The workhouse system and it's slow uptake was in the first place given credence by the Act of Parliament decreed by Queen Elizabeth in 1601, that gave every person the right to claim some relief, but this did not provide for the housing or houses of the poor or other premises such as workhouses in the towns and parishes.
The overseers of the poor in each parish were to raise money by taxation and set to work children whose parents had not the cash to look after them, and to find occupation for those people who could not maintain themselves, by providing materials for them to work with. This was the fundamental principle of the poor relief system but it gave occasion to abuse the system between the overseers and the justices who appeared to work independently of each other against the intention of the laws, in that they tended to "off load" the ones who did not try to live by the new system, on to a neighbouring authority.
We don't know how the overseers account were managed in Sowerby at the end of the 17th century but it was known that there was a large outcry in Halifax in the year 1700 about incomers from other districts taking advantage of the system. However in 1723 an act was passed that empowered townships and parishes or any union thereof, to build or provide workhouses.
The usual way in our own districts was to rent or buy a farmhouse with it's barn and outbuildings and turn it the required purpose according to it's particular needs and so we come to the establishment of the workhouse at Lower Bentley Royd at the junction of what is now Cemetery lane and Sowerby New Road, Part of the later farmhouse still exists having lately been combined with a newer structure. The Workhouse stood facing north on the lower side of the present building, there was also a barn, or a mistal and a cottage running at right angles to the north facing Bentley Royd. Some time later it was thought that the workhouse had been moved to the Helm.
An entry in the Township's book in 1756 shows that the workhouse was at Bentley Royd at that date. It started of with small beginnings and carried on very useful work among the poor folk and was mainly self supporting by the work done by the Bentley Royd "residents".
There are several inventories over the years which give an idea of its size and usefulness to the outside community this is a simplified list of the facilities.
The inventories don't appear to have been done on a regular basis as the next one is dated 1772, by then the contents of the rooms and outbuildings had grown considerably and they now had animals as well, 3 cows and a pig.
There were further inventories in May 1784 and 1785. On May 1st 1787 the number of persons in the workhouse were listed, along with their ages, they ranged from a child of two to the old gentleman of ninety three years, there were also two over eighty and four over seventy, fourteen, fifteen years and under, the total number of inmates being 38.
In 1789 they gave the following statistics: Admitted this year 83, discharged 77, Dead 7, Born2, and there were 34 inmates when the list was taken.
In 1790 they had acquired a pair of handcuffs and also a pair of iron shackle, one wonders? Three bottles of mint water figured among other things in the Closet and for use of the cattle there was a "cow drink horn". They now had two cows and two pigs but the stable was never mentioned. The ages of the inmates at this time is given as, the oldest being 83, the next 81 two others nearly 80 and seven over seventy. Total number of residents was 28.
In the last listed inventories there were 34 inmates, the eldest at 88, four of over 80, four over 70, five over 60, and four between 50 and 60 with the youngest being aged just 2 years old. After examining the listings in the inventories it would probably be possible to re-equip an old Aisled barn to the specification that has been listed in the contents of the inventories.
Condensed from 11 pages of HP Kendall's Sowerby Workhouse 1956.
By John Kerridge