Archive for March 2016

Mass Observation Archive Workshop

On Monday March 21st four BHT Heritage clients visited The Keep for a workshop about the Mass Observation Archive.

Mass Observation ArchiveThe session, which was delivered by the Mass Observation Archive’s Education and Outreach Officer, began by touching upon how the project came about. In 1937 Tom Harrison, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge embarked on a study of everyday life in Britain. There were essentially two aspects to the project; observations made by a team of paid investigators who immersed themselves into communities, and contributions from a panel of volunteer writers who would reply to questionnaires issued on a variety of topical matters.

Mass Observation ArchiveThe paid investigators would visit cinemas, pubs, dancehalls, restaurants and air raid shelters to record observations and overheard conversations. Records dating back to 1937 contain descriptions of what people were wearing in dancehalls and how couples were holding one-another when dancing, and how long it took for the average person to drink a pint of beer.

During the workshop the group delved through responses to surveys that were undertaken to capture feelings and opinions about social issues in Britain. In response to a directive on Squatting, one contributor wrote on 9th September 1946,

Well I think everyone has a right to a home, and if some people have two, and others none, I say there must be something wrong.”

Another contributor responded,

If the government can’t look after the people, the people must look after themselves!

Document StoreAs well as topic collections such as ‘Housing 1938–48’ and ‘Beveridge Social Surveys 1942 & 1947’, which are particularly relevant to the group’s research into the history of homelessness, there are also collections on more obscure topics, including ‘Dreams 1937–48’, ‘Smoking Habits 1937-65’ and ‘Wall Chalkings 1939-43’!

Towards the end of the workshop the clients were invited to go behind-the-scenes and visit the Document Store, a temperature-controlled warehouse where a vast 10 miles of archives are held. The Education and Outreach Officer also spoke about the Quarantine Room, which is where new archives are held prior to being moved to the Document Store, to prevent mould and insects damaging hugely valuable historic sources.

To find out more, please visit the Mass Observation Archive website.


The Spike Heritage Centre

On Wednesday February 24th four clients visited The Spike Heritage Centre, formerly the Vagrants and Casual Ward for the Guildford Union Workhouse.

The Spike BathroomThe Spike opened in 1906 on a separate site to the workhouse, which housed 300 men, women and children. ‘Vagrants’ and ‘Casuals’ would queue up along the tall brick wall, in anticipation of the heavy wooden gate opening at 6pm. Visitors would then have to wait to be processed, where they would have to provide their name, age, profession, where they had come from and where they were going. ‘Vagrant’s and ‘Casuals’ were only able to stay once in 30 days so many would try to disguise themselves during this process, so that they could return later in the month. This ran this risk of getting them barred for life, but many were so desperate that this was their only option.

The SpikeOnce processed, visitors were given gruel which would have been leftovers brought down from the workhouse site. They were then expected to take a bath to eradicate the transfer of disease; however it was possible that up to 30 men would bathe in the same water and dry themselves with the same towel, therefore having the opposite effect. Their clothes were fumigated on arrival, but later this was found to have actually made disease worse. If during the processing stage a person was found to have pneumonia or tuberculosis they would be accommodated in the isolation ward where there were fifteen hammocks. Bodies of the dead would be piled up in the corner until ‘inmates’ from the workhouse came to lay out the bodies, which included breaking their bones and resting the corpses in coffins. This task was so awful that people wouldn’t do it for money so the Guardians had to pay the workers with alcohol. The Coroner refused to enter the building.

A 2-night policy was introduced so that ‘vagrants’ would enter on the evening of the first night, work a full day, and then stay a second night before moving on to the next casual ward. The nearest workhouse to Guildford was 26 miles away, and people would not have been able to travel such a distance after completing their work. During the time that they were at each casual ward ‘vagrants’ would only be released from their cells to empty their slop bucket.

The Spike Sleeping CellCasual workers would pay a penny to stay for one night. Problems arose due to there being many pubs between the town and the workhouse. If they spent their money on the way they would have to stay two nights and would lose their casual work.

Typical work at the Guildford Spike was breaking stones to a size that could pass through a metal grate in the working cell, which backed onto the sleeping cells. Strong draughts would come in through the grates, making the sleeping cells unbearably cold. The cells for casual workers didn’t have grates as they weren’t expected to work for their accommodation, and they were on the side of the building where the sun rose, so were far warmer.

If ‘vagrants’ didn’t finish their jobs they would be sent to prison for 3 months hard labour. For some, this was more appealing than ‘tramping’ between workhouses day-to-day. Others were forced to return to their own parish to enter the workhouse.

Following the closure of the workhouse the building became a hostel up until the 1960’s, and was used for hospital administration until the 1990’s.