Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteWest Bromwich Poor Law


Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteWest Bromwich Poor Law


The Poor shall always be with Us ...............

The Workhouse itself cannot be discussed in Isolation, it has to be placed in the context of developing laws and social policy and in order to do this we need to turn to the History of Poor relief in England and Wales.

Poor relief was given on a voluntary basis until the 16th century, but much of this came to an end following the dissolution of the Monastery's.

The problem of how to deal with the poor continued to increase and was eventually met by the Government in statute form.

Acts of Parliament relating to Poor Relief

The first Act appropriate to this talk was the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1598, which required each Parish to appoint an Overseer to be responsible for finding work for the unemployed and to provide a "parish house" for the sick.

This Act was expanded in 1601 by the Elizabethan Act for the Relief of the Poor, known also as "The Old Poor Law" which made the Parish obliged to relieve the sick, aged and infirm and to provide work for those who had none, and education (mainly in the form of apprenticeship) for Children. The unpaid annually elected (by the Vestry) Parish Overseer would collect the "POOR RATE" from Tenants who were assessed on the value of the property in which they lived. Failure to pay the Poor Rate would result in a summons. The rate was then dispensed to the poor of the parish, usually in the form of bread or money.

The Settlement Act in 1662 had far reaching consequences for the poor, in which any newcomers to a Parish who were deemed "likely to be chargeable" by the Local Justices, could be removed. Further additions and legislation made the system very confusing and difficult to administer.

Knatchbull's Act in 1723 first introduced "The Workhouse Test" which enabled Workhouses to be set up and relief refused if the applicant would not enter "the house". It enabled the administration to be contracted out to a third party, termed "farming the poor"

In West Bromwich a former nail warehouse was purchased for 87 10s by Overseers William Webb and Joseph Wall and refitted for use as a Workhouse. Nineteen "paupers" were admitted to the House in September 1735, situated on "Workhouse Lane" later to be named St Clements Lane. In 1784 the principle of farming the poor was put into practice by Thomas Clark, Governor, who was responsible for all inmates of the house at a charge of 2s per head per week to the parish. In 1788 this was increased to 2s 3d per week, and finally ceased in 1789 when John Parkes was appointed the new Governor.

Wednesbury had four buildings in Meeting Street, purchased by the overseers of the poor, that at some point became Almshouses, but were converted for use as a Workhouse in 1766, and a wall erected around the whole site.

Handsworth Parish Overseers purchased land in 1794 intended for use as a workhouse, situated Slack Lane / Oxhill Road in Handsworth. 

Poor Law Amendment Act 

Criticism of the existing poor law increased and a Royal Commission was appointed to make a full report, the results of which were embodied in the "Act for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales" 1834.

Three "fit persons" were to be appointed as Commissioners to carry out the Act. Captain George Nicholls (1781-1865) John Shaw Lefevre (1797-1879) and Thomas Frankland Lewis were sworn into office in August 1834, with Edwin Chadwick as Secretary to the Poor Law Commission. 

The Commissioners designated many parishes to be united into Poor Law Unions, and West Bromwich Union was declared 11th October 1836 comprising the parishes of Handsworth-with-Soho and Perry Barr, Wednesbury, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Warley Salop and Warley Wigorn. 

OHP 01 Map of West Bromwich Poor Law Union

The Commissioners constituted a Board for the Union, "the said Guardians to be elected by the Rate Payers" each Board being instructed to erect or provide a Union Workhouse. There were 26 elected Guardians for the Union, being divided between the appropriate parishes, 10 for West Bromwich, 6 for Wednesbury, 4 each for Oldbury and Handsworth with Perry Barr, and 1 each for Warley Salop and Warley Wigorn.

Additions were made to the West Bromwich Union, to accommodate the inmates from Handsworth workhouse who were transferred there in the 1840's, and the Handsworth workhouse demolished. The Workhouses at Wednesbury and West Bromwich continued to serve the Poor Law Union until 1857 being able to accommodate 110 and 140 paupers respectively.

