LINCOLNSHIRE POOR LAW by Jan Brettle (March 2002)





Poor Law in England and Wales had remained virtually unchanged since the Elizabethan era. Assisting the poor and needy placed an escalating burden on ratepayers, and the rising cost of poor relief lead to increasing criticism of the existing laws. Under pressure for reform, the government set up a Royal Commission in 1832 to investigate the effectiveness of the present law and make recommendations for improvement. The 300 - page report was published two years later in March 1834. Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) one of the twenty-six assistant Commissioners, was instrumental in producing the report and remained hopeful for the position of Poor Law Commissioner. The recommendations were embodied in a new Act of Parliament, receiving Royal assent on August 14th 1834.


The Act for the Amendment and better administration of the Laws relating to the poor in England and Wales (1834) often referred to as the "Poor Law Amendment Act", was far encompassing, the implications of which occasionally even astonished those responsible for its implementation.


The first provision of the act was ".... to appoint three fit persons to be Commissioners to carry this Act into execution.... the said Commissioners shall be styled 'The Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales". Captain George Nicholls (1781-1865), John Shaw Lefevre (1797-1879) and Thomas Frankland Lewis were sworn into office on August 23rd 1834. Edwin Chadwick was appointed Secretary to the Poor Law Commission, a post he held until 1848.


The Administration of the New Poor Law was the responsibility of the three Commissioners who were based at Somerset House in London. Together with the Assistant Poor Law Commissioners they supervised the accounts, the standard of accommodation, the diet and dress of inmates and salary of staff.


Under the Act the Commissioners were required "... to declare so many parishes as they may think fit to be united for the administration of the laws for the relief of the poor, and such parishes shall thereupon be deemed a Union for such purpose, and thereupon the workhouse of such parishes shall be for their common use". The first declared Union in Lincolnshire was Stamford on the 2nd November 1835. By March 1837 there were fourteen Unions classified as being within Lincolnshire, these being Bourne Union (10th November 1835), Spalding Union (16th November 1835), Holbeach Union (23rd November 1835), Grantham Union (31st December 1835), Sleaford Union (5th September 1836), Boston Union (6th September 1836), Lincoln Union (5th November 1836), Caistor Union (23rd November 1836), Horncastle Union (20th December 1836), Glanford Brigg Union (22nd December 1836), Gainsborough Union (22nd December 1836), Louth Union (18th March 1837) and Spilsby Union (19th March 1837). Grimsby Union was declared 9th October 1894 having previously been part of Caistor Union.


Most Unions were based on a market Town near their centre, and Assistant Commissioner Henry Pilkington set the first few Union boundaries, incorporating the existing Gilbert Union boundaries of Claypole, Lincoln and Caistor that had to be taken into consideration when they were formed. The new Union Workhouse was the central feature of the 1834 Act which stated "... that it shall be lawful for the said Commissioners ........ to order and direct the Guardians of any parish or Union not having a workhouse ...... to build a workhouse".


The new Poor Law and its requirement of new Union workhouses was a great boon to Lincolnshire architects. The Poor Law Commissioners 1st annual report in 1835 contained a number of model plans within the appendix. One of these was the Hexagonal design by Sampson Kempthorne (1809-73) sometimes said to have developed from Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon gaol design, but nevertheless, adapted to provide accommodation for those claiming poor relief, for example Grantham Union workhouse erected in 1837 at a cost of 4,500. Holbeach workhouse designed by Robert Ellis junior was based on the model hexagonal plan and erected in 1837 at a cost of almost 6,000.


Kempthorne's workhouse at Grantham that adjoined the Great Northern Railway station was sold to them for 13,500, and a new Union Workhouse erected on the Dysart Road. Valentine Green designed the new buildings, which were built of rubble, ancaster stone and brick and costing 23,000. The wards were arranged on the pavilion plan consisting of seven blocks connected by corridors on the ground floor and with a space of fifty feet between each block.


