More Than Oliver Twist Project

Hannah Wade illustration

In 2019 and 2020, Ripon Museums took part in an Arts Council England funded project with the Workhouse Network, called More Than Oliver Twist. The More Than Oliver Twist project provided training for six workhouse sites to research the lives of inmates in their institutions in the 1881 census. From this research, a database of pauper biographies was created, along with a digital exhibition, which you can find on the Google Arts and Culture website.   

A team of volunteers at Ripon Museums researched 25 biographies of people who were resident in Ripon Workhouse in 1881, tracing their stories back and forwards using censuses, newspaper archives and original workhouse records. They include John Dowling who entered Ripon Workhouse when he was 11, after the death of his mother, and had a brief criminal record before being apprenticed to a chimney sweep and later going on to have his own chimney sweeping business. And Jane Ann I’Anson, who was born deaf and was admitted to Ripon Workhouse at the age of 26 after the death of her father, remaining there for the rest of her life until her death in 1907. These biographies show the breadth of experiences of those resident in the workhouse, and often challenge our assumptions about the workhouse experience.  

You can read all of the biographies created by Ripon Museums volunteers below and find out more about the project here.

Workhouse Network

The Workhouse Network 

The Workhouse Network brings together institutions that were once workhouses with heritage organisations, archives and universities to share expertise and knowledge. 

Visit the Workhouse Network website.

Read more about the lives of some of the inmates at Ripon Union Workhouse.

Researched by Mary Kelly, 3rd November, 2019

Ann Hardbottle was born before the civil registration of births, in approximately 1817 (1). She never married and seems to have spent much of her adult life caring for other people. She first appears in census records in Thirsk, North Yorkshire in 1841 (1), when she is aged 25, a dressmaker, living with William Halbran, 27, Mary Halbran, 22, Elizabeth Halbran, 2 and Ann Halbran, 6 months. Perhaps she was lodging with the Halbrans.

In 1851 Ann is living in Melmerby with her father Henry, 60, and mother Elizabeth, 61 (2). Also resident at the same address are Anthony Hardbottle, 25, and George Hardbottle, 23, who are both agricultural labourers. Ann is listed as Pauper (dressmaker). It seems likely that she has moved back to her parents’ home to take care of them and her younger brothers. There is another Hardbottle family in Melmerby comprising Mary Ann, a widowed dressmaker aged 35 and her four-year-old son Henry and six-month-old nephew Thomas. It is unclear what relationship they have to Ann.

By 1861, the Melmerby census shows Ann as Head of Household, her mother Elizabeth having died in 1856 (3,4). There does not appear to be a record of her father’s death, however. Ann is looking after an eight-year-old niece, Elizabeth Hardbottle, who is at school. Elizabeth was born in Ripon in 1852, her mother’s maiden name being Young (9).

In 1871, Ann is again in Melmerby, keeping house for the widowed John Beckwith, 67, a joiner, and his son, also named John, 34, agricultural labourer (5). The older man was born in Wath and the younger in Melmerby.

In 1881 Ann is resident in the Ripon Union Workhouse and is described as a seamstress (6). A trawl of the Ripon Workhouse records did not yield any additional information.

Ann died in September 1889, in Ripon, aged 71 (7). The Ripon Workhouse Master’s Report notes that, “Ann Hardbottle, 70 years, a very patient sufferer who had been confined to her bed for many years died this night, admitted from the parish of Melmerby” (8).

During this project we have been struck by the numbers of elderly male inmates in the workhouses being greater than elderly females. This seems unexpected, given that women generally outlived men. Having researched Ann’s story I am now wondering if unmarried or widowed men were unable to look after themselves when their employment ceased, whereas perhaps women were able to keep house for other families and survive that way.


