Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room

 

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On May 2nd, 1887, Thomas White was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for ‘neglecting his task at the workhouse’. An article in the Birmingham Mail described White as a tramp, and the task which he was deemed to have been negligent of was oakum picking.[1] Up and down the country, in workhouses and jails, men, women and children were daily set to work in this onerous, uncomfortable job. Baskets or tubs of dirty, thick rope was pulled into individual strands ready for reuse as caulking material. In workhouses it was used as a test in an attempt to deter people from claiming relief. Most institutions set a daily quota that each claimant must pick. Richard Wood was the tramp master, and at White’s trial he testified that on the morning of April 30th that he had given White 4lbs of oakum to pick, but that he had only picked 2lb 13oz. The workhouse doctor had confirmed that White was in good health. The presiding magistrate enquired if cold weather might have impacted the defendant’s ability to undertake his task, but was assured that the room was ‘sufficiently warm’ and that the job was such a simple one that ‘some of the seven-day boys sometimes picked the oakum just for pleasure’.[2]

Birmingham’s oakum room had not always been situated within the workhouse. In 1867, Guardian Mr Benton brought forward a motion that a labour test should be imposed on those claiming outdoor relief, as it was in Manchester. He stated that he brought the motion forward ‘in no revengeful spirit, but because he thought it would be beneficial to the people not to allow themselves to become paupers.’[3] By the following year there was an Oakum Room Sub-Committee, consisting 11 Guardians, under the authority of the Visiting and General Purposes Committee. The oakum room was based on Great Charles Street, and divided into sections for men and women with male and female attendants.[4] This was some way from the workhouse, and it is possible that it was a test house only for those seeking outdoor relief, rather than for workhouse inmates. By 1871 it was decided that the oakum picking room should be moved to the workhouse, once the tenure on the Great Charles Street premises was up.[5]

It would seem that, although Mr Benton’s proposal was presented as novel for the town, there had been a longer standing tradition of poor tests, including oakum picking. For some reason it had been discontinued.  The Relief Committee was responsible for managing outdoor relief. In March, 1858, they reported to the Board of Guardians that they were currently employing upwards of five hundred men in stone breaking and oakum picking. It was stated that one hundred and fifty men had lately been in the oakum ward as a result of the pearl button makers strike. This statement met with mixed responses: Mr Tonks said that in his opinion ‘the Board ought to require from them such an amount of labour as would prevent them from going there from choice’. Mr Phillips reported that a number of ‘insubordinate’ men from among the strikers claiming relief had been sent to the outdoor oakum ward, but that there was danger of men becoming ill from the cold weather, a factor confirmed by Mr Maher, who agreed that some means of heating the oakum room should be considered as ‘setting aside humanity, it would be economy to do so’. Men who became ill could be an even greater burden on the parish. Only Mr Corbett appeared to show a modicum of empathy, suggesting that it seemed unlikely that men would choose to break stones or pick oakum in return for ‘the miserable allowance of bread and money’ which they provided.[6]

[1] Birmingham Mail, May 2nd, 1887

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, May 4th, 1867

[4] Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, GP B/2/3/10 Oakum Room Sub-committee 1869-1872

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 9th, 1871

[6] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 8th, 1858

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One thought on “Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room

  1. Whenever I notice a name and a reference to the Board of Guardians I wonder what type of “Guardian” they were. Were they men with a genuine regard for the poor, or one that just regarded the position as one of status?

    Regarding Mr Benson I think it is important to say that when he addressed the Guardians concerning the oakum wards and also his proposed Labour Test he began by refering to women.

    …Mr Benton moved a resolution that in consequence of the great number of women in the Workhouse who are able to obtain their own living, it is advisable that the Birmingham Council rent or purchase rooms in which applicants of this class can be set to work picking oakum, under the superintendence of a paid officer and workers to be paid daily…

    ….in consequence of the unsatisfactory manner in which the able-bodied women were treated in that House he thought that it was time even some plan should be adopted to prevent them getting in to the House…

    Benton, who died in 1872, seemed to be very vocal at the Board meetings. In March 1868 a Mr Mander called the attention of the Guardians to… “the state of the paupers in the oakum wards. Some said they could make no more than 6d a day and out of that they had to pay 3d for lodgings. That was little better than a state of starvation. Besides, the people to which he referred were not able paupers, the class the oakum ward was intended…. it seemed cruel to treat people in this manner.” After a response from Benton matter was dropped.

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