The Workhouse

Before 1834 several parish poorhouses existed in the Whitehaven area. There was a building providing for the care of ill and needy people as early as 1690, and in 1743 there was "a very large and commodious poorhouse" built near Michael Street, large enough by 1795 to accommodate 200 inmates.

Workhouses were where poor people who had no job or home lived. They earned their keep by doing jobs in the workhouse. Also in the workhouses were orphaned (children without parents) and abandoned children, the physically and mentally sick, the disabled, the elderly and unmarried mothers.

The Preston Quarter, once a township in its own right, had a workhouse at Ginns (see photo) and there were others at Harrington and Workington. The Poor Law Amendment became law in 1834 and decreed that external relief for the poor was to be stopped within two years, leaving those who found themselves at the bottom of society’s heap with two choices: the workhouse or starvation.

In Whitehaven, post 1834, the Poor Law Union was formed in 1838 with the task of caring for the downtrodden and destitute. This organisation was run, from its headquarters at Union House, Scotch Street, by an elected Board of Guardians, of 32 people, each guardian representing a local parish.

The Union was apportioned into four sub-districts – Harrington, Whitehaven, St Bees and Egremont, which together comprised 25 parishes and townships: Arlecdon, Beckermet (St John’s), Cleator, Distington, Egremont, Ennerdale and Kinniside, Gosforth, Haile, Harrington, Hensingham, Lamplugh, Lowside Quarter, Moresby, Netherwasdale, Parton, Ponsonby, Preston Quarter, Rottington, Sandwith, Salter and Eskett, St Bees, St Bridget’s (Beckermet), Seascale, Weddicar and Whitehaven.

The operation of Whitehaven Poor Law Union was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 32 in number, representing its 23 constituent parishes. Initially, the Whitehaven Union continued to use the existing parish workhouse buildings in Whitehaven (used for female inmates) and Preston Quarter (for males) each of which could accommodate around 200.

No able-bodied person was to receive money or any other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse. The legislation had been designed to root out the ‘undeserving poor’.

The New Poor Law Union was supervised by a Board of Guardians, people elected by ratepayers and the parish’s prominent landowners. Conditions in the workhouse were deliberately made harsh and hostile to discourage people from seeking help in this way.

Under the 1834 Act, the threat of the Union workhouse was intended to act as a deterrent to the able-bodied pauper. Poor relief would only be granted to those desperate enough to face the conditions of the workhouse and if an able-bodied man entered the workhouse, then his whole family had to join him.

There was of course a huge social stigma attached to being in the workhouse, conditions were harsh and very few personal items were allowed to be kept. A uniform of coarse material and a cotton shirt was given in exchange for ragged clothing, baths were given once a week and people slept in communal dormitories. But perhaps the most cruel aspect of all was the separation of husbands and wives and parents and children. They were forced to stay in different parts of the building and not even permitted to meet in communal areas.

Everyone was expected to work long hours in often difficult and demanding jobs. Men would do heavy work like breaking stone, cutting wood or grinding corn. Women would work long hours engaged in washing, scrubbing and cleaning or other tasks in payment for a bowl of watery porridge called gruel or perhaps a piece of bread and cheese.

Children around this time were still working down the mines, in dangerous conditions, so they would be expected to do heavy work in the workhouse. The able-bodied were given hard work to do while the elderly and infirm sat around in the day rooms or sick wards. And parents were only allowed limited contact with their children, maybe on Sunday afternoons.

The workhouse was not, however, a prison. People could, in principle, leave whenever they wished, for example when work became available locally. Some people, known as the “ins and outs’’, entered and left quite frequently, treating the workhouse almost like a guest-house, albeit one with the most basic of facilities. For some, however, their stay in the workhouse might be for the rest of their lives.

By the 1850s, the majority of those forced into the workhouse were not the work-shy, but the old, the infirm, the orphaned, unmarried mothers, and the physically or mentally ill. Entering its harsh regime and spartan conditions was considered the ultimate degradation.

In 1854/5, a new Union workhouse was built on a three acre site at the south of the town on the west side of Low Road. Constructed from red sandstone, the two storey building was designed by a Mr Porter of London and adopted the then common corridor plan. It accommodated 424 inmates and cost £8,000. The workhouse also boasted four acres of gardens on which the inmates cultivated vegetables.

In 1894, a competition was held for the design of a new 75-bed infirmary and was won by G Dale Oliver. Constructed from red sandstone, the two-storey building cost £8,000 and had room for 424 old and destitute people, long before the days of the old age pension and social security benefits. The workhouse also boasted four acres of gardens in which residents worked and cultivated vegetables for their table.

The 1901 Bulmer’s Directory informs that the Whitehaven Poor Law Union was led by the Rev A F Curwen, chairman, with Mr J Gibson Dees as vice-chairman. At the Workhouse itself, the master was Harry Dixon, with Mrs Dixon as matron and the Rev James Anderson of Irish Street was chaplain.

After 1930, the workhouse was renamed Meadow View House. It later became a long-stay geriatric hospital. Following subsidence because of mine workings, the property was vacated in the early 1960s and was demolished.

Whitehaven Union operated children's cottage homes at St Bee's and at Harrington. The St Bee's home was opened in 1915 in the former village policeman's home at 24 Main Street, now a beauty salon. Children from the home attended the village school.

Whitehaven Workhouse
Whitehaven Workhouse


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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