Workhouses were once ubiquitous elements of the local landscape. These severe, penal-looking establishments, built in the years following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, replaced the use of cottages and other vernacular buildings as the dispensaries of relief under the Poor Law Act of 1601. The 1834 Act compelled parishes to group together in Unions, with a single (usually large and imposing) workhouse, able to deal with the increased number of paupers seeking food, lodging and work.
Bill Hardy, an expert on the Bishops Stortford Union Workhouse, came to talk to our local history group recently. As Bill said, workhouses were so common a sight that many families will still have a workhouse story to tell. I am no exception. A close relation of mine was brought up in a workhouse in the early decades of the 20th century (his own family having been the administrators of such an establishment in a Kent village).
Once you were admitted to a workhouse, it became very difficult to break free. The monotonous daily routine tended to breed a reliance on institutional support and maintenance. All ages were catered for: old and young, able-bodied and infirm. Families would be admitted, but then brutally split up by funnelling the adults into separate men’s and women’s quarters, with boys and girls also grouped separately after they reached the age of seven.
The Bishops Stortford Union workhouse was an imposing brick-built establishment and still stands today. It was built in 1836-37, to a hexagonal design by WT Nash. (To the north, the Saffron Walden Union had already built a similar-looking workhouse a year earlier, to accommodate 340 inhabitants.) Workhouse residents were required to wear uniforms. Boys’ hair would be cut short, to reduce the risk of infestations. Residents would be sent to work in local fields, or given other mindless tasks to perform, such as walking on treadmills or picking oakum.
Tramps would seek overnight relief here, burying their possessions beneath nearby hedges where they could be retrieved after they were turfed out in the morning (they were not permitted to return within seven days, so would walk to the neighbouring Union for another night’s board and lodging.) Like many such places, the Stortford workhouse eventually became an infirmary (at the turn of the twentieth century). In 1936 it played host to the marchers heading to London on the Jarrow Crusade. Eventually it became a community hospital, until its closure in 2004. It is now divided into residential properties.
Bill was one of a team of local history researchers who delved deep into the public records, in particular the correspondence of the Poor Law Commission, formerly located at Somerset House. Four thousand documents were separately digitised and transcribed by Bill and the rest of the team, ensuring that the names and lives of those associated with the workhouse were properly recorded for posterity. The results of the work can be interrogated on the National Archives website.
You can see the Bishops Stortford Workhouse by looking at the satellite image on Google Maps. The hexagonal design is clear, with three blocks forming the radial spokes at the centre. This provided for six separate yards into which inmates would be sent for exercise. It does all look somewhat like an alien imposition. It might almost be a spaceship dropped onto the landscape, like that satellite image of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, sitting in the yard of a film studios in Surrey.