(1) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1841) Census Return for Thirsk, Yorkshire, Class: HO107; Piece: 1238; Book: 4; Civil Parish: Thirsk; County: Yorkshire; Enumeration District: 8; Folio: 7; Page: 6; Line: 12; GSU roll: 464228. Available: (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(2) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1851) Census Return for Melmerby, Yorkshire, Class: HO107; Piece: 2281; Folio: 574; Page: 9; GSU roll: 87466-87467. Available at: (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(3) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1861) Census Return for Melmerby, Yorkshire, Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1861. Piece 3199, Folio 18, p.6. Available at: (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(4) ‘Elizabeth Hardbottle’ (1856) England and Wales Deaths 1837 – 2007, District Ripon, County Yorkshire, Vol 9A, page 61. Available at (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(5) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1871) Census Return for Melmerby, Yorkshire, The National Archives; Kew, London, England; 1871 England Census; Class: RG10; Piece: 4279; Folio: 15; Page: 2; GSU roll: 846970. Available at (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(6) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1881) Census return for Ripon Workhouse, Allhallowgate, Ripon, Yorkshire. Public Record Office: PRO Piece 4317, Folio 83, p. 36 (1881). Available at: (Accessed 1st October 2019).

(7) ‘Ann Hardbottle’ (1889). Certified entry recording death on the CivilRegistration Index, September 1889. Available: Available at: (Accessed 1st October 2019)

(8) Ripon Union Master’s Reports (1889), NYCRO BG/RI/5/2, North Yorkshire County Records Office.

(9) ‘Elizabeth Hardbottle’ (1852) Certified entry recording birth on the Civil Registration Index. Apr-Jun 1852. Vol 9a p77. Available: (Accessed 1st October, 2019)

Researched by Marie-Anne Hintze

Ann Rhodes, born in Darley, was baptised at Hampsthwaite in Nidderdale on 28th June 1807 – she was the daughter of John and Hannah Rhodes (1). At the age of 18, she married James Metcalfe in the same church at Hampsthwaite on the 12th April 1825 (2). Her husband, born in Ripley, was baptised in 1799 in Pateley Bridge, he was the son of John Metcalfe, an agricultural labourer and his wife Ann (3). As was not unusual at the time neither the bride nor the groom signed the marriage register with their name but instead marked the entry with a cross.

The 1841 census finds the Metcalfe family in Darley, more precisely at Menwith Hill. By then they had four children at home: John aged 10, Hannah also listed as 10 years old, James aged 5 and Joseph aged 2 (4). In the next census in 1851, the family have moved to Boose Green, Ripon, where James Metcalfe is employed as a farm labourer: three of the children – John, Hannah and Joseph have left whereas James (aged 16) a farm labourer like his father, Rhodes aged 8 and Sarah Ann aged 3 remain with their parents (5).By 1861, James and Ann Metcalf had moved back to the area where James was born. They were then living in the hamlet of Clint, near Ripley with their son Joseph – now aged 22 also an agricultural labourer and the two youngest children: Rhodes and Sarah Ann, both described as scholars. The entry also notes the presence of two small boys each described as ‘Nurse Child’. Newton Watson, aged 2 born in Hampsthwaite and William Swales aged 1 born in Leeds. By then James Metcalfe was 60 years old and Hannah was 55, and the opportunity to earn a little extra income from looking after these young children would have been welcome (6).

