Christmas Day in the Workhouse

Dave Morton discusses a building type which has presumably ceased to serve its original purpose.

As a consultant, I cannot write about matters with which I am currently in- volved because they often concern live applications or appeals. Clients would not be happy if someone told them that they had read all about their case in the last issue of Context! Last Christmas (it was summer actually but that spoils the title!) I spent a considerable amount of time looking at early Victorian work- houses in various parts of the country but particularly in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex. The issue I dealt with has now been resolved and this article deals with the early Victorian workhouse. In the 1830s, this was a new building type, one of a number, such as railway stations, town halls and board schools which can be specifically identified with the Victorian era.

The Poor Law Act of 1834 required unions of parishes to provide work-houses to replace the old inadequate parish poorhouse. The growth of industry in the North absorbed many of the unemployed from rural areas. In the 1830s, high parish poor law rates were perceived mainly as a problem for the agricultural south of the country. It is here generally that the early poor law workhouses are to be found. In industrial areas, these buildings date generally from later in the 19th century.

There were two main types of early workhouse. The first was the cruciform and 'Y' layout produced by Sampson Kempthorne in a series of model plans in 1835. There were wide variations of this basic type and some were referred to as hexagons because of the shape of the surrounding wall or later buildings. The Colchester workhouse dating from 1837 (Fig. 1) and situated well outside the town at Stanway is a very well preserved example of the cruciform plan form. The main reason for its preservation is that, unlike most work-houses, it did not become part of the county hospital system in the 1930s. Instead it became a retirement home and is now used by the County Council.

It has therefore not been substantially expanded or altered. The arms of the of the red brick workhouse are three storey with a four storey central core for the administrative offices and the house of the Master. Although most of the evidence of features such as bars at the windows has been removed, as the building has been adapted for later use, the similarity of this building type with that of a prison is still apparent. The building is pleasant rather than outstanding architecturally but virtually the whole of the workhouse can still be clearly seen and appreciated from a walk around the site. Stanway is probably the best and most complete example of the original plan form of an early Essex Union workhouse.

Figure 1: Stanway Workhouse near Colchester.

Whilst a number of other examples of early Union workhouses remain in the area, most have been subject to substantial addition, demolition or alteration to accommodate new demands since they became county hospitals in the 1930s, and general hospitals after the establishment of the NHS. The former work- house at Bocking near Braintree is one of the rare examples where this has not happened. It is a 'Y' plan workhouse built in 1837 to accommodate the poor of a Union of 13 parishes with a population of about 20,000. The original workhouse is very similar concept to Stanway and includes a workhouse infirmary built in the 1890s.

The second type of workhouse was linear in plan form, usually with a front range of service buildings. George Gilbert Scott designed a number of workhouses of this type at the start of a career which led to buildings such as the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station. The Tudor style workhouse at Amersham in Buckinghamshire, which dates from 1838 (Fig .2), is one of the best examples of this type. Like most workhouses, it is located outside the town. It is built of knapped flint with warm red brick dressings and a slate roof, materials which are also to be found in other buildings in the town. The administrative building (the public face of the workhouse) faces the main road with the parallel three- storey workhouse itself behind. Minor buildings form the link between the two and create the typical workhouse yard necessary for exercise purposes. The detailing of features such as the brick boundary wall and gate piers is of a high quality. This workhouse become a County hospital in the 1930s and, although Amersham is a much bolder architecturally than Stanway, the effect of the changes and the massive expansion of buildings which occurred at most workhouses in the 1930s and subsequently after the establishment of the NHS, is clearly demonstrated.

The Belper workhouse in Derbyshire which dates from 1838 was also designed by Scott. It was built originally beyond the southern edge of the town, although like many workhouses, development has now expanded around it. The main workhouse building is a three-storey ashlar structure with pointed dormers in a Tudorbethan style. The main building, the attractive gatehouse fronting the road and the outbuildings, create the typical work-house yard. Although there have been substantial and major additions at this workhouse over the years, they have been carried out sympathetically and because of this the original workhouse building can still be fully appreciated. Architecturally it is still a very attractive building in its own right.

Figure 2: The Tudor style Amersham workhouse.

The early Victorian workhouse needs to be seen in its proper historical context. The basic economic objective of the Poor law Amendment Act of 1834 was to seek to achieve a free labour market by ensuring that no fit person could receive both wages and public support. In other words a sys- tem which would not deter the desperate (who might otherwise suffer) but which was enough to discourage eve- ryone else. Does this have a 1990s ring about it? The way of achieving these objectives was, however, very harsh. Relief was not granted to any able bodied person outside a union work- house, where a prison-like regime op- erated. Husbands were separated from wives and children were isolated from parents in separate dormitories. The windows had bars and tasks carried out were menial in the extreme.

The social stigma of the workhouses is also apparent in their originallocation which was usually outside the towns or villages they served and on the edge of open country. The reason for this was that whilst the building as a whole was meant to be seen as a deterrent to indigence, the inmates should not be located too close to the residential - and therefore respectable! - parts of the town. This is not a social or political article but this does immediately tell us something about the Victorian attitude to poverty. The poem in the title acts as a reminder that to end up in the workhouse was to be threatened with loss of respectability and, like prisoners, to become an outcast of society.

There are very few people alive today who can personally remember life in a workhouse. The buildings of that original type which remain today have lost their bars and their foreboding and most have been substantially adapted for other uses. From the 1830s to the 1930s, however, the stigma of the workhouse was regarded with fear and a bitter and lasting hatred by anyone who through some misfortune might find themselves an inmate. Whilst we should obviously not seek to judge Victorian social policy by present day standards, we should equally beware of sanitising it. The workhouse as such has gone forever. Thank goodness. Particularly in its early stages however, a harsh and deterrent social policy produced Some buildings of a high architectural quality and a few also remain which still clearly display the original plan form of this new Victorian building type.

Reading the local paper this morning, I see that Barry Sherman, the Huddersfield MP, has suggested a Millennium Destruction Challenge which would lead to the demolition of the ugliest buildings in the country. The article goes on to say that each of us has our pet hates On the shopping list with hardy annuals such as most of the post-war development in central Bradford is Buckingham Palace. Current public opinion would also probably quickly include the Millennium Tent as being well up the short list. That attitude may well changes as time goes by when people have a clearer opin- ion of what it will really look like. I wonder if a list of buildings erected in the last 150 years of special architectural and historic disinterest would produce the same level of full and frank debate as often occurs when a building is added to the statutory list?

Dave Morton

Context 58 June 1998