Pressure for accommodation mounted and following much discussion it was eventually decided to build a new Union Workhouse on Hallam Street. It was erected 1855-1858 in a Gothic style by the architects Briggs and Everall, who also designed Tamworth Union Workhouse, and cost 27,000. It was stated to be one of the noblest buildings of its kind in South Staffordshire, but was known by locals as "The Bastille". The Old West Bromwich Workhouse was utilised for a time as a detention centre for those due to appear at petty sessions. 

Admission to the Workhouse

Any pauper requesting admission to the Workhouse had to have an interview, either by the Relieving Officer or by the Board of Guardians. The Workhouse Master could admit somebody to the workhouse if it was urgent.

On admission the pauper would be sent to the receiving ward, where males and females would be separated from each other and from any Children. Each applicant would be stripped, bathed or washed and given a workhouse uniform to wear. They would be examined by the Medical Officer, and classified.

OHP 02 Classification of Inmates

Classification of Inmates

Daily Timetable

  Wake Up Breakfast Start Work Dinner Bell Stop Work Supper Bell Bed
Summer 6am 6.30am - 7am 7am Noon - 1pm 6pm 6pm - 7pm 8pm
Winter 7am 7.30am - 8am 8am Noon - 1pm 6pm 6pm - 7pm 8pm

Diet In the Workhouse

The Commissioners issued sample dietary sheets to be followed in the Workhouse including recommendations for classes of inmate, frequency of meat allowed in the diet and recipes such as for GRUEL (oatmeal and water).

Meals were eaten in silence, with males, females and Children separated.


All inmates who could work, did so and often included the tasks of:

OHP 03 Rules and Regulations to be observed in the West Bromwich Workhouse

Workhouse Staff

The Workhouse Master

OHP 04 Notification of Death

The Workhouse Matron

Workhouse Porter

Workhouse Teacher

Pressure for Change

The Poor Law Commission was replaced by the Poor Law Board in 1847 following a number of criticisms and the "Andover Scandal".

Pressure arose from the escalating cost of poor relief:

1841 52,596 27 square miles 6,584
1851 69,718 27 sqaure miles 20,230 2s 11d

In 1865 the powers of settlement were placed in the hands of the Poor Law Guardians.

Paupers removed for Settlement 1878 from Parish of Birmingham to West Bromwich Union:
William Barker, Wife and 7 Children
Emily Ellis
Elizabeth Pandell and 5 Children

The Poor Law Board was replaced in 1871 by the Local Government Board

West Bromwich Union Pauper Lunatics

"Nothing in this Act shall authorise the detention in any Workhouse of any dangerous lunatic, Insane person, or idiot for any longer period than fourteen days"
(Poor Law Amendment Act 1834)

Most workhouse designs did not, therefore include any long term provision for the "lunatic" inmate.

The Lunatic Asylums Act 1845 made accommodation for the pauper lunatic at public expense in each County mandatory. 

By 1865 there were only 104 Workhouses that provided separate accommodation for lunatics from a total of 688. The Commissioners reported on the number of lunatics in West Bromwich Workhouse in 1867 and found there were a Total of 48, being 21 Male and 27 Female. 

Many pauper lunatics from West Bromwich were transferred to Stafford County Asylum, located in Stafford.

OHP 05 Stafford County Asylum

The Asylum was an extensive building, erected in 1818 with accommodation for 120. By 1930 there were over 1,000 beds, and it became St George's Hospital. The Hospital now stands derelict.

OHP 06 Burntwood Asylum

This Asylum was erected 1864 from designs by William Lambie Moffatt (1808-1882) and the charge made for the Maintenance and Care of Inmates was 10s 3d per week for all paupers admitted from Staffordshire Workhouses. The Asylum later became St Matthews Hospital, and has now been demolished.

West Bromwich Union Children

Children were viewed as not morally responsible for their destitution, and many Acts and orders were passed in an attempt to improve facilities for Children.

The 1862 Act of Parliament provided for the maintenance and education of pauper Children and the inspections to be carried out by Poor Law Board Officers. 

