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Berkshire Family Historian
March 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2001 Contents

The workhouse in Berkshire

Peter Higginbotham

Although the workhouse is often associated with the national system of Poor Law Unions set up under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, its history goes back long before that. Berkshire often featured in that history, and the county's workhouses provide good examples of how the institution developed.

In 1624, John Kendrick, a woollen draper, bequeathed the sum of 7,500 for providing work for the unemployed textile workers in Reading. Part of the money was to be spent on a house 'fit and commodious for setting of the poor to work therein, with a fair garden adjoining'. In 1625, the town corporation bought a house on a two-acre site in Minster Street for 2,000 and by 1628 had turned it into a house for poor clothiers. This impressive building (for which a local brick-maker supplied 200,000 bricks and 20,000 tiles became known as 'The Oracle' - the name possibly deriving from 'orchal', a violet dye obtained from lichen. It consisted of rows of workshops around a central courtyard, with an ornate Dutch-gabled stone gateway, whose carved wooden gates ended up in Reading Museum. Kendrick made a similar bequest Of 4,000 to Newbury.

Another early workhouse in the county was erected in Abingdon and dates back to 1631 when the town's Mayor reported that 'wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke' (Leonard, l900).

A significant impetus to the setting up of workhouses came in 1723 with Sir Edward Knatchbull's Act 'For Amending the Laws relating to the Settlement, Employment and Relief of the Poor' which enabled workhouses to be set up by parishes either singly, or in combination with neighbouring parishes. The Act was also the origin of the 'workhouse test' - that the prospect of the workhouse should act as a deterrent and that relief would only be available to those who were desperate enough to accept its regime. In June 1724, Abingdon took advantage of the new Act when St Helen's Parish Vestry was authorised to spend up to 150 on a house 'for the lodging, keeping, maintaining and employing such poor as do or shall desire relief (Cox, 1999). The first governor appointed in 1725 at a salary of 30 per annum was the then parish clerk, Edward Hacker. He and his wife also received remuneration in the form of 'meat, drink and washing'. Their duties included the religious instruction of children.

In 1797, in his national survey 'The State of the Poor', Eden reported on the state of several Berkshire workhouses. By this time, the 'farming' of the poor was often handed over to a contractor for a fixed annual payment. In the St Mary's parish of Reading, workhouse conditions seemed reasonably tolerable:

The Poor are chiefly maintained in a workhouse, erected about 20 years ago, for 1,400, of which 650 has been paid off. It seems a comfortable and convenient lodging for the Poor, but not always sufficiently aired. The lodging rooms contain 2, 3, 4 beds apiece, made of flocks and feathers. In winter generally about 80 or 90 persons in the house. They are chiefly employed in spinning hemp, but 2 looms for weaving sail cloth were lately erected. Some of the Poor are sent out to work for the farmers. About 350 a yeas. are paid to out-pensioners, 1s. or 1s. 6d. the usual allowance to each. If they require more they are usually taken into the house. Diet in Workhouse: Breakfast-Sunday-Bread, cheese and beer; Monday and Friday-Bread and broth; Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday-Milk pottage; Thursday- bread and cheese. Dinner-Sunday, Thursday-Meat, pudding, vegetables and bread; Monday, Saturday Bread and cheese; Tuesday-Bread and broth; Wednesday, Friday-Cold meat. Supper every day Bread, cheese and beer. Old people are allowed tea, bread and butter for breakfast.

Likewise in New Windsor:

The Poor are either relieved at home, or in a Poor-house, which is a very convenient building, and seems to be kept tolerably clean. Feather beds are used. There are 6 or 7 in each room; 2 sleep in a bed. 96 paupers, chiefly old people and children, are at present in the house. The latter are instructed in reading till they are 7 years old, and are then put to a free school, where they are clothed and educated till they are 14, when the boys are bound apprentices till they are 21, with an apprentice fee of 10, arising from the interest of donations bequeathed for that purpose. In the Poor-house linen and stockings are manufactured for the use of the house. For all other work, which consists in picking hair, wool, etc., for other manufactures, the Poor are allowed 2d. in every shilling they earn for the house.

