The Town Farm – A Victorian-Era Solution to Poverty

Town farms were Victorian society’s equivalent to today’s homeless shelters, nursing homes, and mental hospitals.  Often relegated to a far corner of town, unseen, forgotten, and hopefully self-sufficient, the town farm was created to instill a sense of industriousness and self-sufficiency in paupers who would, in turn, provide what labor they could to help run the farm.  And, throughout most of the nineteenth century, it worked.  The town farm in Billerica, Massachusetts once spanned over 150 acres, including 75 acres of forests.  In 1880, the Billerica town farm housed some twenty employees and paupers, in addition to its horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.

But, what was life like on the town farm?  Appropriate “separations” were encouraged.  Male inmates were to be separated from their female counterparts absolutely and entirely, in the living rooms, halls, stairways, and even yards of the town farm.  It was also considered important to separate persons of “good character” (who might have been forced to seek refuge at the Farm due to infirmities) from the “vicious and degraded”.  Indeed, of the Billerica town farm’s 13 paupers in residence in 1880, three had been recently released from the Worcester State Hospital.  All three were required to be kept “under lock and key” at night and two had been classified as “homicidal”.

Also, as it might be imagined, hygiene was considered paramount.  Prevailing thought reasoned that appropriate personal hygiene led to healthful, pure air and encouraged caretakers to search for “defects in the cleanliness and purity of air . . . at every visit.”  Weekly baths were required; the water for the bath was included in the six gallons of water set aside for each inmate’s weekly allotment.  Also, clothing was to be washed weekly and the wearing of day garments when abed was strongly discouraged.  Inmate compliance with these suggestions and rules was not always a foregone conclusion; over half of the paupers listed as living at the Billerica town farm in 1880 were mentally or physically debilitated.

Comforts such as heat and individual beds were considered important – shared beds were discouraged.  Sheets and blankets were to be aired daily.  The straw of each bed was to be made over regularly.  Food was delivered to the inmates at regular meals and was eaten with knives, forks, and cups.  At least four days a week, inmates could count on seeing beef or mutton at their meals, complemented by potatoes and bread.  On the others days, they were served vegetable soup.  Tea and rye coffee were the beverages available.

In their nineteenth century heyday, the town farm provided a much-needed support system for society’s poor, infirm, and undesirable,  Records from even earlier than 1880 show larger groups of paupers, some seemingly from the same families and a number of healthy, yet poor people, among them widows and children as young as four months old.  Despite their challenges, town farms managed to produce hay, milk, livestock, beans, potatoes, and wood products year after year before ceasing operations in the first years after Social Security was implemented.  The increasing standard of living during the early twentieth century coupled with the implementation of social welfare programs enabled families to become increasingly able to care for their sick, elderly, and troubled members.  The town farms quietly seeped into the forgotten history of their towns, sometimes only remembered in the street names of the roads they once occupied.

Sources:

  • Olmstead, Frederick.  Hand-book for visitors to the poorhouse.  4th ed. New York:  G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1888.
  • Ancestry.com. U.S. Federal Census – 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.
  • Ancestry.com. U.S. Federal Census – 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
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2 responses to “The Town Farm – A Victorian-Era Solution to Poverty

  • Heather Wilkinson Rojo

    As a genealogist, town poor farm records or pauper lists are invaluable, and so are the lists of “warnings out”. If you ancestor disappears from one town, he was probably warned out and will show up in another county. I have several queries in to the historical societies of Stoughton, Wayland, Topsfield, and Salem, Massachusetts- all tracing my 4x great grandmother as she moved from place to place (and married someone new each time!).

    • forgottennewengland

      When I was researching this post, I came across the story of “Old Alexander the Wandering Jew”. When Old Alexander, born Francis William Alexander, died at the Middlebury, Vermont, town farm in 1881 at the age of 87 years, he was known as a mysterious old man who had wandered New England for over 50 years. He was famous for his keen memory, “fine scholarship”, and was said to have come from a wealthy Scottish family and graduated from Dublin University. The secret around whatever had caused him to begin his life on the road died with him, but even his obituary pointed out that he was “very coarse” with his language and was especially mean to children.

      Some of the most interesting stories emerge from a detailed review of the records. That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of genealogy (and researching history, in general) to me.

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