Another renowned architect was George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) who designed the Boston Union workhouse on the Skirbeck Road. It was built in 1837 using brick with neat stone facing, and cost 8,000. The buildings, which could accommodate 350 inmates, comprised an entrance block with an archway leading to the accommodation ranges, and an Infirmary to the rear.


A further three Lincolnshire workhouses; Horncastle, Louth and Spilsby were designed by the partnership of George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt (1812-1887). Horncastle workhouse a red brick building was erected 1837 to 1838 in Foundry Street. Louth workhouse, a large brick building was erected 1837 in Holmes Lane at a cost of 6,000, and Spilsby workhouse a large structure of brick was built in the parish of Hungleby in 1838.


Bryan Browning (1773-1856) was a Lincolnshire based architect with offices in Broad Street, Stamford. He was responsible for the design of three Lincolnshire workhouses in addition to Folkingham gaol erected in 1825. Bourne Union Workhouse was built of red brick in 1836 and cost 9,000, located in West Street it could accommodate 300 inmates. Spalding workhouse erected in 1835 from red brick, was situated half a mile from the town on the road to Pinchbeck. Stamford workhouse erected 1836-37 on Barnack Road at a cost of 5,000, was a large brick building that could accommodate 256 inmates. However, Stamford Board of Guardians decided to build a new Union Workhouse designed by J. H. Morton on Bourne Road which was completed in 1902, and could accommodate 175 inmates.


Gainsborough Union Workhouse erected 1837 on Lea Road was designed by George Wilkinson, and based on the model square design published by the Poor Law Commissioners. Wilkinson from Oxfordshire later became the official Ireland architect of the Poor Law Commission, designing many Irish workhouses.


William Adams Nicholson of Lincoln utilised the linear plan for both Glanford Brigg and Lincoln workhouses. Glanford Brigg workhouse was built of white brick in 1835 on what became known as Wrawby Street, and could accommodate 200 inmates. Lincoln workhouse was built in 1838 in a pleasant location near to the Lunatic Asylum.


Ernest Farebrother designed the new Grimsby Union Workhouse on Scartho Road, but passed away prior to its erection, which was then carried out under the direction of H. P. Scaping, architect, also of Grimsby. The whole site cost 40,000 and five hundred inmates could be accommodated.


William J. Donthorn (1799-1859) designed the plans for the Sleaford Union workhouse, based on a shortened cruciform layout. The building was erected 1838 at a cost of 4,000 and was built from ancaster stone in the Tudor style.


The workhouse at Caistor having been originally built in 1802 for the Gilbertian Union and greatly modified in 1838 and 1842 to provide additional accommodation.


Overall management of the union was undertaken by a board of guardians of the poor.  Under the 1834 Act the commissioners were required to constitute a board "... the said guardians shall be elected by the rate-payers." However "... the Commissioners shall determine the number and prescribe the duties of the Guardians to be elected in each Union." Guardians were elected by area so that all Parishes within the Union were represented, with an increased number of Guardians to represent larger Towns. One such elected guardian Charles Ellison celebrated nearly 30 years as Chairman to Lincoln Board of Guardians in addition to 43 years as Chaplain of Bracebridge Asylum.


The Guardians meetings were usually held fortnightly and the venue was frequently the Workhouse Board Room. Occasionally it became necessary to improve facilities for the guardians, such as the entrance block at Louth workhouse in 1904, incorporating a spacious new Boardroom.


Various matters would be discussed and decisions made regarding both poor law and non poor law responsibilities, including matters arising from the Workhouse; Civil Registration after 1836 (the reason for Registration districts corresponding with Union boundaries); Sanitation and Vaccination from 1853; School Attendance from 1877 in areas with no School Board and Infant Life Protection from 1897.


The Guardians were not always popular with the people, who had no wish to accept this new and harsh regime. Their anger was evident in January 1836 when the Spalding Guardians were attacked following their meeting in the Town Hall where they had been reviewing all existing claims for relief.


