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Thurso Combination Poorhouse

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Henrietta Munro

This is the large building which is situated on the Thurso road just before you enter Halkirk - it operated well into the 20th century and is now I understand a block of flats.

I was lucky enough to be able to look through these two books the other day - the ones I saw dated from 1860 up to about 1912 and they made very interesting reading.

One imagines the old poorhouses to be very cruel places where inmates were beaten regularly and lived on very poor food. Maybe they were but this one seems to be the exception - although the ages range from 5 to nearly 80 chastising is very infrequent and the principal punishment seems to have been deprivation of milk or supper or tobacco although there are exceptions. When the birch was used 2, 4 or 6 strokes on the hand appears to be the usual punishment - not really excessive for the period. One wonders why such young children should be kept there but at least two had mothers who were also in the home.

In December 1860 three children ages 7, 8 and 11 went into a different ward from their own and were punished by being deprived of milk for supper for one night - but when George Sutherland aged 7 told a falsehood to the master he was chastised as well as being deprived of supper. The poor youngsters were deprived of breakfast for 'repeatedly injuring the bed with urine' - and one old man was deprived of supper for a week because he 'made a nuisance in his bed'.

About the same time Hannah Sutherland disobeyed regulations by taking her daughter from the lockup to her own room - and when reprimanded she 'struck the matron to the effusion of blood' and destroyed some of the furnishings - for this she was locked up but the book says that although she broke out again 'it being the Sabbath she was left alone'.

In 1866 Christine Maclennan (27) who was deaf and dumb, absconded and was away for about 50 hours - she, poor thing, was given a cold bath and had her hair cut short. In 1875 John Macleod (77) absconded also but he was away for nine days and returned utterly exhausted and ill - he was deprived of tobacco but was ruled to be unfit for punishment.

In 1888 Dan Gunn (64) left his room and went over two high walls into the women's ward and just sat there! He was deprived of his dinner for three days for this - poor Dan - I wonder if he thought it was worth it.

In 1898 John Leitch (75) made a frivolous complaint about potatoes to visiting delegates - and so he had no tobacco for a week.

In 1863 Alexander Swanson (12) called nick names and used obscene language so he had his hair cut short and was confined to his room for one day. He was frequently punished for skating on the ice on the river in winter and bathing in the river in summer on his way home from school in Halkirk.

In 1912 W. Charleson insisted on wearing his drawers in bed! So he was prevented from going into the grounds for one month - there does not seem to be much connection with the crime and the punishment but maybe he enjoyed going into the grounds so it was a punishment.

The account books also make interesting reading - in 1877 William Bell was the Governor and his wife as Matron - their combined salaries were 30 but by 1881 when Mrs. Bell had resigned as matron William only got 16/5/-. At the some time Dr. John Grant Smith was paid 5 per quarter as visiting doctor, William Henderson 5 per quarter as porter and the Rev. H. Fraser, chaplain was paid 2/10/- for six months' visits.

The children went to school in Halkirk and there are regular payments of 1/8d and 2/- for school fees and requisites while Agnes Russell, Thurso (forerunner of Russell & Leslie Stationers) supplied writing paper etc.

In the nineties coffins were 11/- and interments 3/- and there is one entry for 6/- ' to supplying coffin for inmate and waxing same' - presumably, it was the coffin that was waxed!

Hugh Cowan the Chemist - he was in the chemist's shop presently in the shopping centre - supplied all that was required-- e.g. toothache drops, chlorodyne, Holloway's pink pills, Gregory's pills, paregoric, belladonna plasters, tins of mustard leaves, magnetic mixture, quinine, pancreatic emulsion and hundreds of bottles of 'the mixture' ranging from one to two shillings each.

David Sinclair, Traill Street (Johnston's the Bakers now) supplied cotton sheeting in large bales - presumably either the matron or the inmates had to make them. But at least they had sheets - not so usual in poorhouses then.

John Keith the tailor (now Maxwell Mackenzie's the grocer) supplied 12 yards of corsican - was this stiffening material? If anyone knows I would love to find out. The butcher was William Moore who supplied 6 lbs. of mutton and 6 lbs. of beef at ninepence a pound each week for years - In the good old Scottish tradition pork was not supplied but after 1885 a small amount of steak was added each week and the mutton supplies were increased. Perhaps the roll also increased then.

Carruthers and Allan supplied carbolic soap regularly In large quantities 2/13/. They also supplied matches - until 1882 Mays matches ware always ordered but after that the order was for safety matches.

Mrs. William Mackay supplied plenty of snuff, pipes and tobacco as well as chopins of milk, hundreds of loaves and barrels of herring. (A chopin was 1.5 pints)

William Taylor, Scrabster regularly supplied wine - the wine appears to have cost sixpence but the freight was 1/7 and the box 4d. - it must have been some wine. Every six months W. & A. Gilbey supplied 12 bottles of whisky at 2/1 and 12 bottles of Spanish port at 15/- while in 1879 Alexander Sutherland sold a gallon of Aqua for 14/- but in 1882 William lnnes was able to supply a bottle of double whisky for 3/-. 1 wonder if that was malt or whether he was a better shebeener than the others.

One strange occurrence was - like the old schoolmaster in Bower - lots of vegetables and flower seeds were bought - would you believe regular supplies of celery, cress, radishes and parsnips as well as the more ordinary vegetables, surely this augurs well for food supplied.

In 1882 William Taylor was paid 5/6 to take boys to Scrabster and he also claimed for their fare to Leith - 12/- - presumably these boys were sent away to train as apprentices or perhaps to emigrate.

I wonder if there is anyone alive today who had ancestors in that poorhouse and whether there are any stories still extant about those days.

Taking all into account, maybe the conditions were not as bad as one imagines after all standard were different then.

First published in Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1984