Life in a Nineteenth Century Workhouse

The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) empowered the Poor Law Commission to unite parishes in England and Wales into Poor Law Unions to be administered by a local Board of Guardians. The Loddon and Clavering Union was instituted on 7th May 1836, its Board of Guardians numbered 44 and there were 42 constituent parishes (two parishes returned two Guardians each). The provision of a workhouse building was central to this process. The original workhouse at Hales which had been built in 1765 was adopted as the Union workhouse and the Poor Law Commissioners authorised £3,145 10s for repairs (probably over £300,000 today) and enlargement with accommodation for 500 people.

All admissions and discharges were recorded in a book covering several years – admissions on the left hand page and discharges on the right hand page. This book covers August 1855 to December 1859, NRO, C/GP 12/205.

Entry into the workhouse was voluntary but it was Hobson’s choice! On admission people were assigned a category which determined the food they would receive. These categories are listed in the front of the book:-

Categories listed in the front of the Admission and Discharge Book. NRO, C/GP 12/205

A Relieving Officer visited each parish in the Union regularly and interviewed anyone seeking poor relief. The most commonly recorded reason for seeking admission is ‘no work’ but a reason is not always recorded. Other reasons include dependent children, pregnancy, no home, infirmity (mental and physical), illness, destitution, desertion and vagrancy.

These are some sample entries:-

Elizabeth Dunn – admitted in August 1855 with her four children because her husband had deserted them.

Francis Burgess – admitted in December 1855 because his parents had deserted him. He was under 16 years old.

Esther Fairhead – admitted in November 1855 probably after the death of her husband. She was pregnant and already had two children, Sarah and Frederic (who were under 9) who she could not support. In November 1856 Sarah was taken out of the workhouse by her grandfather.

Family members are occasionally recorded as taking relatives out of the workhouse but it didn’t always work out as in the case of George Nixon (he was under 16 and an orphan) who was admitted and discharged a total of six times over two years. His uncle took him out on one occasion but he was re-admitted within a few weeks and it didn’t happen again.  The last entry for George is his discharge in October 1857 – there are no further entries for him in this volume.

In May 1856 Matilda Buck who was under 16 was ‘taken out by grandmother’ but readmitted in July 1856 because ‘mother in house’. Her mother, Mary Buck, who was able bodied had been admitted in May 1856 and Matilda had subsequently gone to her grandmother who must have died shortly afterwards when Matilda had no choice but to go back into the workhouse.

There are a couple of instances of people being taken out by friends as in the case of Susan Randlesome (able bodied) on 20th December 1859. Perhaps they wanted to spare her Christmas Day in the workhouse!

Children born in the workhouse are recorded as admissions by surname only plus the first name of the parent, usually the mother. But in February 1856, a child was born to Caroline and Joseph Gibbs of Thurlton and the names of both parents are recorded. They had been admitted on 14th January 1856 because there was no work along with their two children, Maria, and Joseph (who was an infant) and presumably Caroline was heavily pregnant. The next entry for the family is their discharge on 14th March 1856. They were discharged at their own request and sadly it appears that the new baby had not survived as the family still consisted of Caroline, Joseph, Maria, and the infant Joseph. There are no further entries for the family in this volume.

People were often moved between workhouses to ensure they were where they qualified for relief so in May 1856 George Francis was moved from Great Yarmouth to Loddon and July 1859 William West was moved from Loddon to the Wangford Union workhouse.

The 1834 Act did not make provision for vagrants but this did not prevent them from seeking relief at workhouses and in 1837 a new regulation was introduced which required food and shelter for one night to be given to any destitute person in return for them performing a task. They were accommodated in what were often called Casual Wards. Thomas Robinson was admitted as a ‘casual’ on 18th March 1857 and discharged the following day. No parish is recorded and it says ‘Comm. Fund’. If Thomas was from a parish that was not part of the Loddon and Clavering Union no parish within the Union would be required to fund his stay. This fund was, presumably, to cover the costs of taking in individuals from outside a Union.

The workhouse was not a prison and inmates were allowed to leave at their own request whenever they wished after giving reasonable notice but paperwork was involved with leaving as with entering. A person’s own clothes would be returned to them but if they left in workhouse issue clothes they could be charged with theft.  In August 1857 Horace Waterson of Thurston ‘absconded’ – nothing is recorded about what he took with him!

‘Own request’ is the most common reason for discharge but other reasons are recorded:-

George Hubbard was discharged in August 1857 on the recommendation of the Board to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

George Gower was discharged to the ‘asylum at Thorpe’ in November 1858

Robert Clarke, George Walpole and James Revell (all able bodied) were discharged in January 1859 because they were ‘taken prisoner’.

In March 1858 Thomas Martin was discharged to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – he was able bodied so was, presumably, ill or injured. He was not from within the Union and was charged to the Hartsmere Union. Mary Martin, also able bodied, was discharged at the same time ‘by order of the Board’ presumably she was Thomas’s wife so had to leave. Any dependents would normally go into the workhouse with the applicant and leave with them.

Deaths are recorded in the Discharged column as in the case of Elizabeth Love in March 1857 and the time of death is usually noted.

There were, however, some positive reasons for leaving. Able bodied inmates were encouraged to seek work and some were successful:-

George Barber was discharged in October 1857 when he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. His dietary category was 3 so he would have been in his early teens.

In March 1859 Ann Botwright was discharged ‘to service’. She would also have been in her early teens.

Simon Baker (able bodied) of Raveningham was discharged in November 1856 because he had been offered work.

Discharges from May 18th to May 27th, 1857. NRO, C/GP 12/205

The Loddon and Clavering Workhouse closed in 1927 and was repurposed as a mental institution. Workhouses were abolished in the UK in 1930 but many continued under the control of county councils and county boroughs. When the NHS was established in 1948 many became hospitals – Loddon and Clavering became Hales Hospital.

Researched and Written by A Baker

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4 Responses to Life in a Nineteenth Century Workhouse

  1. Terry Baker says:

    Is researcher A. Baker related to the Baker family of Kirby Cane, Ditchingham and Bungay? My 6th ggfather was Rev. Abraham [1668-1751] who was rector of Kirby Kane, then Ditchingham in 1733 when his son Rev. Samuel Baker [my 5th ggrandfather] took over Kirby Cane. Abraham’s other surviving son Charles’ descendants lived in Bungay and some were prominent citizens.


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