Guy Oates (1905 – 1987): Life and Labour – Part Four – Writing Lives

Guy Oates (1905 – 1987): Life and Labour – Part Four

Until people read something like this they will never know what went on when workhouses were in use, and the Poor Law Acts were still on the statute book’ 

(Oates, 4:55).

‘Holme Dale’ Downham Market, Norfolk 1931-1932

‘Holme Dale Institution. Downham Market. 1931’ (4:46).

After leaving Cambridge, Guy and Doris entered the main drive of Holme Dale Home, and marveled at the ‘very imposing sight [which] gave the impression of a miniature castle’ (4:45), as they prepared themselves for their first experience of a workhouse, as Master and Matron. Though their time at the workhouse was eventful, Guy remained adamant that ‘the building was the best thing about the whole affair’ (4:47), and it seems that he may well be onto something. With an array of attractive features, such as the ‘heavy oak doors (. . .), the large lawn (. . .), and the large entrance hall’ (4:45), the castle like building is described more like an English country home, than a workhouse. However, while Guy is the first to admit that the building is attractive, it is the structure and layout of the house which fascinates Guy (and us). Describing it as being ‘built in the shape of a star’ (4:45), he goes on to explain how the shape of their ‘lounge-cum-dining room was octagonal, having eight walls and eight windows (. . .) [he had] never seen another room like it’ (4:45). Expanding on the unusual eight windows, he goes on to say that four of them ‘looked out onto the exercise yards of the male and female able bodied inmates’ (4:45), and due to the star shape structure of the building, the master’s quarters, ‘at all times (. . .) had a view of the inmates when in their yard’ (4:45). Though it sounds like an extraordinary room, Guy’s description suggests that the design of the building, is like that found in London’s Pentonville Prison. One of the benefits of the prison’s design, was the view of the prisoner’s communal space, which could be viewed from all angles, by the guard tower, which was in the centre of the buildings. The design was so successful, it went on to inspire ’60 other prisons’ (, 2019), in England, and the similarity between the prison and the Holme Dale Home, certainly reinforces the idea of the workhouse as a prison for the poor. 

Pentonvillie Prison (Justice.Gov, 2019).
Downham Market (Downham Market History, 2018).

The Reality of the Job

Once Guy and Doris had settled into their living quarters, they decided it was time to ‘take a tour of the place, and form an opinion as to how it was being run’ (4:45), having missed the opportunity to tour it during the interview, ‘owing to [their] arriving a little late’ (4:45). Unfortunately, what they discovered during the tour was worse than anything they had imagined, and after finding a hospital which ‘stank of urine’ and was filled with ‘untidy wards, and not a single medical card for (. . .) the uncared-for patients’ (4:45), the couple had ‘the shock of [their] lives’ (4:45). Doris continued with her inspection and found that out of 30 patients, most were ‘incontinent, and nearly all had bedsores’ (4:47), and to make matters worse, the doctor had stopped making regular visits to the workhouse and now only came when necessary. It was apparent that the institute, and the inmates, had not been at the forefront of anybody’s mind, for quite some time, and while Guy and Doris had been aware that some work was required to raise the standard of care in the workhouse, they were not prepared for the ‘gigantic job [they] had in front of [them]’ (4:45). The situation was dire, and Guy’s first thought was ‘to apply for another job as soon as possible’ (4:45), but this being his first senior position, he desperately wanted to make a success of it, and after some thought, Guy and Doris began to ‘control, organise, direct, and supervise their respective departments. Both pulling together, to bring about a happy and successful administration’ (4:45). 

‘Doris, Mother, Guy’ (4:46).

Making a change

Determined to turn Holme Dale Home into a successful Poor Law Institute, Guy and Doris began implementing changes. Some of course were welcomed, while others were not, but what speaks volumes, is the fact that all were successful. Guy worked endlessly to make sense of the accounts, which were in complete disarray upon his arrival, and tried to make sure that any rule breaking, or illegal behaviour was dealt with. However, it was the smaller changes, changes which came from the heart, which proved that someone cared, that had the biggest impact on the workhouse. For example, Doris’s concern regarding the lack of medical cards, and what this meant for the patients, led her to create new medical cards which used information from the records held in the office. During a visit, the Doctor ‘was delighted seeing a record card lying on each patient’s bed’ (4:47), and after realising that Guy and Doris were trying to ‘restore some sort of order, he [promised] to visit every day at 9am’ (4:47). Additionally, Doris’s efforts to make curtains and pick flowers for the elderly women’s day room, lifted people’s spirits. Alongside this, Guy was disgusted that none of the institutes he had worked in, had provided accommodation for married couples, and he claims that it was the ‘most depressing sight, to see an aged married couple, having lived together all their married lives in their own little cottage, being separated for the rest of their lives’ (4:55), simply because it cost less to accommodate them separately. Though they could not go against this rule, Guy and Doris found other ways of helping, and decided that married couples could ‘have dinner together, and sit together in the afternoon and evening’ (4:55), if they wished. The kind-hearted acts of Guy and Doris not only inspired others to try harder, but showed the people who needed it most that somebody cared, and in some cases, created a sense of hope. Proving that a little bit of compassion can go a very long way. 

‘Russell, Mother and Guy’ (4:46).

Moving on (it’s becoming quite a theme now)

The efforts made by Guy and Doris had gotten them a good reputation, and when Mr Gott, ‘the master of the Wayland Infirmary’ (4:53) came to visit, he made it clear to Guy that he was intending to retire, and ‘a good young couple who made great strides in a short time’ (4:53) would be the ideal candidates to take over the role of Master and Matron. After recommending that Guy, ‘look out for the advertisement’ (4:54), Mr Gott left. Though they had seen progress at Holme Dale Home, Guy and Doris agreed that this was a fantastic opportunity to take over a workhouse that already possessed a good reputation, and feeling for the first time as though he ‘had someone behind [him]’ (4:54), Guy, and Doris, attended the interview, and were once again successful in their application. On the final day at Holme Dale Home they packed up their belongings and prepared for the next chapter of their lives. As he parted with his first superior role, Guy admitted that his time at Downham Market had been ‘a hard and worrying time, working under difficult conditions, with staff who had gone slack and lost interest in their work’ (4:55), and yet he insists that ‘it was a wonderful experience [that he] will never forget’ (4:55). 

If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.

If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:

/uncategorized/harry-young-1901-1996-%D0%B6%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BD%D1%8C-%D0%B8-%D1%82%D1%80%D1%83%D0%B4-life-and-labour this post was written by Joshua Preece about Harry Young, a British Communist. For those of you who have read Josh’s introduction blog, you will be able to learn about the incident involving a steak pie.

Jessica Rimmer: /life-and-labour/mrs-w-e-palmer-b-1908-life-and-labour this blog is about Mrs W.E. Palmer and her parent’s experiences of working life which provide two very different accounts of their experiences of labour.

Ffion Jones’ blog post about Isaac Gordon /uncategorized/isaac-gordon-b-1927-life-and-labour-part-one provides an insight into cheap manual labour jobs around the world.


Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone.Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 4.

Further Reading:
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. 
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. 
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. 

Barringer, Tim J. Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain. New Haven CT: Yale UP, 2005.
Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge, 1994.
‘Downham’s Workhouse.’ 
Web. Accessed 26th April 2019. 
Evans, Robin. The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture 1750-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse. London: Temple Smith, 1974.
‘Pentonville Prison Information.’Justice.Gov.UK.2019.
Web. Accessed 26th April 2019. 
Savage, Mike. Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940: The Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

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