Orphaned, elderly, sick, disabled or simply unable to find work? If you answered to any one of these conditions in Victorian London, then you may have found yourself in the workhouse.
Until The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, the treatment of the poor had barely changed since the 1601 Poor Law. ‘Poorhouses’ or ‘houses of industry’ had existed for several centuries across Britain as institutions where the neediest in society had to work for the most basic of food and shelter: effectively, punishment for being poor.
During the 19th century, inner-city workhouses became much more organised, detaining people on an industrial scale. These institutions grew hand-in-glove with the Industrial Revolution, as great swaths of people moved to urban areas to find work, but often fell victim to underemployment or industrial injury.
One of London’s most famous sons, Charlie Chaplin, spent his formative years in the Lambeth New Workhouse on Renfrew Road. Like fictional counterpart Oliver Twist, Chaplin was lucky enough to escape the system. But many thousands were not so lucky.
After studying the 1893-96 Ordnance Survey map of London superimposed onto Google Maps, and exploring Peter Higginbotham’s comprehensive Workhouses online resource, we set out to find the locations of some of London’s forgotten ‘union houses’ and see if any of their sad legacies remain.
In the shadow of the BT Tower, the Cleveland Street Workhouse is not only one of the earliest surviving workhouses in London but it is also a stone’s throw away from one of Charles Dickens’ childhood home and thought to have influenced the writing of Oliver Twist.
Historian Ruth Richardson states in Dickens & the Workhouse that ‘[t]he main front four-storey H-shaped block of the Workhouse was originally erected in the mid-1770s on land owned by the Duke of Bedford’. The workhouse was built while Fitzrovia was still semi-rural.
The harsh reality of life in the workhouse is addressed by Richardson’s bleak findings that ‘in 1866 556 people were sharing 332 beds. The cubic footage of space available per person was half that of the London prisons’. By the 1870s, the workhouse became the Central London Sick Asylum and remained a public infirmary until the abolition of the Poor Law Unions in 1929. It then became an annex for the Middlesex Hospital. In 2005, after serving the city continuously for 230 years, the hospital closed and the building was threatened with demolition to make way for a luxury residential development. In 2011, however, a campaign was successful in gaining Grade II listing for the Georgian workhouse, which recognises the structure’s significant historical importance. It was saved from destruction.
Bermondsey and Old Southwark
A document from 1868 called ‘A short account of the Parish of Bermondsey’ states that in 1710, ‘a convenient room’ was established ‘for the poor to work in, and that they be employed oakum picking’. Oakum was the smaller fibres picked from thicker ropes that were mixed with tar to waterproof wooden ships. It was an essential commodity to a seafaring nation but it was a menial task of penal servitude in prisons and workhouses alike.
St Olave Parish Street Workhouse is thought to have opened in 1734 but only came into the control of the St Olave Poor Law Union in 1836. It stood between Tooley Street and Druid Street (formerly Artillery Street), opposite the disused graveyard of St John’s Horsleydown Church. No physical clues remain to the workhouse’s location apart from a residential block named St Olave’s Estate.
In 1791, St Mary Magdalen workhouse was built at the south side of Russell Street (now Tanner Street) just around the corner from the Parish Street workhouse. In 1875, a report in the Lancet found the workhouse regularly flooded with a dire lack of cleanliness: ‘their watercloset and urinal (abutting on the deadhouse) stink so offensively as to poison the whole atmosphere of their airing-court’. Today, nothing remains of this building, and the site is now Tanner Street Park. The 1893-96 Ordinance Survey map pinpoints the exact site of the workhouse to where the tennis courts now stand.
St Matthew’s Bethnal Green Workhouse was first recorded in 1777 as a small square-shaped building with an enclosed work-yard just across from St Matthew’s Church. Higginbotham records an event from December 1816 when inmate Robert Pope was ‘dragged from his ward into the oakum cellar by two fellow inmates, Thomas Kendall and James Saint, who then bound him by the wrists and beat him with a stave from a butter tub […] and died shortly afterwards’. Pope’s beating came about after he had reported his fellow inmates for breaking workhouse rules. The harsh retribution is worsened by the fact that both his attackers were acquitted of murder after they were deemed to have only ‘accelerated his demise’!
From the 1840s to 1850s, the growing need for poor-relief in the small east-London district is clear. Larger workhouses on Waterloo Road and Well Street were built to help with overcrowding. These institutions eventually replaced St Matthew’s and by the 1893-96 Ordnance Survey map, the Great Eastern Railway arches had ploughed through the East End and the site of the inadequate 18th century building. A general shift in social attitudes towards the impoverished and growing support for medicalised care 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. Although it is a mere fraction of the infirmary, the grandeur of the Portland stone building is apparent. It must have looked almost palatial in scale compared with the economic designs of the earlier workhouses.
