10 Jan 2013


It's amazing what you can find at the click of a key without even leaving your chair let alone your house.

As a newlywed recently moved to Husband dearest's home town of Houghton-Le-spring I was fascinated to discover that our flat was a stones throw away from the site of what had been a workhouse and always resolved to do some research. Alas though I never did until now, some 20 or so years later.

Recorded in a 1777 parliamentary report as a workhouse for up to 16 residents  by 1824 a much larger building housing 203 people was erected though, soon to become dilapidated, a new 'purpose-built premise costing £11,000 to build was erected on a slightly different site in 1864 - the number of residents at this point totalling 546, the 'master' (one Henry Fairbairns) described in a  letter by a Poor Law Inspector as " ..... for several years before his death, was incompetent, and if dismissed would have been a pauper."

Described as having male accommodation to the west, female accommodation to the east with rooms for the 'aged' at the front and for children at the rear, by 1891 what had been the boardroom was converted to a lunatic ward complete with a padded cell.

Imagine families separated in such a way, it also makes me shudder to think that many of these so-called lunatics, redefined as a person of unsound mind in 1930 (a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity; 'sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding, and sometimes not')/imbeciles (persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia; 'mental age of an infant')/idiots, substituted for feeble-minded in 1931 (persons who suffer from congenital mental deficiency; 'natural fool from birth') - for such were the three classifications used at that time - may well have been 'suffering' from what we now class as learning difficulties or even conditions such as deafness and epilepsy.

Fascinating and frightening stuff, I'll leave you with this verse which, published in 1832, formed part of a slim collection about life in a fictional village.


Within yon paper-window'd room.
A group in sadness and in gloom
Is sitting-and, though no-one speaks,
Look only in their eyes and cheeks!
It needs not language to express
Their tale of misery and distress;
The Village Poor-house-paupers, they-
Men-young, sinewy, and strong,
Condemn'd to see, day after day,
Their moments creep along
In sloth-for they have nought to do,
And start-ye not-in hunger, too!
Yes! hunger gnawing like a worm,
Yet armed with more than reptile fangs,
Wearing away the manly form,
While scarce tobacco soothes its pangs.
And women-young, -they might be fair,
Save that the blackness of despair
Is shed o'er every feature there,-
And gives to lips that might have smil'd
A curl of desperation wild,
To eyes that might have beamd, a-look
Which virtue cannot bear nor brook!
Such are they in that chamber din,
Silent, and desolate, and grim.

- 'A Country Curate'.


NRIGirl said...

You didn't tell us what has become of the Poor House now. Hope it is refined and considerate now.

Kelly said...

Sometimes it's scary even just looking back at how things were as recently as 50-100 years ago.

naida said...

wow, sad and scary! And it is amazing what one can find from doing some research. That photo is soooo sad.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

Such a sad time. And to think that some want a version of the work house brought back. Seriously sad.

Alexia561 said...

Very sad and scary to have to live like that. Glad that you were finally able to look into this, as it's fascinating!

strange.friendships said...

very sad and touching. What happened to that poor house, was it disbanded?

....Petty Witter said...

Thanks for all your comments. For those wishing to know what became of the workhouse ..... After 1930, the workhouse became a Public Assistance Institution, later known as Heath House Hostel and then just Heath House.
The former workhouse buildings no longer exist.
In the early 1900s, a pair of cottage homes were erected on a small separate site just to the west of the workhouse.

Stephanie@Fairday's Blog said...

It is amazing what can be found looking into the history of an area on the internet! I just recently did the same thing and found pictures of the area I live in from 100 years ago. So fascinating.