Leeds Union Workhouse: Inmate in Focus – William Barlow

Able bodied inmates” at Leeds Union Workhouse, c. 1900

The More Than Oliver Twist project (2019-2021) was a nationwide research project lead by the Subject Specialist Network, The Workhouse Network, which aimed to provide a long-term context to the lives of workhouse inmates listed on the 1881 census. The project involved six workhouse sites, including Leeds Union Workhouse (now Thackray Museum of Medicine).

Visit the exhibition here: More Than Oliver Twist

Below is the story of William Barlow, a pork butcher who found himself in the Leeds Union Workhouse on census night 1881, researched and written by Lesley Collins (Workhouse Network Regional Mentor and Volunteer).


William Barlow B 1840, d 1901


William was born in Hunslet in 1840, the son of a pork butcher from Nottinghamshire. The family business moved to 58 Meadow Lane where the business remained till the 1870s. By 1861, William had taken over the business from his father and married Elizabeth Kay, a Warehouseman’s daughter from Burton Leonard. The couple had 4 children and in 1872 the business moved to 129 Meadow Lane. By 1875 the business was being run by his wife and father-in-law whilst William ended up in the Workhouse, for reasons unknown. 10 years later, William was lodging in Doncaster, still working as a butcher, whilst his surviving children were living and working in Hunslet. In 1899 he developed ‘Locomotor Ataxia’, a condition associated with syphilis, and died in March 1901 whilst living with his eldest son Walter and his wife Alice in Ecclesfield (Sheffield). His place of burial is not known.


Lesley is a former teacher of family history research, who has been involved with family research since 1998. We connected with Lesley and asked some questions about her research on the mysterious pork butcher…

Thackray (TH): In the story, you stated that William entered the workhouse for “reasons unknown” – what do you think the most likely reason would be?

Lesley (LC): It’s a puzzle because of the absence of Admission and Discharge Registers [for the Leeds Union Workhouse] to actually be sure. [William’s] case is unusual, he stands out from the majority of workhouse residents as he had a good occupation and, the research showed, he was running a very well-established business [which] was continuing while he was in the workhouse, so why on earth was he there?

There is no definitive answer, unfortunately, because of the absence of the records. [However] you can surmise as to why he was there… perhaps there was some falling out with the family. Or possibly he had some illness which necessitated him being admitted to the workhouse, but given the Infirmary was up and running by that time, I would have expected him to have gone into the infirmary rather than the Workhouse itself if that was the real reason.

It wasn’t until right at the end of the research when we sent for his death certificate that there was some light shed, as he died from a condition called Locomotor Ataxia which effects the spinal cord and movement… That condition was well known to be associated with venereal disease in the nineteenth century [specifically syphilis]. This perhaps indicated something about how he conducted his earlier life which might have resulted in his wife and father-in-law throwing him out, but we just don’t know!

TH: It’s really interesting that even with the absence of the key records you can create an idea of what lead a person to be in the workhouse through other resources.

LC: Yes, that death certificate has been absolutely crucial in confirming the last few years of his life and shedding some light on what might have happened previously. We know from the one year of Venereal Disease Lists that survives at [West Yorkshire Archive Service] that there was quite a movement of people going into the workhouse for venereal disease, so we know that it was a problem in Leeds, as it was generally.

TH: You have touched upon this previously but was there anything in his story which surprised you?

LC: Well, his whole story surprised me. His Father was an established pork butcher who moved to Leeds from Lincolnshire and set up a business which was in existence for [around] forty years in the same premises, first in Hunslet and then Meadow Lane. You couldn’t really understand why anyone in that position should end up in the workhouse. It’s a strange case, and of all the [inmates researched] one of the oddest cases we’ve looked at.

TH: It’s certainly very strange as you say. Do you think if William was kicked out because of indiscretions resulting in syphilis, would that have been listed as a reason for his entering the workhouse?

LC: I’ve not seen a reason like that on any other Admission and Discharge register I’ve looked at… I would suspect this circumstance would be covered by “homelessness” and having nowhere else to go.

William’s admission clearly wasn’t due to his business going bust as it continued while he was in the workhouse and then later in his life, when he ended up living with his son and daughter-in-law in Ecclesfield, which is on the North side of Sheffield.

TH: Are there any other people you have researched who have similar stories?

LC: I have to be honest, when I first looked at the 1881 census list, I did go through, and cherry pick the [inmates] I thought might prove interesting or illustrative cases that I could use for the volunteer training sessions at the beginning of the project. William Barlow, with his occupation, stood out and a number of other cases, such as lovely Louisa Ledger, also stood out. So, he is similar [to other cases] in that he was quite an interesting case to research.

TH: What was the trickiest aspect of the research?

LC: Just trying to get my head round that he ended up in the workhouse. Then finding him in a lodging house in Doncaster [later in his life] and thinking how did he end up there? Of course, the death certificate did shed some light on the previous history, but he is still a bit of a mystery. I think if I had been able to send for the death certificate earlier in the research, figuring out his life would have been quicker and easier.

TH: Finally, what was your favourite part of researching William Barlow?

LC: [With] most of the people who are in the workhouse, you’re lucky even if they appear on all of the census returns because of the way they lived, so getting a full census record for William was a bonus. Also, given the absence of Admission and Discharge Registers and other Board of Guardian records which relate to the inmates, finding the [business] information in the historical directories for Leeds was an incredible help. Very few of the inmates are ever going to be found in those sorts of documents, so that was a tremendous help in being able to fill in the gaps between the census records. Being able to track the business premises and who was running it from year to year was tremendously helpful.

When the Thackray is able to open its doors again, you can discover more about the history of the Leeds Union Workhouse, the lives of the inmates, and the staff who took care of them, in our new display. Until then, please explore the More Than Oliver Twist Google Arts & Culture exhibition and the online archive of Leeds Union Workhouse inmate biographies on Ehive.