The presence of these two young children in the household reflects the common practice in Victorian times of entrusting children to the care of paid women. The practice was widespread and arose out of different situations. Upper class or middle class families might sent their children out to nurse for the first few years of their life (this happened to Jane Austen and her siblings for instance)(7) , because the mother was repeatedly pregnant or, if a child was sickly, it might be placed in a rural area where conditions would be more salubrious. Lower down the social scale, people with demanding jobs in unhealthy conditions (such as work in a public house) might also seek a respectable household in which to place their children. However, there were far stronger social and economic pressures bearing down on working class girls who produced a child out of wedlock – particularly if their own family refused to assist them. Backed by the notion that promiscuity had to be punished and immoral behaviour reformed, the Poor Law of 1834 had absolved the fathers from any financial responsibility and made illegitimate children the sole responsibility of their mothers until the age of 16. The mothers were expected to support themselves and their children or would have to enter the workhouse where the mortality rate for babies, especially in urban areas, was very high. One solution to the problem was to place the child in a household against a weekly sum of money for food, clothes and so forth which enabled the mother to earn a living for herself and her child. In the best of cases, the child could be brought up in a neighbouring area thus allowing the mother to make occasional visits. With the coming of the industrial revolution, where work was not necessarily available close at hand, women might have to move to further afield and thereby lose touch with their children. A more dangerous practice gradually arose, particularly in industrial urban areas, which led to the infamous ‘baby farms’ of the latter Victorian period where ‘nurses’ would advertise in the press their willingness to ‘adopt’ the small children of desperate single mothers against a one-off lump sum and to rehome them. In such a context, the incentives for keeping the babies alive could be slim. Some ‘baby-farms’, as depicted by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, catered specifically for the orphan children of the workhouse (8,9).

The background and the ultimate fate of the two children taken in by Ann and James Metcalfe does illustrate the very different circumstances that led them to become ‘nurse children’. William Swale (aged 1 in 1861) was the son of James Swale, a farm labourer born in Wilsill in Nidderdale and his wife Mary (née Reyner) born in Beckwithshaw. They had married in 1859 and moved to Hunslet in Leeds where James was employed as a farm labourer. William was baptised on 19 June 1861, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Hunslet but was not with his parents at the time of the census (6,10). However by 1871, William aged 9 was living with his parents and three younger siblings born in Fewston on a 21 acre farm run by his father (11). He also became a farmer, married a local girl and raised a family of several children (12). We cannot know what brought his parents to make the decision to send him away from Hunslet back to Nidderdale but clearly William did not suffer unduly by the experience.

For Newton Watson, the circumstances were rather different. He was baptised in Hampsthwaite on 3rd June 1959 and, as noted in the parish register, was the illegitimate son of Mary Ann Watson – a fact that suggests that he was born in that parish (13). Mary Ann’s parents (John Watson and Martha Barret) were originally from Otley, but by 1827 at least, when Mary Ann was born, John Watson had secured a position as overlooker in the cotton mill at Birstwith in Nidderdale. Like her son, Mary Ann had been baptised in Hampsthwaite Church on 23rd December 1827(14). The family’s links with Nidderdale must have lasted until at least 1835 when Janet Watson the youngest child was born in Birstwith. By 1841, however, the family were in Skipton and in 1851, when Mary Ann was fifteen and employed as Milliner and Straw Bonnet Maker, her father was the manager of the cotton mill in Hebden(15). One wonders if, when it was discovered that Mary Ann was pregnant, she was sent away from her family to have her child and discreetly entrust him to the care of some acquaintances in Nidderdale or whether she went of her own accord. Be that as it may, by 1861, the story has come to a sad conclusion. Newton Watson’s death is registered in Pateley Bridge for the second quarter of 1861 and a death is recorded later the same year in Skipton for Mary Ann Watson (16,17). That year her father had also died and her brother Walter was now the manager of Hebden Mill and providing a home for his widowed mother (18).We cannot know if Ann and James Metcalfe raised any other ‘nurse children’ but in1871, when James was 70 and Ann 65, they were still living in Clint but their status is noted as ‘Pauper’ (19). James appears to have died that same year and Ann would have had to seek some means of support. Of her 7 children her youngest daughter Sarah Ann had married and moved to Leeds, her son Rhodes had moved and later settled in Lewisham and only her son Joseph remained nearby, having moved back to Ripon by 1870 where all but his two eldest children were born. By 1881, he was supporting a wife and a family of eight children on the wages of a journeyman stonemason (20). It may be owing to his presence in Ripon that Ann eventually was admitted to the workhouse in Ripon where she is to be found in 1881 rather than to the Workhouse in Pateley Bridge. Her death is recorded in Ripon in the third quarter of 1900 together with the fact that she had reached the age of 91 (21).


