On this day in history….8th August 1834

On this day in history : 8th August 1834 – The Poor Law Amendment Act is passed in Britain…. With the introduction of the Workhouse parishes are no longer responsible for the care of their poor….

Southwell Workhouse

Poverty relief was in the hands of individual parishes prior to 1834…. The belief was that the badly organised system encouraged the poor to be lazy and take advantage…. This unfortunate attitude came from the more privileged classes – in truth nearly everybody in the working classes found themselves in poverty at some time in their lives – whether through unemployment, sickness or old age…. There was no welfare system such as we know today….

The Victorian Workhouse was a place of misery…. No able bodied person could now get poor relief unless they entered the Workhouse…. Where they had to work in slave labour conditions for their food and accommodation…. Families were separated; men, women and children were split into separate accommodation and punishments were harsh if they were caught talking to each other…. Inmates were made to wear a uniform, so that everyone looked the same; the working hours were long and the inadequate food provided in starvation rations….

Men at Crumpsall Workhouse c.1897 – Image credit : Manchester Archives via Flickr

The Workhouse was self sufficient; usually with its own bakery, laundry, vegetable gardens and dairy…. It had workrooms for making clothes and shoes, communal dining rooms, a sick ward, nursery, chapel and even a mortuary…. As well as providing accommodation, what passed as food, clothes, medical care and a place of work, it also provided education for the children and training for a future job…. However, many children found themselves being hired out – or even sold – to factories and mines….

A Basketful of Babies….at Crumpsall Workhouse – Image credit : Manchester Archives via Flickr

Each Workhouse was run by a master and matron, a chaplain, school teacher, medical officer and porter…. There was little compassion and cruelty often arose…. The neglect was more than apparent and beatings frequent…. The mortality rate was high; diseases such as tuberculosis and small pox were rife…. It was a harsh system and was intended to put the fear of God into people – to make them do their utmost to keep out of the prison like conditions….

Women at mealtime, St Pancras Workhouse, London – Public domain

The Workhouse was focused on profit rather than solving the issues of the poor…. Many of the inmates were unskilled and were used as a labour force for hard manual tasks, such as crushing bones for making fertiliser or picking oakum from old ropes…. Workhouses were overseen by ‘Guardians’ – usually ruthless local businessmen seeking a profit….

Over time the Workhouse evolved and became a refuge for the sick and the elderly…. Attitudes changed towards the end of the 19th century, people expressed anger at the cruelty within them…. By 1929 new legislation had been introduced allowing local authorities to take over the running of workhouses as hospitals…. In 1930 the workhouses officially closed, although it was several years before the system totally stopped as so many people needed help…. In 1948, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act, the last of the Poor Laws were eradicated….

People queuing at South Marylebone Workhouse circa 1900 – Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

On this day in history….24th July 1867

On this day in history….24th July 1867 – The opening of the Grand Hotel in Scarborough…. As well as being the largest hotel in Europe, at the time, it was also the largest brick structure….


Scarborough, North Yorkshire….with its splendid sandy beaches – it is often described as the ‘gem of the North’…. It is the largest seaside resort on the Yorkshire coast and attracts thousands of visitors every year….

The town began to become popular in the early 17th century, when natural mineral waters were discovered in the area…. It was believed the waters had medicinal and healing benefits and so a spa house was built and Scarborough became recognised as a spa town…. As time went by the resort developed and became one of the first seaside holiday towns….

In the early 1860s a group of businessmen saw an opening for a luxurious hotel – and so the concept of the Grand was born….and in 1863 building work began…. Funding the project was an issue, which is why the £100,000 plus project took four years to complete….

Designed by architect Cuthbert Broderick from Hull, known for his design of Leeds Town Hall, the hotel was built in an unusual ‘V’ shape – to honour Queen Victoria…. It was also designed around the theme of ‘Time’…. It has 4 towers to represent the seasons, 12 floors for the months of the year and 52 chimneys for the weeks…. Originally it had 365 bedrooms – but following later renovation work this number was reduced to 280….

The Grand Hotel became quite the place to stay in Victorian Scarborough…. It was full of modern, luxurious amenities of the time – the bath taps even had an option of running sea water so as Victorian guests could benefit from the supposed health properties if they so chose….

Interior of The Grand – Image credit : Roy via Flickr

In December 1914 the hotel was badly damaged by a German naval bombardment on the towns of Scarborough and Whitby – the Grand Hotel was hit at least 30 times…. The severe damage plunged the hotel into extreme financial difficulties….ownership changed hands twice in short succession…. Standards became more relaxed but despite this the hotel pulled through and continued to attract wealthy customers, such as the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VIII and several influential politicians, such as Winston Churchill….