... Table of diet in the Poor-house: Breakfast, every day - bread and broth;  Dinner - Sunday - Mutton and vegetables; Monday, Wednesday, Friday - cold meat; Tuesday, Thursday - Beef and vegetables;  Saturday Bread and cheese. Supper, every day - Bread and cheese for adults; bread and butter for children. At dinner and supper a pint of small beer is allowed to a grown person, and a less quantity to children. Women who can procure themselves tea and sugar have bread and butter. at breakfast, instead of broth.

In St Mary's parish, Wallingford, an even more relaxed regime existed:

The contractor who farms the Poor receives 300 a year, for which he undertakes to supply all the Poor belonging to the parish with victuals, and clothes. The parish pays doctors, and attorney's bills, etc. The Poor are not employed in any manufacture; but such as can do a little work, are allowed to go out of the Poor-house, wherein they are maintained by the contractor. The introduction of a woollen or linen manufacture would perhaps be serviceable to this part of the country.

After 1782, with the passing of Thomas Gilbert's Act 'For the Better Relief and Employment of the Poor', groups of parishes could unite to share the financial burden of operating a workhouse although this was to be for the benefit only of the old, the sick and the infirm. Able-bodied paupers were to be found employment near their own homes, with land-owners, farmers and other employers receiving allowances to bring wages up to subsistence levels. A Gilbert's Union was formed in Faringdon in 180l, with the Wallingford parishes of St Mary, St Leonard, and St Peter following suit in 1807.

The Wallingford Gilbert's Union built a workhouse for 282 inmates half a mile west of the town centre. On 23rd May, 1808, the workhouse Guardians appointed Mr James Dehay of South Moreton as surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife for the Poor of

Model plan of Abingdon and Bradfield Workhouses

1. Dead House 15. Work Room 29. Slaughter House
2. Refractory Ward 16. Coals 30. Work Room
3. Work Room 17. Bakehouse 31. Washing Room
4. Dust 18. Bread Room 32. Bath
5. Work Room 19. Delivery Room 33. Receiving Ward, 6 beds
6. Washing Room 20. Porter's Room 34. Wash House
7. Receiving Ward, 6 beds 21. Searching Room 35. Laundry
8. Bath 22. Store 36. Dust
9. Work Room 23. Potatoes 37. Washing Room
10. Dust 24. Coals 38. Work Room
11. Washing Room 25. Receiving Ward, 4 beds 39. Refractory Ward
12. Flour and Mill Room 26. Washing Room 40. Dead House
13. Washing Room 27. Work Room 41. Well
14. Receiving Ward, 3 beds 28. Piggery 42. Passage

Model plan of Abingdon and Bradfield workhouses

the union (outside the workhouse as well as inside) at a salary of 30 guineas, which also covered drugs, medical applications and attendances, except for those involving venereal disease (Hardman, 1994).

In 1828, Wallingford extended its poor relief and agreed to employ all able-bodied men applying for work in digging for stone. An area called the 'Pit' in the workhouse garden was opened for this purpose, with labourers paid a daily rate of 9d for married men, 6d for single men over fourteen, and 3d for boys; a foreman received ls.3d. Parishes often went to great length in keeping the unemployed occupied, using the 'roundsman' system: able-bodied paupers were sent around the local rate-payers who tried to give them work to do, even if this meant digging holes and immediately filling them in again, or delivering 'letters' which contained only blank sheets of paper.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the cost of 'out-relief' in the form of job creation, and handouts of food or money, was rising steadily. A contributory factor in this was the infamous 'Berkshire Bread Act' which arose from a meeting on 6th May 1795, when the Justices of the County' and other discreet persons 'met' at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland' (at Speen, near Newbury). They fixed the level of agricultural wages on a scale relating to the price of bread and on the size of a labourer's family. Over the next decades, though never formally implemented in law, the basic principles of the Speenhamland system became widely adopted. However, in 1830, rising unemployment, low wages, and the threat of agricultural mechanisation led to the 'Captain Swing' riots. On 17th November, a large group of labourers from Thatcham destroyed threshing machines at a number of farms in pursuit of their demands for higher wages. In the following days, numerous attacks and riots followed in the west of the county. (The labourers of Speen joined the protest briefly, but their demands were satisfied by a rapidly offered increase in wages.)