Each union employed a Clerk to the Guardians, which was an important role that was frequently under-estimated. The Clerk attended the meetings of the Board of Guardians and was responsible for keeping minute books and ensuring that the Workhouse Master and Relieving Officers presented books and registers at the due time. He was also required to maintain various registers, ledgers, returns and accounts. In addition to his poor law responsibilities, he often took the office of Superintendent Registrar.


Occasionally the Clerk was remembered, usually after long service to the union as can be seen at Gainsborough workhouse, where a beautiful stained glass window was erected in the new chapel in 1861, to the memory of Thomas Oldman Esq following service to the Guardians between 1837 and 1860.


Poor relief was actively discouraged by use of "the Rules, Orders and Regulations specified and contained in the schedule thereunto annexed should be duly observed and enforced at every poorhouse or workhouse to be provided by virtue of the said Act". These rules stated the treatment each pauper should receive, the type of diet that should be given, the clothing they should wear and work to be undertaken. Inmates were to be separated into their respective classes, and families split up. The terms of the Act were that there should be one system of poor relief for the whole country, and that it should be such a harsh regime that it discouraged any claims for assistance. Relief would only be given if the pauper was prepared to enter the workhouse, a revival of the "workhouse test" and conditions within the workhouse were to be lower than those for the poorest paid labourer. The Master and Matron, usually employed as a married couple, maintained these conditions and rules within the workhouse.


The team of 17 assistant Commissioners oversaw the adherence to poor law rules and regulations. Henry Pilkington was appointed for Lincolnshire, replaced shortly afterwards by Edward Gulson, who made inspections and submitted reports to the Poor Law Commissioners. In 1834 the cost of poor law in Lincolnshire as a whole had been 10s 2d per head of population, by 1837 it had fallen to 7s per head of population. These figures were of course indicative of a positive result, and were used to demonstrate how well the system was working


The view that Children were not morally responsible for their destitution and should therefore be given the opportunity of improvement through education was extremely idealistic. The education was found to be severely lacking and often provided by other workhouse inmates. An Act of Parliament in 1862 provided for the maintenance and education of pauper children, followed in 1868 by the Poor Law Board, which replaced the Poor Law Commission in 1847, starting to approve applications from Unions to Board-out Children. By 1870 funding was agreed to allow education outside the workhouse, and by 1880 education became compulsory for all Children. In 1880 Lincoln Union erected a separate Children's Block, which provided new accommodation, schoolrooms and playrooms. Grimsby Union later maintained Brighowgate Children's Home, and Horncastle Union erected Cottage Homes adjacent to the workhouse. The facilities provided differed with each Union, an example of which was that in 1892 Miss Florence Green was listed as the schoolmistress for Horncastle Union, whereas Louth Union employed Emily Pearson as an Industrial Trainer.


Any persons considered or classed as Lunatic was admitted to the Lincoln Asylum, established in 1820 on Castle Hill and erected to designs by Mr. Ingleman, architect. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act stated "that nothing in this Act contained shall authorise the detention in any workhouse of any dangerous lunatic, insane person, or Idiot for any longer period than fourteen days", unfortunately, most workhouse designs did not, therefore, include long term provision for that class of inmate. Any pauper lunatics (as they were classed at that time) were admitted to an institution, either an Asylum or the workhouse.


The Lunatic Asylums Act 1845 introduced mandatory accommodation at public expense for the pauper lunatic population in each borough and county to be accomplished within three years, and in 1846 land was purchased at Bracebridge Heath.


Doctor John Conolly (1794-1866) a famous pioneer for the system of non-restraint, stated in 1847 "although the first thing demanded by society, when we undertake to relieve it of the presence of those who cannot be at large consistently with the safety of themselves or others, is their perfect security: it must be remembered that this security does not require gloom, or a frightful apparatus. We require that the building should be on a healthy site, freely admitting light and air, and drainage. Space should be allowed for summer and winter exercise, for various employments, and for all the purposes of domestic economy".


