The view of a Victorian workhouse we carry today is often informed by Dickens’ Oliver Twist – brutal treatment, poor quality food, not-particularly sanitary living conditions – but rather than deliberately designed to de-humanise people, workhouses existed to provide relief for the poor and ostentatiously to get them back on their feet and a useful member of society again.
Chippenham’s Union workhouse, formalised after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, initially used a building at Lacock and several smaller buildings in The Butts which had been the workhouse provision for several decades, but in the 1850s the decision was made to build a purpose building – now Chippenham Community Hospital on Rowden Hill.
Workhouses were usually run by married couples, with the man being the master – in charge of the management of the institution and its inmates – and his wife being the matron, who was the deputy manager and looked after female inmates and children, and was in charge of the building’s domestic arrangements.
The matron of Chippenham’s workhouse from some point in the 1860s was Martha Elizabeth Gane, alongside her husband James.
She’d been born Martha Elizabeth Smith in Bath, one of two surviving children of an accountant and his wife, and spent her childhood living in grand Georgian houses in the heart of the city during the 1840s and 50s. She and her brother George were educated at home, and continued this education well into their teens – unusual in an era where most schooling finished around 12. Their household has a servant but no sign of a governess, indicating that it was their parents – probably their mother – who provided this education.
At the age of 21 she married James Gane at St Swithin’s Church in Bath. He was an accountant, living in Temple Cloud, so she had probably met him through her father. They married by special license rather than by banns, which meant that the marriage could happen quickly. In some cases this could have been marriage by necessity, but since their first daughter Rosetta was born the requisite nine months later perhaps a judgement of whirlwind romance might be the better one.
Although marrying an accountant sounds grand, and monied, for this age, James did not stick this profession out and did not provide the sort of lifestyle that Martha had grown up knowing. Their second daughter’s (Constance) birth, in East Brent, has him as a clerk, while their third (Georgina) sees them back in Bath with him working as a victualler – usually either a publican or keeper of a shop that sold alcohol. Martha would have assisted him in this by serving customers.
By 1861 the family were in Chippenham, on the Causeway. Martha was helping James to make ends meet by taking in work as a dressmaker and milliner (hat maker), alongside her sister and her sister in law, while he worked as a solicitors’ clerk. They also lived in Castle Combe for a while, as their son Percy was born there, but by the time their final child Claude appeared the family are back in Chippenham and Martha’s husband James is recorded as the master of Chippenham Union Workhouse.
As Matron of the Workhouse Martha had jurisdiction over the whole complex. This included accommodation for vagrants in the entrance block, and a main block with an infirmary, a chapel, a dining hall and several service buildings. Her staff included a schoolmaster and schoolmistress – responsible for educating the inmates’ children and possibly Martha’s own too, a porter, and nurses. Later on the workhouse also had an industrial trainer – passing on new skills – and a bandmaster, who presumably ran a workhouse band with the inmates as a form of entertainment and rehabilitation. On the 1871 census the workhouse has 201 inmates, many of them women and children – who would have been looked after by Martha. Several of the inmates are given as “idiot from birth”, “lunatic” or “imbecile”, indicating long term learning difficulties and care needs, and probably had lived in the workhouse for most of their lives. Others were widows with no visible means of support once their husbands had passed away, and there was at least one unmarried woman with a tiny illegitimate baby.
All three of her daughters continued to be educated until their later teens, like Martha had. During the 1870s they all married from the workhouse: Rosetta to a schoolmaster, and she became a schoolmistress at Yatton Keynell; Constance to a Poor Law Officer from Newbury, and she went on to become matron of the workhouse herself; and Georgina to the church organist from St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham.
Martha’s sons, who were considerably younger, still lived at home at the Workhouse until they were grown, and then one of them ran his own workhouse for many years. She stayed at the Chippenham workhouse, alongside James, working as the matron until 1898. This meant she had served as matron for around thirty years. Towards the end of her tenure she took on an assistant matron to help her with the role.
On retirement, she and James moved back to Bath. He had a pension as a retired poor law officer, and this enabled them to afford a reasonable house and the services of a servant. A young married couple in their 20s, the Whittakers, took over the running of the Chippenham workhouse which had been their domain for so long.
Martha died in 1916 in Bath, aged 82, leaving around £300 to her husband James.
Several masters and matrons of the workhouse followed the Ganes. In 1911, Arthur Shirley Fussell and his wife Frances were in position, but by 1915 William Humphries was in charge. And by 1923 James Burnett Pierce and his wife Ethel were in situ. No-one stayed as long as the Ganes, however. In the 1930s the workhouse was known as Chippenham Institution, and it became St Andrew’s Hospital in 1948. When other hospitals in the town had closed, the building became Chippenham Community Hospital and still serves the town.