(1) ‘Ann Rhodes’ (1807) Baptism 28 June 1807, Hampsthwaite, Yorkshire Baptisms, NYCRO NPR-HMP/1-4, p.26 Available at: (Accessed 6 December 2019)

(2) ‘Hannah Rhodes and James Metcalfe’ (1825) Marriage 12 April 1825, Bishop’s Transcript of Marriages, Borthwick Institute, Hampsthwaite, p. 70 Available at: 3 December 2019)

(3) ‘James Metcalfe’ (1799) Baptism 24 April 1799, Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire Baptisms, NYCRO PR/PAT, 1/10 Available at: (Accessed 3 December 2019)

(4) ‘Ann Metcalfe’ (1841) Census return for Menwith with Darley, Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, West Riding. Class: HO 107; 1284; Book 19; Folio: 8; p. 10 Available at: (Accessed 3 December 2019)

(5) ‘Ann Metcalfe’(1851) Census return for Ripon, Yorkshire, West Riding. Class: HO 107, 2281; Folio: 21, p.7 Available at: (Accessed 3 December 2019)

(6) ‘Ann Metcalfe’ (1861) Census return for Clint, Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, West Riding. Class: RG 09; 3195; Folio: 83, p. 19 Available at: (Accessed 3 December 2019)

(7) Claire Tomalin (1997) Jane Austen: A Life. Penguin, Radom House

(8) Charles Dickens (1837/1861) Oliver Twist or the Parish Boy’s Progress. London: Chapman and Hall

(9) Dorothy L. Haller (1990/2009) ‘Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England’. Loyola University.

(10)‘William Swale’ (1861) Baptism 19 June 1861, Leeds Wesleyan Chapel. Non-conformist records 1646-1985, West Yorkshire. Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(11)‘William Swale’ (1871) Census return for Fewston, Wharfedale, Yorkshire West Riding. RG:10; 4301; Folio 7; p. 8. Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(12)‘William Swale’ (1901) Census return for Menwith with Darley, Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire West Riding. RG13; 4038; Folio 22; p.8.Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(13) ‘Newton Watson’ (1859) Baptism 3 June 1859, Hampsthwaite Church. Yorkshire Baptisms, NYCRO N-PR- HMP – 1-6, p.178. Available at : (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(14)‘Mary Ann Watson’ (1827) Baptism 23 December 1827, Hampsthwaite Church, Yorkshire West Riding. Bishop’s Transcript of Baptism. Borthwick Institute, York, p.116. Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(15) ‘Mary Ann Watson’ (1851) Census return for Skipton, Yorkshire, West Riding. RG 107; 2279; Folio 505; p.30. Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(16)‘Newton Watson’ (1861) England and Wales Deaths 1837-2007, Death of Newton Watson, registered Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire, West Riding, 2nd quarter 1861, vol. 9A, p.53. Available at: (Accessed 10 December 2019)

(17)‘Mary Ann Watson’ (1861) England and Wales Deaths 1837-2007, Death of Mary Ann Watson, registered Skipton, Yorkshire, West Riding, 4th quarter 1861, vol . 9 A, p.38.Available at: (Accessed 14 December 2019)

(18)‘Walter Watson’ (1861) Census return for Hebden, Skipton, Yorkshire West Riding. RG 09; 3191; Folio 35; p.8. Available at: (Accessed 12 December 2019)

(19)‘Ann Metcalfe’ (1871) Census return for Clint, Pateley Bridge, Yorkshire West Riding. RG 10; 4274; Folio 71; p. 9. Available at: (Accessed 12 December 2019)

(20)‘Joseph Metcalfe’ (1881) Census return for Ripon, Yorkshire West Riding. RG11; 4318; Folio 124; P. 9. Available at: (Accessed 12 December 2019)

(21)‘Ann Metcalfe’ (1900) England and Wales Deaths 1837-2007, Ripon, Yorkshire West Riding. Death of Ann Metcalfe, registered Ripon 3rd Quarter 1900. Vol 9A, p.57. Available at https:// (Accessed 10 December 2019)

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