The Lincolnshire County Asylum was built on the High Road to Sleaford in 1852 and was erected in the Italian style to accommodate 250 patients. The buildings were enlarged in 1859, 1866 and 1881 and could then accommodate 680 patients. The patients farmed a large proportion of land as part of their treatment, and the recreation land was laid out with flowerbeds, shrubs and trees. A new Chapel was erected in 1869 that could seat 450 people, and a cemetery was consecrated in 1855 on the estate of one and a half acres, which included a mortuary Chapel.


Pauper Lunatics continued to be admitted to the Union workhouse and annual returns were completed on the number of inmates classified as Insane, Idiotic or Imbecile. Magistrates had the power to remove inmates to the Asylum if they became too difficult to handle. By the 1st January 1865 there were 688 Workhouses in England and Wales, of which only 104 workhouses contained separate wards for the insane. The Lunacy Commissioners acknowledged this by stating the assistance and co-operation given by the Poor Law Board, but that the general treatment of insane inmates in Workhouses continued to be far from satisfactory.


The 22nd report of the Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor showed a total of 13 lunatic inmates at Caistor and Spalding Workhouses, with 12 at Holbeach and Horncastle. Boston and Louth had a total of 9 lunatic inmates each, and finally 7 inmates at Spilsby workhouse.


The Lincolnshire Joint Board for Mental Defectives had it's headquarters at Harmston Hall Hospital, a former Manor House erected in 1710 for Sir Charles Thorold and developed in 1930 for use with Mental Handicap, in addition to the Institutions at Caistor, Holbeach and Bourne.


The infirmary was the fastest growing of all departments within the workhouse, and showed one reason for the increasing amount of poverty. Following the Medical Act 1858 the Poor Law Commission ruled that no Medical Man was to be employed by Guardians unless qualified in both Medicine and Surgery. All Poor Law Doctors should hold two formal qualifications and be registered.


The association for the improvement of the Infirmaries of Workhouses was set up in London during 1865; it's objects were reform of the sick departments of the workhouses and bringing about a hospital organisation under a central management, leading to the Metropolitan Poor Act 1867, which provided for the separate administration of poor law infirmaries. Although initially a metropolitan society its findings were considered relevant to the rest of the country. Treatment provided in the workhouse infirmaries was found to be highly unsatisfactory on inspection, and recommendations were made including the separation of sick poor from able-bodied paupers. Another recommendation was that nursing should be carried out entirely by paid staff. Many workhouse Infirmaries utilised the more able inmates to work in their infirmaries, but in 1897 the Local Government Board, which replaced the Poor Law Board in 1871, passed an order forbidding the employment of pauper nurses, although they were still allowed to work in the infirmaries under the supervision of a trained nurse. The Local Government Board Order 1913 required that any institution with more than one hundred beds for the sick must have an appropriately qualified Superintendent Nurse.


The issue of a separate Infirmary was implemented in many of the Lincolnshire Workhouses, Caistor erected a new Infirmary in 1871. Boston Union erected a new Infirmary in addition to a laundry in 1903. Glanford Brigg Infirmary was erected 1915 but had previously had a separate fever ward. Holbeach Infirmary had been erected to the rear of the Workhouse in 1851, but was extended in 1904. Louth Union erected a new Infirmary Block in the 1920's, and Grimsby Union established a Nurse Training School in 1926.


The Local Government Act 1929 abolished all Poor Law authorities and transferred responsibility to Local Council Public Assistance Committee's. Boston, Holbeach and Spalding Unions formed part of Holland County Council. Bourne, Grantham, Sleaford and Stamford Unions formed part of Kesteven County Council. Lindsey County Council was partly comprised from Caistor, Gainsborough, Glanford Brigg, Horncastle, Louth and Spilsby Unions. Lincoln and Grimsby Unions formed Lincoln and Grimsby County Borough Councils respectively.


The responsibility for Civil Registration was transferred to Local Authority Councils, and the dreaded and feared workhouse was officially abolished. The buildings continued in use as Public Assistance Institutions, with authority for them passing to the Local Authority Public Assistance Committee. Many of the Infirmaries developed into Hospitals and the authority for them passed to the respective public health committee.



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