Many of the Children from West Bromwich Union were removed from the Workhouse environment and sent to Stoke on Trent where they had extra room available. In 1869 West Bromwich united with Walsall Poor Law Union and formed:

Walsall and West Bromwich School District

The newly formed Board consisting of 12 members (7 from West Bromwich and 5 from Walsall) decided to build a new District School.

OHP 07 Map of Wigmore 1916

Wigmore Schools were erected 1870 from designs by S. E. Bindley, architect, in an imposing Elizabethan style, dominated by a large central tower with an ogee shaped roof and costing approximately 20,000.

OHP 08 Wigmore Tower

Education and Industrial Training were provided at Wigmore in the form of Spade Husbandry, Shoe Making, Tailoring, Domestic Service and others.

Number of Pupils admitted to Wigmore on opening 1st May 1872:

West Bromwich Union 157
Walsall Union 56
Total 213

Following the 1930 Local Government Act, Wigmore Schools were closed in 1934. The buildings were refitted for use as an "Approved School" (under 1908 Prevention of Crime Act). The system was abolished in 1969 and the buildings utilised by the Council.

OHP 09 Rear Elevation of Wigmore

Wigmore School buildings were demolished in 2002.

West Bromwich Union Mental Defectives

People with Learning Difficulties were mainly termed "Idiots" of "Feeble-Minded" and were often given no understanding. West Bromwich Workhouse had a separate department for Idiots.

The Walsall and West Bromwich Joint Board for Mental Defectives was formed in 1911 for the purpose of erecting and maintaining an Institution for the Poor.

The Joint Board Committee consisted of 20 members, 12 elected by the West Bromwich Guardians and 8 elected by the Walsall Guardians.

OHP 10 Map of Great Barr

Great Barr Park estate comprising of 447 acres and Great Barr Hall was purchased for 24,260. The Hall itself was adapted as a Home for Children under the age of 5 years and opened in 1912. Further Childrens Homes were added to this site.

OHP 12 Orphanage at Great Barr

Two homes for Male mental defectives were erected on the site in 1918, and two homes for female mental defectives were added in 1921. Further additions were made and the site developed into Great Barr Park Colony.

OHP 11 Arthur Terry Assembly Hall

The Colony developed into St Margaret's Hospital. The NHS erected new buildings on the site called Lakeview and sold the previous hospital site and that of Great Barr Hall to a company which then became bankrupt. A firm of "receivers" now control the site, which is due to be sold. The former hospital buildings now lie derelict, and the Great Hall itself although a Grade II listed building, is being left to rot. The roof has mainly caved in, and it is in a very unsafe condition.

OHP 13 Great Barr Hall

The majority of Lakeview buildings and those of Radcliffe Home now also lie empty.

The West Bromwich Union Infirmary

This is the fastest growing department of the entire Workhouse, and was influenced by changes in social policy. The 1858 Medical Act ruled that all Poor Law Medical Officers were to hold two qualifications and be registered. Other groups such as the Workhouse Visiting Society and The Lancet also applied pressure for change, leading to the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Law Act which provided for separate administration of Poor Law Infirmaries. This Act soon applied to the rest of the Country.

The West Bromwich Workhouse Infirmary

OHP 14 Map of West Bromwich Workhouse and Infirmary

OHP 15 Hallam Hospital Nurses Home

From 1928 the Infirmary was maintained as a separate Institution from the Workhouse, which was called Hallam House. 

OHP 16 Board of Guardians building & Hallam Chapel

The number of admissions to Hallam House became significantly less. Many of the former admissions were now being admitted to other Institutions such as Wigmore and Great Barr Park Colony. The Infirmary, however continued to grow, and was known as Hallam Hospital. 

OHP 17 Hallam Infirmary & Perimeter Buildings

OHP 18 Number of People in Receipt of Relief

OHP 19 Sample of Infirmary Regulations

The Local Government Act 1928 implemented on the 1st April 1930

OHP 20 Names of Workhouse Officers

The National Health Service Act 1946 and National Assistance Act 1946 were implemented 5th July 1948

Hallam Hospital

Sandwell District Hospital

Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust

This new National Health Service Trust was formed in 2002 from the merger of Sandwell and City NHS Trusts.


Page updated 12 March, 2008 by Rossbret

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