The Hamilton Poor House.

Poor House Map.

By Wilma S. Bolton ©

In the 1850’s Hamilton, like every other community had residents who for variety of reasons were unable to support themselves and who were forced by their circumstances to apply to be put on the poor roll. Their application would be thoroughly investigated by the inspector of poor and stringent criteria had to be met before the claimant could quality for relief.
Once it had been established that the claimants had no means of supporting themselves, they were given outdoor poor relief which made it possible for them to continue live in their own homes. Elderly residents could also be looked after in Aikman’s Alms House in Muir Street situated opposite what is now the car park of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. There was also Hamilton Parochial Lodging House with room for 57 residents where the poor could be boarded.

The people who were entitled to poor relief were residents of the town who were widows with no means of supporting themselves and their children, the elderly and sick who were unable to work and the unemployed. Initially the poor were given an allowance and had their rent paid for them but the potato famine of 1845-1851 resulted in thousands of starving poverty-stricken Irish families arriving in Scotland and applications for poor relief increased dramatically.

Anyone applying for assistance and who did not meet the necessary residential criteria could be put on the poor roll, but the town of their birth or where they had residential status was charged for their keep. However, it was not unknown for the inspector of the poor to escort claimants back to their own parish, even going as far as deporting women and children back to the town of their birth in Ireland.

In 1860 the Hamilton Advertiser published statistics relating to the occupants of Hamilton Parochial Lodging House. Of the 29 adults present, 5 were blind, 4 of weak intellect, 4 with diseased legs and unable to walk, 11 were bedridden and the other 5 unable to support themselves. There were also 28 resident children in the lodging house who attended the Hamilton Orphan & Charity School in Chapel Street. The formation of the Hamilton Orphan Society in 1809 and the opening of their school in 1849 meant orphan and destitute children were taken off the streets and given an education and taught skills which would help them to obtain employment.

Prior to the opening of the Parochial Lodging House, orphaned or abandoned children were boarded out with “whoever would keep them the cheapest,” but because of this, they were allowed to “grow up in ignorance and beggary. Many old and diseased were also boarded out and were kept in a “very dirty state” again at the cheapest rates the parish could obtain.
The system of support was austere, although extra allowances could be paid for necessities such as compulsory smallpox inoculations, the registration of births, funerals and clothing. There was even a form of legal aid.

However, by the late 1850s, plans had been put forward with a view to the construction of a combination poorhouse where the poor of eight local parishes could stay under one roof. This proposal however was not for the benefit of the poor; it was merely a cost saving exercise due to the increase in the numbers of claimants.

formed objects exposed to the cold wintry weather” and advocated that the trade of “exhibiting ghastly little infants labouring under whooping cough, measles or other infectious diseases” in an attempt to obtain money from passers by should be prevented.

The proposed combination poorhouse caused a great deal of controversy with more people against the idea than for it. The letters columns of the Hamilton Advertiser frequently published correspondence from irate readers on the subject. One very anti poorhouse letter, dated 10th September, 1864, stated the reason for the building of a poorhouse was to discourage people from claiming parish poor relief, but, “to the outcast and truly destitute such an asylum might prove a home, but still a home without liberty.”

The writer, a Strathaven man also pointed out that in Strathaven “it had been noticed and remarked on with pain by many, that a special class on the poor roll has been handed down for many generations, so that the family connection can be traced far back, where pauperhood was deeply rooted—so deeply, that it has been transmitted from father to son as an inheritance through a long line of succession and can be genealogically traced as are the lineal descendents of some of the great aristocratic families of the land.”

Another letter published on 25th October 1862, advocated supporting “honest poverty” at home, rather than “seeing it dragged away bleeding and desolate to a place of captivity” (the poorhouse) and quotes a Glasgow Herald article which states that “the felons of our country in our jails, are treated in every respect far better than the poor inmates of our poorhouses.” The poor he said “were generally natives of the place and had spent their days amongst us and consequently are well known and in not a few instances much respected.” “All their whole crime is, they’re penniless poor” to lock them up would be a “most gross and unqualified barbarity.” The proposed combination poorhouse was he said, an attempt by the “would be rich,” to make honest poverty appear—“what it never was, nor never will be while the bible is the book—a crime.”