Behind the gates of a plumbing company on Gray’s Inn Road are the remaining buildings of the Holborn Union Workhouse. According to Higginbotham’s research, the workhouse first appears on John Rocque’s 1746 map of London and was expanded in 1838 with money from the Poor Law Commissioners. The rectangular glass-roofed hall, visible just behind the gates, is clearly recognisable on the 1893-96 Ordnance Survey map and labelled as the Holborn Union workhouse.
Some exploring behind the backstreets of Mount Pleasant (formerly Gray’s Inn Lane) uncovers an L-shaped building several storeys high, with large Victorian warehouse-style windows. The building shape matches the 1893-96 site plan and appears to be the Casual Wards mentioned by Higginbotham that were rebuilt in 1901 to enable housing relief for people getting back into employment. The building is now a mixed office and studio space but still retains neglected features that evoke the building’s past.
Many of the remaining terrace houses on the streets surrounding Mint Street Park, such as the aptly named Copperfield Street, help to give a sense of the scale of the Borough area of London around the turn of the 19th century. Since 1782, a workhouse run by the St Saviour’s Union stood on the current parkland within the old Surrey parish of St George-the-Martyr, Southwark.
The workhouse only covered about half of Mint Street Park — not a particularly large space. R Gibson Brown’s report from The Lancet records the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of the workhouse in September 1865:
In No. 4 ward (female), with 17 beds, the drain-smell from a lavatory in a recess of the room was so offensive that we suspected a sewer-communication, and soon discovered that there was no trap. […] The absence of the usual decencies and needful cleanliness of the infirmary will at once suggest the class of nurses in charge: for we feel assured that no properly trained nurse would have tolerated such abominations as we witnessed.
According to Brown, the parish’s homeless were literally given straw on a floor of a building. Those too sick to wash themselves were washed by nurses with water from a chamber pot. Small wonder that the mortality rates were so high. No traces of the workhouse itself remain but the surrounding buildings do give some clues about the proportions of St Saviour’s Union. The wall that follows the park around Southwark Bridge Road is a surviving trace of Evelina Children’s Hospital, which stood to the west of the workhouse from 1869 until 1976. South of the workhouse, some of the original small terrace houses remain but halfway down the road they peter off into the path of the park.
Camberwell & Peckham
The Havil Street Workhouse was established in 1818 as one of three main sites in Camberwell. It was a long and narrow two-storey brick building, which was already being criticised in an 1865 report in The Lancet for being dilapidated, unfit for purpose and for not treating the infirm as sick patients. As for the food available to inmates, Simon Fowler recalls the dire state of affairs at Havil Street in his book Workhouse:
In the late 1880s a guardian of Camberwell workhouse in southeast London, Miss Augusta Brown, tried to improve the soup served there, which was made out of water, onions and grease. She took a bowl of it to the board meeting, but her fellow guardians refused to touch it. As the soup had already been rejected by her cat and dog, she thought that wise.
By 1890, the transition towards medicalised care had begun and the call for a new infirmary was answered when a circular tower was added to the workhouse site. By this time, St Gile’s Hospital had already opened just next to the workhouse near Brunswick Park. It served the people of Camberwell from 1875 right up until 1983. Much of the original administration and staff-residential blocks of the hospital are still standing, and are now housing. The workhouse site later operated as an infirmary until it was heavily damaged by a V1 flying bomb during the Second World War. All that remains of the Havil Street workhouse is the elegant infirmary tower that dominates the low-rise modern housing estate that surrounds it on all sides (image below).
Just around the corner from Peckham Rye station, backing onto the railway arches, the Gordon Road workhouse stands as testament to the ‘houses of industry’. Although the covered pathways give an initial impression of a genteel country sanatorium, the sheer imposing scale of the three buildings evokes the industrial mills of northern England. It was built in 1878 to house over 700 able-bodied inmates who certainly had to pay for the roof over their heads by performing tough, physical labour on a daily basis. Indeed, Higginbotham tells us that ‘[m]ale inmates performed stone-breaking and wood-chopping, while the women were mostly employed in laundry work’. These details help to remind us of the industrial function of workhouses as powerful contributors to the late-19th century economy and certainly not just places that sheltered the poor. The well-preserved Victorian buildings and surrounding grounds appeal to the contemporary taste for nostalgia and now function as attractive residential flats.
Photography by Poppy Cockburn.
Do you live in or near one of London’s many forgotten workhouses? Please share your stories or memories in the comments section below.