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Social welfare in Calderdale

Halifax, Royal Infirmary

There was a problem with poor people in Calderdale from early times and provision was made for them even as early as the Tudor period by the establishment of Workhouses where the homeless wayfarer could spend a night under cover and have a meal, working for several hours to cover the cost. Nathaniel Waterhouse (1586-1645) built such an institution with a charter from Charles I in 1635. This was situated near the Parish Church, at the centre of the community, and to ensure that mercy was tempered with some discipline a whipping-stock was erected there, for it was also a house of correction.

Later, in 1834, the Poor Law Union was instituted in Halifax and a new Workhouse was built in Gibbet Street in 1841. This was a large institution which replaced several district Workhouses and cared for both male and female destitutes, but husband and wife were separated while staying there. This system carried on for many years until the old Workhouse became St John's Hospital, but this was a hospital intended only for the elderly and for many the stigma of the Workhouse still pervaded it.

Halifax General Hospital, formerly St Luke's Hospital (1901), was also originally a Poor Law Hospital but soon came into general use as one of Halifax's two main hospitals. The other was the Royal Halifax Infirmary which was opened in 1898 by the Duke and Duchess of York, later to become King George V and Queen Mary. In 2001 the Royal Infirmary was closed and the General Hospital extended to take patients from all over Calderdale. Before the Royal Halifax Infirmary was built a dispensary was in use near the Parish Church and later an infirmary was opened on Harrison Road, a building which was to be replaced by the Magistrates Court and Police Headquarters (1900).

The Victorian period was a time of marked philanthropy and paternalism in the attitude of many mill owners and employers who took it upon themselves to assist their own workpeople with their needs, sometimes providing housing, education and social institutes. It was not uncommon for an employer to take some responsibility for sick employees, sending them food and keeping a job available.

This Christian caring, however, did not extend to all employers by any means. Some remained hard businessmen who would only pay for work done well and had no interest in the well-being of their workers. The employers who cared for their workpeople were usually those who were known to be involved in the church and who often played a leading part in the religious life of the community, but Benjamin Wilson tells in his book 'The Struggles of an Old Chartist' (1887) of a man who was ill and was refused a gift of wine on the grounds that he was a Chartist. He also recounts how people banded together to set up small co-operatives which sold first flour and then other commodities to their members at the lowest possible price.

With the coming of Trade Unions the workers became a force to be reckoned with and used their own powers to improve their working conditions in many ways, not just increased pay, but shorter hours, and a greater degree of safety at work. It became harder for a worker to be sacked without good reason, and holidays were allowed with full pay.

Throughout the years of workers' struggles numerous charities had assisted in easing their lot and the work of these charities carried on in many cases long after their original function was no longer required. Sometimes they adapted to the changes and took on a new role, many of them still working hard today.

As time passed and the townships of Calderdale were improved with new drainage, water-supply and housing, and gas lighting came into general use, followed by electricity, the living conditions as well as the working conditions improved immeasurably for the working man. The period before World War 2 and the succeeding years were a time when large new housing estates were built and thousands of people who had only known life in a small, back-to-back house now became residents in a modern house with plenty of space, a bathroom and a garden.

Equally important were the advantages which came with the Welfare State immediately following the war. Free medical and hospital treatment, free dental treatment and spectacles and the provision of homes for the elderly transformed life for thousands of people in Calderdale alone. The dread of being out-of-work, homeless, hungry or sick was banished and people began to believe that they had 'never had it so good.

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