WITH Jeremy Hunt busy bringing the NHS to its knees, it was fascinating — and timely — to learn about a far more benign (and altogether more successful) approach to patient care.
Talking about her book Henley Union Workhouse — The Story of Townlands (Brewin Books), Valerie Alasia treated a packed Town Hall to a riveting description of the standout features of Victorian medical and social welfare through the prism of Henley’s original poorhouse.
Erected in 1727, on the site of what is now the Kenton Theatre in New Street, the poorhouse was moved in 1790 — due to a surge in numbers — to the present listed buildings located near today’s Townlands hospital.
In 1836 capacity had reached 250 inmates and by 1870 the workhouse boasted a school housing 500 children and six acres of land for the inmates to grow vegetables.
By 1929 the end was in sight as the county councils dealt with the destitute whilst the children were fostered out. Only the elderly and sick remained in the workhouse, until 1948 — when the NHS took over the whole lot.
Valerie painted a picture of kind-hearted workhouse masters — William Jackson, the first master, and Samuel Mortlock, who died in office and kept in touch with the children long after they’d left — the essence of Victorian patronage.
There was the odd bad apple — one schoolmaster impregnated a workhouse girl but protested that it was her fault “as paupers ought not to be allowed out into the grounds”.
Valerie also chronicled the Victorian lists and inventories of the workhouse stores — hops, malt, cheese, flour, beer, coal, calico, flannel, socks, shoes, handkerchiefs and coffins — tellingly poignant of “a day in a life” where some never made it out alive.
But even on death the benign nature of the Henley workhouse continued as the death certificate of former inmates did not state Henley Union Workhouse but rather “78 West Street, Henley” — the address of the workhouse gatekeeper’s lodge.
The Henley workhouse masters and the guardians who met once a fortnight in the boardroom, which still stands on the site, demonstrated that the key to their success in caring for the Henley poor, children, sick and elderly for over 200 years was local decision-making coupled with a disciplined, rigorous and practical approach to providing financial welfare, shot through with good plain common sense and compassion — which would teach today’s hospital managers and clinical commissioning groups a thing or two about achieving results.