouses were becoming less and less as described by Dickens and apparently much more sympathetic to the poor during the early 20th Century. A good example of this was East Farndon Cottage Home which opened in 1912 for children. Earlier in 1884 The Leicester Poor Law Union had established Cottage Homes out of the city in Countesthorpe. This may have influenced the Market Harborough Union to do something similar. Cottage homes weren’t unknown elsewhere and were originally inspired by Dr Barnardo’s, each home having a House Mother and Father. It was considered that these would provide a much better environment for children than the workhouse.
Post 1948 workhouses were gradually phased out. The Harborough workhouse would eventually transform itself into St Luke’s Hospital as happened elsewhere, including in Leicester where the Work house infirmary would become the Leicester General. At St Luke’s there are still reminders of the workhouse. As visitors pass through the main entrance the original workhouse bell from 1836 is still present. 1948 saw the establishment of the Welfare State by the Labour Minister Nye Bevan based on the earlier Beveridge Report. This would revolutionise health and welfare across Britain for the benefit of everyone.