In 1832, in the face of such unrest, and growing discontent with the Speenhamland system, which many viewed as having removed the distinction between worker and pauper, the government appointed a Royal Commission to formulate a new national policy for the administration of poor relief. In 1834, the resulting Act 'for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales', proposed the total abolition of out-relief. Henceforth, poor relief would be organized and funded on the basis of new administrative areas called Poor Law Unions (PLUs). Each PLU would operate a workhouse whose guiding principle would be the 'workhouse test' - that relief would be only be available to those willing to submit to its grim regime.

Berkshire Poor Law Unions post 1834

Officers of the new Poor Law Commission (PLC) began touring the country to implement the new Act. Their reports on what they found showed considerable variations in how parishes were operating poor relief. Assistant Commissioner Richard Hall was clearly not impressed by the state of affairs in Wallingford:

I found that the guardians were annually appointed, and did nothing; intact, they were ignorant that they had any official duty to perform beyond keeping the workhouse in repair; the overseers paid the poor, and all the abuses consequent upon that method of giving relief, flourished in the union just as out of it. The workhouse was divided into apartments, each furnished and tenanted by a family, by whom it was evidently regarded as their freehold; one woman had resided there for eleven years, and brought tip a family of nine children; a shoemaker who had been an inmate seven years, told me that he earned his own living, and indignantly asserted, that he was entirely independent of the parish; in some rooms were young people just beginning life, having been lately married; in others three or four unmarried mothers, or those who were on the point of becoming so;  in some were the sick, or those whose age and infirmities showed that they were on the verge of dissolution; 47 children were variously deposited throughout the building; one room only was vacant; on my asking the cause of this, I was informed that it was reserved for some preachers of the Methodist persuasion, who attended twice a week to hold a preaching, and a prayer meeting; those of the inmates who desired it were made members of the congregation, upon the weekly payment of one penny.

Faringdon, on the other hand, received a glowing report from Assistant Commissioner Edward Gulson:

I found there a large workhouse, already erected, capable of holding three hundred persons; it belonged exclusively to Faringdon, and was used by that parish alone. At the time of my visiting the place, it contained sixty-three inmates. Order and regularity were kept up to a high degree in this workhouse; the classification of the inmates, and the separation of the sexes, have been rigidly enforced; and the able-bodied paupers were employed in digging stone out of a pit, which was situated on a piece of land attached to the workhouse.

All out-door relief to able-bodied labourers is discontinued. The workhouse now contains seventy-four inmates from the whole union, being only eleven more than from the parish of Faringdon alone, under the old system. Of the first eighty-seven labourers with families, to whom out-door relief was refused in the months of February and March, and most of whom had been constant hangers on the parish fund, and to all of whom an order for the workhouse was given for themselves and their families, not one-half availed themselves of the offer, but immediately found means of providing for themselves.

Although the boundaries of the new Unions did not neatly coincide with the county borders, twelve Poor Law Unions are usually placed within the county as shown in the accompanying map.

The first Union formally to be declared, both within the county and in the country as a whole, was Abingdon on New Year's Day 1835. St Helen's parish in Abingdon had been planning to build a new workhouse for several years, and was in an advanced state of readiness for the push it received from the new Act. Abingdon also became the home of the first purpose-built workhouse to be erected under the new regime. Erected over the summer of 1835, the new building had a total cost of 9,000 and was intended to accommodate up to 500 inmates, the first of whom took up residence in October.

The Abingdon Union workhouse was designed by the PLC commissioned architect Sampson Kempthorne. Its novel layout consisted of three wings emanating from a central observation hub, said by some to be based on American prison designs. The high plain walls and rows of small windows reinforced the severe visual effect. The wings, and their enclosing hexagon of walls, created segregated yards for the various classes of inmate: old/infirm males, able-bodied males over 15 years, boys 7-15 years, old/infirm females, able-bodied females over 15 years, boys 7-15 years, and children under 7.

