Christmas Past: The Poorhouse

There were several Poorhouses established in Orkney, the largest of which was in Kirkwall.

There were also many islanders who were very poor but who refused to enter the Poorhouse. In 1902 a petition was raised in Kirkwall to deal with people who were ‘obstinately’ refusing to enter the Poorhouse or the Parish Hospital.

As is the case today many people cannot get by without the support of charity organisations. Those who did not live in Orkney but who were well off liked to keep the connection with the islands by charitable donations.

In 1923 J.W. Cursiter who lived in Trinty, Edinburgh donated money so that ‘the inmates of Orkney Combination Poorhouse received an “extra dinner” on Christmas Day’. (Orkney Herald & Advertiser 26/12/1923)

This was something Mr Cursiter had done for many years. As well as the Christmas dinner he would also send gifts for the ‘inmates’.

In the days before our National Health Service and Welfare Payments, people who were struggling had to rely on the Poorhouse and on relief provided by their local parish. Those who ended up in the Poorhouse were referred to as ‘inmates’, that was the language of the time.

Orkney Combination Poorhouse, Scapa Road Kirkwall  The poorhouse for Orkney was built by T. S. Peace, senior, and opened in 1883.

It was planned to accommodate 50 paupers on the standard H plan, plainly constructed of ‘wally‑wall’ stone in squared rubble work with freestone dressings for sills and lintels of red sandstone. It was roofed with Welsh slates and given projecting eaves. The original plans by Peace were rejected by the Board of Supervision which suggested that they should be made simpler and less costly. To aid the Parochial Board in remodelling the plans, they enclosed tracings of the plans of the Skye and Long Island Combination Poorhouses. [Sources: Scottish Record Office, plans, RHP 30875/1‑4; RHP 30876/1‑14.]

Orkney and Shetland Historic Hospitals
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, The Pears’ Centenary Edition of The Christmas Books, I, 77. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. via The Victorian Web

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