During World War Two it was used to station RAF servicemen…. The 4 towers housed anti-aircraft guns and the building became a base for trainee cadets…. The advantage being that the hotel could be defended against a repeat performance of the bombardment experienced in World War One…. Following the War a renovation costing £100,000 was necessary to get the Grand back to its former glory….

In more recent years the hotel served as a base for the SAS during the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980…. In 2017 the Grade II listed building was named by Historic Britain as one of the top 10 places to tell the story of England and its impact on the world….

On this day in history….13th April 1880

On this day in history : 13th April 1880 – The death of Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune – who brought to us some 250 new species of ornamental plants – and tea to India….

Public domain

Fortune was born in Kelloe, Berwickshire on the 16th of September 1812…. Little is known of his early years and to those who knew him he volunteered little information…. However, we do know he was an apprentice in the gardens of Moredun House and showed promise from the start…. He managed to gain a place at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden and trained under William McNab, a man who was not easy to impress…. But impress him Fortune did – and with McNab’s backing around 1840 he became Superintendent of the Hothouse Department at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick, London….

A few months later fortune was granted the position of the Society’s new species collector in China…. He was sent off to find, amongst other things:- double yellow roses, blue peonies, true mandarin oranges, tea plants and information on the peaches that grew in the Emperor’s garden – which were said to weight 2lb each!

Arriving in Hong Kong on the 6th of July 1843 Fortune wasted no time in starting his search…. Over the next three years he made excursions deep into the northern provinces of China…. As plants and seeds were seen as property of the Chinese Empire Fortune would not have been particularly welcome…. He was to encounter many hazards including being threatened at knifepoint by angry crowds, as he went about collecting species such as wisteria and weigela…. He also faced horrendous storms and even pirates on the Yangtze River…. To blend in and avert suspicion he disguised himself as a local Chinese merchant…. He learnt to speak Mandarin, shaved his head and even sported a pigtail…. With this disguise Fortune was able to collect his species to transport back home…. He did this by using Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Wardian cases, an early type of terrarium….

Public domain

He finally returned to London in May 1846 and the following year published his book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’…. Using the journals he had kept he detailed Chinese gardening and agriculture and the history of China’s tea culture…. He had brought back with him a vast array of beautiful exotic ornamental plants and flowers, which were subsequently introduced to the gardens of Europe, the USA and Australia….

Fortune was to set off for China again…. This time for the East India Company, with the mission of securing the best possible tea plants with which to establish plantations in India…. Once more he disguised himself as a local merchant…. He hired an interpreter and ventured into the tea regions of China…. He managed to collect over 2,000 plants and some 17,000 germinating seeds, which were taken to the Himalayas to establish India’s tea industry….

Fortune was to make a further two trips to China and a trip to Japan…. He was to introduce hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to us…. From the Kumquat….to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….

Public domain

Fortune died in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery….

On this day in history….22nd March 1808

On this day in history : 22nd March 1808 – The birth of author, social reformer and feminist Caroline Norton, who campaigned for women’s rights in Victorian England….

Caroline Norton – Public domain

Born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan in London, Caroline was the granddaughter of Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinkley Sheridan…. Her father was Thomas Sheridan, a soldier and her mother was Scottish novelist Caroline Henrietta Callender…. Tragically Thomas died in 1817 whilst serving in South Africa – he left his family virtually penniless….

Caroline was the second of three daughters, all known as beauties and sometimes referred to as ‘The Three Graces’…. Caroline herself was a high-spirited girl and quick of tongue…. Her mother, finding it difficult to control her, packed her off to boarding school in Shalford, Surrey when she was 16….

Some of the girls attending the school were invited to Wonersh Park, the home of local landowner William Norton, Lord Grantley…. It was here that Caroline caught the eye of Lord Grantley’s younger brother, George Norton…. He made up his mind there and then that he was going to marry her…. He wasted no time in writing to her mother….who whilst keen to see her daughter married off, insisted that they wait for three years…. The marriage took place in 1827, she was 19 and not overly happy about the union but agreed as she was all too aware of her family’s continuing financial difficulties….

The marriage was a disaster from the start…. He was somewhat dull, jealous – and a little dim…. She was bright, quick-witted and flirtatious…. They were also completely incompatible in their political views…. Norton was a hardline Tory – and MP for Guildford – whereas Caroline had liberal tendencies and like her grandfather she supported the Whigs…. Because she dared to voice her opinions she suffered regular, savage beatings at the hands of her husband….