The new building was of sufficient interest to form the subject of an article in an 1836 issue of the Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction.

In the following months, the remaining Berkshire Unions were formed, the last being Windsor on 7th September 1835. When it came to workhouses, Bradfield, Newbury and Wantage all drew on the services of Sampson Kempthorne, with Bradfield adopting a slightly smaller version of the hexagonal design, the others preferring his cruciform or 'square' layout. Cookham Union (later renamed Maidenhead) employed a different architect but also used a variation on the cruciform theme.

The other unions initially made use of existing workhouse buildings, with new buildings being erected in later years.

The 1834 Act, perhaps not surprisingly, aroused considerable and sometimes violent opposition. This was the case in Abingdon where, on 21st November, within a few weeks of its opening, the workhouse was the scene of a murder attempt on the Master of the workhouse. The incident received considerable newspaper coverage in the following week's Jackson's Oxford Journal.

The first workhouses were deliberately plain and somewhat severe in design and construction. This was a deliberate policy, both in adding to the deterrent image of the establishments, and also to keep costs down. Windsor managed to buck the trend when building its new workhouse in 1839. It turned to the architectural partnership of George Gilbert Scott and William  Bonython Moffatt. The double-cruciform design they produced, with its splendid battlements, was perhaps more reminiscent of a stately home than a workhouse.


Between the hours of seven and eight on Saturday evening last a most daring attempt was made to murder Mr. ELLIS, the governor of the Union Workhouse of this district, or some of his family, by firing through the window of his sitting-room a small apartment, which contained at the time no fewer than five persons. Miss ELLIS, the sister of the Governor, was standing at the window immediately previous to the report and she had just taken a seat in a position in which the bullet passed within a few inches of her head. In the former position it could not have missed her person. The. ball then passed through  a wainscot partition, just over the head of an aged pauper, who was standing within the door of the apartment; and it afterwards entered, for the space of an inch into a wall at the end of the passage leading from the room, whence it rebounded and fell on the  floor. It appears from the direction of the two former perforations of the ball that the shot was fired from the workhouse garden and that the distance fired was about 48 yards from the window. The Mayor, W. D. Belcher, Esq. and other Magistrates were soon on the spot and whilst examining a second gun was fired. Four or five constables perambulated the premises during that and the following two nights. Two hundred pounds reward have been offered to any person who may give such information as shall lead to the conviction of the offender or offenders; and his Majesty's pardon has also been offered to an accomplice who may impeach the offender who actually fired the gun; and Mr. Ellis, from Bow-Street is also here with the view of discovering the authors of this villainy. If this outrage has been committed for the purpose of intimidating the authorities whose duty it is to carry the Provisions of the Poor Laws Amendment Act into operation we must say, that the folly is as famous as the daring is dangerous; and if a a discovery should take place, the culprit if convicted, will unquestionably suffer for his temerity, the highest penalty of law. Three men were apprehended yesterday, on suspicion of being implicated in this offence.

Report of Abingdon murder attempt

Windsor workhouse, later part of the King Edward VII Hospital, and now converted to residential accommodation, is one of the county's best-preserved workhouse sites. As well as the main workhouse building, other surviving structures include the infirmary added in 1898, and the tramp-ward with its cells for accommodating short-term 'casuals'. Casuals were required to perform a certain amount of work, usually stone-breaking. Lumps of stone had to be broken into pieces small enough to pass through a metal grid in the wall of the cell, with the pieces being collected on the outside.

Stone-breaking cells at Windsor

This is a brief rundown of the fate of the other Berkshire workhouses.

Abingdon - demolished in 1932, with the site being used for a housing estate.

Bradfield - later became Wayland Hospital. It was mostly demolished in the mid-l990s and replaced by housing, although the entrance block survives.

Cookham - Most of the former workhouse buildings still survive in the shape of St Mark's Hospital.

Easthampstead - this mixture of former almshouses and purpose-built additions later became Church Hill House Hospital. Some of the surviving parts were recently converted for residential use.

