AT THE turn of the century, Barnhill Poorhouse in Springburn was Scotland’s largest, with 2000 inmates – and it had a terrible reputation.

It had opened its doors in 1853 and an adjoining purpose-built hospital was added in 1880.

Poor houses were established by an Act of 1845 which introduced Parochial Boards of management across Scotland to administer poor relief.

This was in the form of ‘indoor relief’, such as in a poor house or outdoor relief, which would comprise a small sum of money or benefits in kind.

Glasgow Times: Barnhill nurses c1898

Relief in Scotland was primarily outdoor, which was designed to be partial help, a subsidy to the support of a charity or benefit society, or most of all family help. On no account, it seemed, should paupers be better off on the poor roll.

Initially indoor relief was reserved for destitute persons, incapacitated by youth, old age, disease (mental or physical) and friendlessness – in other words, they had no one to look after them.

On admission, inmates were classified into different groups of moral or medical grounds. The most fundamental division was between the sexes, with families separated and sent to men’s women’s or children’s accommodation, allowed to see each other only at visiting times on request.

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Each annual report by the Poorhouse governor warned of the need for “utmost vigilance ….to prevent collusion and association” between men and women.

This was echoed in 1884 when one official went so far as suggesting that to prevent “frequent communication between the sexes…female warders visiting the male department... should be marched in procession and the railings separating the sexes should be made secure against climbers.”

Glasgow Times: A ward at Barnhill Poorhouse and Hospital

Until the turn of the 20th century when some attempts were made to house elderly married couples together, no effort was made to sustain married life.

Barnhill was extended in 1904, which accommodated the ‘test house’ where applicants were tested for their suitability for relief.

They were set to work at some onerous or monotonous task to establish they were deserving poor, in desperate need of poor relief assistance, and not malingerers or other undeserving cases.

If they refused to work or proved "difficult", they might be shut up in a special single punishment cell.

Barnhill had a terrible reputation for the harsh conditions in which the inmates were forced to live and work.

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The Test Department was at the extreme end of the general “test” principle and designed to deter “superfluous” claims, in particular from the “dissolute” such as illegitimate mothers, the workshy, and those who did not conform to poorhouse discipline. Test cases had to perform harder work (for example, stone breaking) on a harsher diet.

In the 1850s, a Dr Mather’s spoke of the effects on sick inmates of the poor diet, describing the “rice-soup for infirm-ward patients as a perfect mockery, a disgrace to civilisation, and an imposition of a tasteless, insipid, nutritious article of diet, which to the sick is neither palatable nor nourishing.”

Dr Mather pioneered the development of entertainments for inmates of Barnhill. He thought that these shows would produce therapeutic benefits, particularly for the  “insane,” as he described them in his account of the first such performance in 1857.

Generally, much of Barnhill’s medical provision was substandard.  A report in 1884 recorded the need for an operating theatre, as all operations were performed in a ward or ward kitchen, within sight and hearing of other patients.

The ward kitchens were especially unsuitable for use as operating rooms from the want of sufficient light and proper ventilation.

Despite the sub-standard level of much of its medical provision. Barnhill can claim a significant role in the development of nursing in Scotland. In 1881 it started to operate its own training scheme for nurses, leading to the increased employment of trained nurses in Scottish poorhouses.

The merger of Barony and City parishes in 1898, and the development of a more structured approach to medical provision in Glasgow with the opening of Stobhill and the Eastern and Western District Hospitals, enabled a comprehensive  classification of the city’s indoor poor from 1905.

At about that time, it inherited bits and pieces of health function, including the establishment of a dispensary, the institutional treatment of physical and mental illness, and public health.  It provided medical treatments as part of Barnhill’s incorporation into a city-wide medical structure. The notorious Test Department ceased to exist.

To help remove the stigma attached to the institutions, both poor house and hospital were renamed Foresthall in 1945.