The People of St Pancras Workhouse
We’ve previously written about our excavations of the St Pancras Workhouse inside the two-acre Oriel site and what they have revealed. We excavated this site as part of planning consent obligations for Oriel – a new state-of-the-art eye care, research and education centre currently being built in Camden, and which is due to open in 2027. Oriel is a joint initiative between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology (IoO) and Moorfields Eye Charity.
We’ve explored more than 200 years of the site’s history, including the 1812 addition of an infirmary to the workhouse.
In this blog, we’re going to dig into some Victorian records! Combined with our archaeological discoveries, these can help us begin to tell the stories of the people of St Pancras workhouse, and the medical care which took place there.
Digging into the records
The key to unlocking these people's lives comes from a slightly surprising source. Instead of medical records, or documents produced by the workhouse, we found our best evidence in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. These contain thousands of records of trials from the criminal court and contain details of the lives of many ordinary people – especially those who would end up at workhouses like St Pancras. Because these are records of criminal cases, involving some of the poorest people in Victorian London, they often contain incredibly difficult and tragic stories.
These records also give us information about the workhouse staff, and the medical treatment they were able to provide. If a victim or the accused were taken to be treated at the workhouse, medical officers and other employees were often called to give evidence.
Medical officers were the equivalent of doctors. Their work involved everything from medical assessments to postmortems. By comparing census data and the Old Bailey records, we were able to identify a number of the St Pancras medical officers.
One of these people was Walter Dunlop. Walter was the medical officer in the late 1800s. He gave evidence to the Old Bailey in trials involving medical care, deaths and postmortems at St Pancras workhouse between 1879 to 1902.
One of these trials was for the murder of a man called Patrick Quinlan, who died from an abscess in his jaw after being hit in a pub brawl. During the trial, Walter Dunlop recalled:
“I attended him till 24th November, when he died—I afterwards made a post-mortem examination—the left jawbone was completely fractured; an abscess had formed round the fracture, burrowing into the soft tissues and corroding into the artery—the cause of death was bleeding from the bursting of the artery—he suffered from blood-poisoning as well—I should think the fracture of the jaw was such as might be expected from a violent blow from a man's fist; I should think it was the result of direct violence.”
Elizabeth Swincoe and Annie Taapf
In the early days of the workhouse infirmary, the sick would have been looked after by other healthy ‘inmates’. However, by the time of the 1881 census, there were 17 staff working on the wards. 14 of them were women - nurses, midwives and ward superintendents. With one medical officer, these women clearly had a lot of responsibility for the patients in their care. They also appear as witnesses in the Old Bailey records.
Elizabeth Swinscoe, superintendent of the receiving ward at the workhouse infirmary in the 1870s-1880s, was called on two occasions to give evidence in cases involving abandoned children.
A nurse from the workhouse, Annie Taapfe gave evidence in one of the same trials as Elizabeth. She recalls treating the abandoned child:
"the child was very ill – I gave it a bath, and applied poultices to the chest and back, and it was handed over to the doctor.”
Not just a workhouse...
St Pancras workhouse didn’t just provide medical care for the inmates. Our research has revealed that other residents of the local area were taken there for treatment. In fact, over 100 years before the NHS was created, St Pancras workhouse was a vital local healthcare provider.
The reliance on St Pancras workhouse to provide this kind of medical care can be seen in records from a trial in 1890. Here a local surgeon called John Thompson is recalling his actions after being called to attend an injured man. Thompson says,
“I sent for an ambulance, and took him to the workhouse [St Pancras], and with the assistance of the surgeon there tied the arteries.”
By the 1860s the workhouse infirmary had the same number of patients as many major London hospitals. This explains why the Local Government Act of 1929 turned it into what is now known as St Pancras Hospital.