This week, my London Shoes transported me back to a period in time when the ‘welfare /benefit state’ as we know it today, simply did not exist.
My quest was to seek out the remains of “London’s Forgotten Workhouses”
Throughout the past few centuries, if you were orphaned, elderly, sick, disabled or simply unable to find work, then unfortunately you would most probably have ended up in the ‘poor-house’ or ‘houses of industry’ which, as the years progressed, became more commonly known as the “Workhouse”.
The actual origins of the workhouses in the UK can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to sort out the labour shortages following the Black Death, by restricting the movement of labourers, which ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor. With the introduction of the Poor Law 1601, this approach in dealing with the poor and needy, continued – where the less fortunate in society had to work for very basic food and shelter – in other words, a punishment for being poor.
By 1776 there were 86 workhouses scattered across the London region, that housed roughly 16,000 men, women and children.
During the early 1800’s the situation regarding the poor and needy, particularly in London and other inner city’s, escalated and became a more serious social and political issue – as the Industrial Revolution and all the employment that created, attracted workers and their families to urban areas seeking work – but the problem arose when those people fell victim to unemployment or found themselves unable to work because of industrial injury, which was very much the case in those days.
Life in the workhouse was deliberately made to be extremely harsh, for the specific purpose of deterring those individuals who were able-bodied, from looking to the workhouse as an easy way of gaining accommodation and food – and more importantly, free medical care and education for their children.
In some respects, the residents of the ‘workhouse’ had a far better quality of life than most of those on the ‘outside’. So, in 1834, parliament passed the ‘New Poor Law’ act in an attempted to reverse this trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse.
Being a resident of the ‘Workhouse’ was certainly not a pleasant existence, and once ‘in the system’ it was very hard to actually ‘get out’.
The famous silent movie star Charlie Chaplin, spent all his formative years in the Lambeth Workhouse – and his case is a rare example where someone managed to escape the workhouse system and make a successful life for himself, on the ‘outside’ – but he was an exception to the rule, as in most cases, life was very much like the descriptions portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens, particularly Oliver Twist.
As the 19th century evolved, there were more and more people confined in London’s ‘workhouses’ as they were either sick, suffering mental illness or infirm (e.g. not, and never would be, able-bodied) – as a result, in 1929, legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take on board and care for those confined in workhouses, who were in those particular circumstances.
This approach in managing workhouse residents, continued right up to 1948 and the passing of the National Assistance Act, which signaled the end of the ethos of the original Poor Law’s and the ‘workhouse’.
The majority of London’s workhouses have long since been demolished – but my quest for this topic was to try and find those very few workhouse buildings that are actually still standing.
Cleveland Street – W1
This old building is one of the earliest surviving workhouses in London, which was erected in around 1775, when the area around it was still rural.
Records show that in 1866 there were 556 peopled confined to the building, who were sharing only 332 beds.
What is interesting about this building is that it is just a little way along the same road, is a house were Charles Dickens used to live – so he would have had first-hand knowledge of its ‘in-mates’ and their activities, which no doubt was a big influence on his writing.
In 1929, the building became an annex for the Middlesex Hospital – and then in 2005 it was finally closed and put forward by property developers for destruction. However, that didn’t happen, because local residents were successful in lobbying it for it to become a Grade II listed building.
So today, it remains boarded up, exactly as it was – with loads of regeneration building works going on around it.
Bethnal Green – Cambridge Heath Road E2
The first workhouse in Bethnal Green was recorded in 1777
From the 1840s to 1850s, there was a growing need for poor-relief in this specific district of east-London, and as a result larger workhouses were built to help with overcrowding. The change in attitude towards the sick, elderly and infirm people in the Bethnal Green workhouses, saw the opening of the Cambridge Heath Road infirmary in 1900. A small part of the Cambridge Heath Road entrance of the building remains to this day, where it now serves as residential housing.
Shoreditch – Kingsland Road-N1
The Shoreditch poor house (e.g. workhouse) was originally erected back in 1731, and was located in the St.Leonards parish of the district.
Following the passing of the 1834 Poor Law amendments, the site and its buildings were expanded so that the workhouse also had an accompanying ‘poor’ infirmary.
In 1865, a workhouse management office was erected in nearby Hoxton, to administer the workhouse activity and the health care of its inmates.
The buildings still stand today and are part of the St.Leonards hospital, an annex of nearby Hommerton Hospital.
Holborn – Grey’s Inn Road-WC1
Behind the gates of a plumbing company on Gray’s Inn Road are the remaining buildings of the Holborn Union Workhouse, which was originally situated on this site since 1746. The rectangular glass-roofed hall, is visible just behind the gates, and the back of the original building can be seen in Mount Pleasant
The building is now a mixed office and studio space but still retains neglected features that definitely give you a ‘vibe’ for what the building was in the past.
Peckham – Gordon Road-SE15
Just around the corner from Peckham Rye station, backing onto the railway arches, stands the old Gordon Road workhouse, which was built in 1878 to house 700 inmates, who had to pay for the roof over their heads by performing tough, physical labour on a daily basis, while the women were employed in mostly laundry work. This impressive, well-preserved Victorian building now houses attractive residential flats.
Following my grueling day in the ‘workhouse’ – it was time for a cheeky beer, and so I headed off to the famous “Cittee of York” pub in Holborn, a site where there has been alehouse in one form or another in situ since the mid 1400’s.
Hope you find this interesting and enjoy the accompanying photos.