The writer vividly described in his letter the removal of a destitute Newarthill family from their home to the New Monkland Workhouse. “The family consisted of a miner, about 40 years of age, suffering from disease of the heart; his wife, a pale half-famished looking creature and three sickly emaciated children, the eldest of whom could not be more than five years old. A donkey cart had been provided for their transportation and into this miserable, jolting vehicle the family were packed and dragged along in this degrading manner to the New Monkland Bastille.” The writer called for a rejection of the plans to build a combination workhouse in Hamilton.

Despite objections, the proposed Hamilton Combination Poorhouse was built at Bothwell Road at a cost of £11,198 6s 3d. The first inmates were admitted in 1867 with no opening ceremony. The shares (beds) were distributed as follows. Avondale, 25; Blantyre, 10; Cambuslang,15; Dalserf, 15; Glassford, 9; Hamilton, 72; East Kilbride, 14; Stonehouse, 10; a total of 170 beds.

For the decent working man, the thought of becoming ill and unable to support his family, brought with it the terror of being locked away in the poorhouse and the reasons why were very obvious. Residents had to contribute to their keep by working in the laundry, cleaning, assisting in the dining hall, working in the gardens, in the pigsty or in the poorhouse factory where the men sawed up old railway sleepers and chopped them into sticks which were then dipped into naphtha tanks to make firelighters. By giving the inmates work the cost of running the poorhouse was kept to an absolute minimum. The life was regimented and to survive, 100% conformity to rules was required. For slight misdemeanours, inmates had their clothes removed and were for a period of up to six or seven days “locked up in the clink” (a room used as an area of detention in the poorhouse) and have their already inadequate diet cut.

In 1924 a scandal rocked Hamilton when an anonymous letter was delivered to the editor of the Hamilton Advertiser complaining of the appalling conditions endured by the inmates of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse. The letter complained of numerous people being bathed in the same water, sick people being forced to work, deplorable food and maggots in the soup. It also went into great detail about the lack of nursing care given to the sick in the two hospital wards. Staffed during the day by one trained nurse to each ward there were no nursing staff on duty at night, only an untrained “inmate warder” who slept in the vicinity of the wards and who attended to the patients only when their shouts managed to waken him out of a sleep. The letter described the horrors of sick and dying patients lying unattended for ten hours during the night and of dead bodies lying in bed in a ward full of patients until the nursing staff came on in the morning. This letter resulted in a Public Inquiry being held into the allegations.

The Inquiry heard of a regime where even staff were afraid to complain about conditions, because if found out, they were instantly dismissed by the Governor. This was the case when a Nurse Charles complained to Hamilton Parish Councillor John C. Kelly about food being unfit for consumption. John Kelly appears to be the only person who genuinely attempted over a period of sixteen years to have conditions at the poorhouse improved. A checkweigher at a Bent Colliery, he was ostracised by local councillors for speaking out against injustice and for not running with the pack. It was also because of Kelly that the issue of the conditions at Hamilton Combination Poorhouse were finally brought to light and the Public Inquiry held. He had written the letter published in the Hamilton Advertiser on behalf of Robert Peters, a former gardener at the poorhouse.

The situation regarding the nursing staff had been under review for eighteen years, but the Combination could not agree on what percentage each should pay to cover the cost of night nurses and “the interests of inmates had been sacrificed for those eighteen years.” When John Kelly gave evidence at the enquiry, he said that “it was the greatest shame in the annals of history” that there was no night attendant or nurse in the hospital. Lack of accommodation at the poorhouse for the extra nursing staff was one of the reasons put forward for the absence of 24 hour trained nursing care. Allegations made by witnesses during the Inquiry, told of how during the night, sick and dying patients cried out for help which never came.