Caroline buried herself in her writing…. She had shown a gift for verse from an early age…. It was two such pieces, ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ in 1829 and ‘The Undying One’ in 1830, that led to her being appointed editor of the publications ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine’….thus giving her some financial independence…. She counted amongst her close friends influential people, such as Mary Shelley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Trelawney, Fanny Kemble and the then Home Secretary Lord Melbourne….

Portrait engraving of Caroline from one of her books – Tucker Collection – New York Library Archives – Public domain

Caroline finally left her husband in 1836…. Norton retaliated by accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne…. It was a friendship he had initially encouraged – for his own gains…. Having lost his Conservative seat Norton had hoped that by using her friendship with Melbourne she could secure him a highly-paid government post…. Caroline and Melbourne, a widower who liked the ladies, were to become the subject of gossip – something Norton had in the beginning turned a blind eye to…. But once his wife had left him he sued Melbourne for seducing her…. He lost the case but Caroline’s reputation was in tatters…. To add to her misery Norton denied her access to their three young sons, Fletcher b.1829, Brinsley b.1831 and William b.1833…. Caroline’s battle against her husband for access to her boys eventually led to the Infant Custody Bill, 1839….

Norton then tried to claim the money she earned from her writing…. This prompted her to write to Queen Victoria, as part of a campaign to ensure women were supported after divorce…. The letter was published and became influential in helping the Marriage and Divorce Act 1857 succeed….

Watercolour sketch of Caroline by Emma Fergusson, 1860, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – Image : Stephencdickson – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Caroline herself was refused a divorce by her husband – she was not released from the legality of the marriage until his death in 1875…. Two years later, in March 1877, she married her old friend of 25 years, Sir William Stirling Maxwell, the Scottish historical writer and politician…. Sadly only three months later, on the 15th of June 1877, Caroline was to die….

On this day in history….5th March 1850

On this day in history : 5th March 1850 – The completion of the Britannia Bridge – linking the island of Anglesey and mainland Wales across the Menai Strait….

Original box section bridge circa 1852 – Public domain

The Menai Strait is a narrow stretch of tidal water, approximately 16 miles long separating Anglesey from the mainland…. Access across it had been solely provided by a road bridge – the Menai Bridge – a mile to the east and which had opened in 1826…. However, with the rise of rail travel a direct link to London was required – particularly to ease the journeys of MPs travelling from Ireland to Westminster, so a second bridge became necessary….

Postcard of the bridge circa 1902 – from the private collection of Jochem Hollestelle – Public domain

Initially consideration was given to using the existing bridge but it was the opinion of George Stephenson – ‘Father of Railways’ – that this particular type of suspension bridge would be unsuitable for locomotive use…. Consent for the new Britannia Bridge was granted on the 30th of June 1845…. Stephenson’s son, Robert Stephenson, was appointed Chief Engineer for the project, his design team included William Fairbairn and Eaton Hodgkinson…. They came up with a revolutionary tubular design; giant wrought iron tubes – two central main spans 140m long and two more spans at each end of 70m long…. It was thought initially that suspension chains would be needed but after careful consideration it was realised that this was not the case…. Compression force and tension would be dissipated as a train travelled across the tubes, enabling a heavy load to travel across the distance of the span….

1868 engraving showing Robert Stephenson with his team of engineers who designed the bridge – which can be seen in the background – Engraver James Scott – Public domain

Construction started on the 10th of April 1846 when the foundation stone was laid – the bridge was completed within four years…. On the 5th of March 1850 Stephenson himself fitted the last rivet into place, officially marking completion of the bridge…. On the 18th of March a single tube opened to rail traffic and by the 21st of October it was fully operational….

The bridge was decorated by four large limestone lion sculptures by John Thomas – two at each end…. Local poet John Evans wrote “Four fat lions, Without any hair, Two on this side, And two over there”…. And for 120 years those four lions oversaw the save passage of travellers across the Menai Strait….

One of the four stone lions – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

On the evening of the 23rd of May 1970 a group of boys were playing inside the tube structure when they dropped a burning torch…. The wooden, tar coated roof caught fire and because of the nature of the construction of the bridge it was impossible for the emergency services to bring the blaze under control…. It spread from the mainland side all the way across to Anglesey before eventually burning itself out…. The structure was still standing but declared unsafe – tubes were visibly sagging and some had split open….

Section of the original wrought iron tubular bridge – which now stands by the modern crossing – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain

Four years later the bridge came back into use having been reconstructed – but it looked very different…. The tubes had gone and arches spanning between the retained original towers now provided support for the rail deck…. In 1980 a further road deck was added above the railway to carry the main A55 across….

The modern-day bridge – Image : Velela – own work – Public domain