Faringdon - the buildings are now completely demolished.

Hungerford - initially used the former Lambourn parish workhouse plus premises on Charnham Street in Hungerford. The new building from 1847 survived until the mid-l990s and in 1992-3 was used to house Bosnian refugees. Since demolished to make way for a housing development, although the chapel survives.

Newbury - much altered over the years, a few parts of the workhouse buildings survive on the Sandleford Hospital site.

Reading - initially continued using St Mary's and St Laurence's parish workhouses supplemented from 1847 by a vagrants' workhouse on the Forbury. A new workhouse was built in 1866-7 and extended in 1892 and 1911. The workhouse was used as a military hospital during the First World War, with inmates being transferred to other workhouses for the duration. Some original buildings survive at what became Battle Hospital.

The entrance to Reading War Hospital, circa. 1915

The entrance to Reading War Hospital, circa. 1915

Wallingford - based on extensions to the existing Gilbert's union workhouse, the workhouse was extended with the additions of a fever block and infirmary. It later became St Mary's Hospital, eventually closing in 1982. All the buildings are now demolished and replaced by a housing estate.

Wantage - later became the Downs Hospital. The buildings were largely demolished and the site is now used as a stud-farm.

Wokingham - initially making use of the old parish workhouse at Wargrave, a new workhouse was built at Wokingham in 18491850. The main block and Guardians' board-room survive in the guise of Wokingham Hospital.

Workhouses were not the only institutions to be set up by Poor Law Unions. From the outset, workhouses had to allocate space for schooling children and provide three hours a day teaching. In some cases, school blocks or even separate schools were erected. In 1838, the Poor Law Commissioners briefly flirted with a scheme whereby Wantage Union would actually be disbanded and its workhouse be used instead as a central school for the surrounding Unions, but the idea came to nothing. Instead, in 1844, an Act of Parliament proposed the setting up of separate 'industrial' schools outside the workhouse - these would prepare older children for work in local agricultural or textile industries, or in the case of girls, for work in domestic service. Unions within a fifteen-mile radius could also combine to form a School District to set up larger establishments. This scheme never really took off, and Reading and Wokingham was one of the relatively few School Districts to actually be formed, building a large school at Wargrave, now demolished. Wantage later sent some of its youths to the large industrial school at Cowley in Oxford.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many Unions including Wallingford and Wokingham set up another form of accommodation known as 'Cottage Homes', which were intended to provide a more amenable environment for pauper children away from the workhouse.

The workhouse era came to an end, officially at least, on April 1, 1930 when the Local Government Act came into force and abolished the then 643 Boards of Guardians in England and Wales.

One legacy of the Poor Law Unions is their extensive collection of records. Every aspect of a workhouse's administration was recorded, and the files that survive provide a treasure trove for local and family historians. Some central records such as correspondence between Unions and the Poor Law Commissioners, together with staff lists, plans, and other papers are held at the PRO in Kew. The Berkshire Record Office holds most of the local records, of which there is a fascinating variety. For many of the Unions, there is a virtually complete run of minutes for the Guardians' weekly or fortnightly meetings. Other records include: admission and discharge lists; registers of birth, baptism, vaccination, and death; medical records; minutes of numerous subcommittees; masters' journals, chaplains' report books and inmates service books; diet sheets and punishment books; visitors' books; contracts for workhouse supplies and other financial matters including garden, firewood, oakum, and pig accounts!

For further information on the workhouses of Berkshire, and all across the British Isles, visit my website at:


Cox, M (1999). Abingdon: An 18th Century Country Town.

Eden, Sir F.M. (1797). The State of the Poor.

Hardman, J.S. (1994). Wallingford: A History of an English Market Town. 

Hobsbawm, ,J & Rude G, (1969). Captain Swing.

Leonard, E.M. (l900). The Earlly History, of the English Poor Law.

Longmate, M (1974). The Workhouse.

Railton, M. (1994). Early Medical Serrvices: Berkshire and South Oxfordshire from 1740.

Slack, P. (1995). The English Poor Law, 1531-1782.

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updated 20th August 2001