One of the witnesses, Nurse Reid, a former employee of the Poorhouse, told of how “owing to there being no night nurse, she often found patients in a very dirty condition in the morning.” Other witnesses gave evidence of maggots being seen on the bones used to make soup and Mary O’Neil the cook said that soup was made on a Sunday with bones which very often were quite smelly and that the same bones were used again to make soup on the Monday; she also went on to described how the soup was at times filled up with water to make it go further. Soup was also added to stew for the same purpose. O’Neill also said that she would not have eaten the soup because it was “bad.”

Cissie McIvor, an eighteen year old inmate told of how she was kept in the “clink” from “before 10 a.m. till 7 p.m.” She spoke of an old woman (by then dead) who was allowed to lie in bed for four days without her clothing being changed. During the inquiry it was alleged that Cissie got up after hours, sat by the fire reading with the light turned on, when she should have been in bed. She said she only got up after hours to attend to her baby.

The Inquiry found that nursing arrangements for both night and day were totally inadequate and confirmed that the sick and dying did indeed cry out during the night for help which never came and that patients had died unattended. It was recommended that it was “imperative and urgently necessary” for extra trained nursing staff to be employed. It also found that the Governor who had failed to keep a punishment book had no authority to detain inmates under lock and key in “the clink” and the practice was immediately banned.
Attention was also drawn to the fact that inmates had a bath fortnightly instead of once a week as the Combination Poorhouse rules stipulated.

In the matter of the soup, the board ruled that matron allowed “an error of judgement” in allowing the bones to be used twice for making soup. The evidence of the “grubs” found floating on top of the soup was explained away by saying that they were only caterpillars from inadequately washed vegetables, not maggots as suggested and that the matter of its importance had been blown out of proportion. Another recommendation made was that the cold and inadequate Sunday dinner was to have an addition which might make it more attractive—e.g. cheese and coffee or some equivalent.

After the inquiry, the poorhouse settled down again to the purpose for which it was built –removing the poor out of sight from the rest of the town. More nursing staff were employed which resulted in a trained nurse in the wards at night.

On 27th February 1926 the nurses were reported by the Hamilton Advertiser as having penned a letter to the House Committee calling attention to the long hours of their working day 7.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. with less than two hours off for meals. They also requested that they could be allowed out till 10.30 p.m. without having to ask for permission. Eventually their working conditions were changed and they were allowed a half day off each week from 1.30 to 10.30 p.m with a whole day off every third week and a weekend off every six weeks. Their working day was reduced by 30 minutes; they were to have 2.1/8th hours off for meals and were allowed out until 10.45 p.m without having to ask for permission.

Following the enquiry conditions at the poorhouse were no longer accepted in silence and fear. The inmates spasmodically went on strike, and generally became much more vocal about the oppressive regime.

On the 11th October 1927 the Hamilton Advertiser reported that the inmates had complained that the new meal being used for making porridge was “softer in character than the old oats” and “quietly took their breakfast but left the porridge untouched.” The Governor requested a deputation of the men attend the Board Room but they refused, asking instead that he came to the day room. Because of their refusal to go to the Governor the police were called to the poorhouse. When the officers arrived, 38 men quietly got into their own clothing and left the institution. Within four days 25 of the dissenters were back.

In November, Mr Ellis the General Superintendent of Poor to the Board of Health, submitted his yearly report on Hamilton Combination Poorhouse to the House Committee of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse. In it, he described how linoleum had been now laid in one of the hospital wards with great success. He told of how the buildings was kept in an efficient state of repair as far as was possible however they were rat infested to an extent that the rats had gnawed through the water pipes. The report was passed by the House Committee with the chairman Mr James Paterson remarking that its contents were “very satisfactory.”
Also in October 1927 the people of Hamilton were outraged when a family from the Irish Free State consisting of parents and six children arrived in the town destitute and were almost immediately admitted to the poorhouse. The father was found a job with a wage of £2, but turned it down and it looked as if they were about to settle in a bit too well at the institution. Eventually, with not a little persuasion, the man accepted the job offer and they all very reluctantly left the poorhouse much to the relief of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse Committee.

On 5th November 1927, 40 male inmates again went on strike complaining of the quality of the food being served to them. Allegations were made that sand was being added to meal used for porridge and sugar and water were being added to the jam. The complaint was dismissed by Hamilton Parish Council after one of their members Mr Meers, commented that the strike had been caused by “one or two highbrows in the poorhouse who had come down in the world and were causing dissatisfaction among others”.

The roll of Hamilton Combination Poorhouse changed with the years especially during the middle part of the twentieth century; the name was also changed to Hamilton Home. In 1948 the Poor Law Acts were abolished and in July of that year Hamilton Home ceased to be a Poor Law Institution and its role instead was to provide “temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof” from both the County and Burgh. It also became a reception centre for persons “without a settled way of living.” By September 1962 all of the 80 patients in the sick wards had been transferred to local hospitals and the last inmate left the home in January 1981.

Hamilton Combination Poorhouse remained open for 114 years and during this time, thousands of people whose only crime was poverty passed through the gates of the institution to be hidden well out of sight from the rest of society. For many of them, they were to spend the rest of their lives incarcerated within its walls. Ⓒ Wilma S. Bolton.

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The following list was published in the Hamilton Advertiser on the 8th October 1859 and contains the names of Hamilton’s paupers aged 70 and over who were being supported by the Parochial Board and who died between January 1858 and September 1859. Several of them died at Aikman’s Alms House in Muir Street.


January 6 James Black 77
“ 6 Margaret Mackie 72
“ 7 Widow Kelly 84
“ 12 Mary Rankine 83
“ 28 Widow Spence 75
February 7 David Kennedy 79
March 8 Janet Yorkstone 85
“ 25 Jean Cooper 85
April 28 Widow Robertson 77
May 1 Widow Surgeon 71
“ 19 Jean Hamilton 76
June 14 Widow Smart 74
July 30 Widow Wright 74
August 5 Ann Lang 71
September 29 Widow Bryson 84
October 1 John Telford 78
“ 27 Thomas Curr 94
November 8 Widow Nimmo 77
December 1 James Lammond 71


January 2 Jean Meikle 70
“ 12 Gavin Burns 79
February 3 Widow Woodrow 76
“ 16 Margaret Moffat 70
“ 27 Widow John Barr 71
March 6 Michael O’Donnell 80
“ 10 Widow Tully 87
“ 17 Walter Starke 75
May 9 John Tudhope 84
“ 12 Janet Stevenson 78
June 4 Widow Leggate 81
“ 30 Alexander Wright 71
July 20 Widow Ann Paterson 70
August 19 John McDonald 82
“ 31 Widow James Hamilton.70
September 24 Peter McNaughton 83
“ 29 George Mitchell 70
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Adults of either sex, who were not working and who had not completed, from the date of their last admission, a fortnights residence in the poorhouse.

Breakfast. Meal, four ounces and buttermilk, three fourths pint imperial.
Dinner. Bread Eight ounces and broth one and a half pints imperial.
Supper. Meal, four ounces and buttermilk, three fourths pint imperial.

Adult person of either sex who are working in poorhouse.

Breakfast. Meal four ounces and skimmed milk three fourths pint imperial.
Dinner. Bread, eight ounces; broth one and a half pints imperial and four ounces boiled meat; four ounces unsweetened suet pudding, twice weekly with the meat.
Supper. Meal four ounces and skimmed milk, three fourths pint imperial.

We would like to thank Wilma Bolton for sending us her story of the Hamilton Combination Poorhouse.