Workhouses in Suffolk
The workhouse dated from the Poor Law Act of 1601, which allowed parishes to set up houses for the poor. However, the workhouse proper came into being with the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which established Poor Law Unions, and the workhouses. The Poor Law Unions were governed by committees, and administered by the Poor Law Commission which consisted of three commissioners (usually well
to-do gentry), and had its headquarters at Somerset House in London. Assistant commissioners were appointed to keep an eye on the Unions in each county. The day to day management of each workhouse was down to the master, but he reported into a Board of Guardians. One guardian was elected by each of the Poor Law Union's component parishes.
In addition to the master, (and his family), there would be other officials employed. A school master & mistress, a porter, a chaplain, a medical officer, and maybe a nurse. The chaplain and medical officer were not resident, but most of the others would be.
The Workhouses were intended to be "less desirable than life outside", with the theory being that if things inside the Workhouse could be made as disagreeable as possible, then they would be encouraged to find work and not depend on the Poor Rate. This was intended to be accomplished by strict discipline, sparse food, and separation of not just males and females, but of families. There were seven classes of inmate :
Aged or infirm men
Women over 16 years
Children under 7
Aged or infirm women
Boys aged 7-15
Girls aged 7-15
Males over 16 years
- and these categories would normally be housed separately within the
Workhouse. The families were split up, except - at the discretion of the master - at mealtimes, and on Sunday when going to chapel. Children under seven were allowed to sleep with their parents. As soon as they were old enough, alternatives were sought for children, so that they would no longer be a burden on the parish. They were either were apprenticed out, or in the case of girls, put into "service".
In 1844 there were twenty large workhouses in Suffolk, of which, ten were newly built. They had space for up to 7,000 paupers. The number of people in them fluctuated between 3,000 in summer and 5,000 in winter.
As an example, (Brown and Daniels, 1991) the Thingoe Union Workhouse was erected in Mill Road, Bury St Edmunds in 1835-6, at a cost of about £6,000. It had room for 300 paupers, and at the time of the 1851 census had 250 inmates. The population of the 40 or so parishes comprising Thingoe Union (which surrounds Bury St Edmunds) in 1851 was 19,014, so the workhouse inmates represented 1.3%
of the population of the Union. Bury St Edmunds had its own workhouse in College Street.
In the center of the building were the governor's apartments and the board-room, and from this radiated 9 wings, with airing yards between them. Attached to the workhouse were 8 acres of land, of which 5 were cultivated as a vegetable garden.
The table below shows several differences between the inmates of Thingoe Workhouse in 1851 and 1881 (taken from the census returns). The first item to note is that in 1881 there were much fewer inmates than in 1851, 168 against 251. This may be because, although one of the original principles of the 1834 Act was to reduce out-relief (ie money paid to people at home, rather than coming into the Workhouse), this policy appears to have been relaxed as time
went by. Looking at the figures again, the proportion of males to females did not change (58% males). There was a higher proportion of the over 60's in 1881and a much lower proportion of children. Fewer women, but more men, were married in 1881.
Comparison of Inmates At Thingoe Workhouse - 1851 : 1881
Males - total 145 98
Boys (under 16) 75 35
Men (total >16) 70 63
of which :
over 60 25 (36%) 32 (51%)
ag labs 45 (64%) 32 (51%)
married 8 (11%) 15 (24%)
widowed 70 25 (36%) 17 (27%)
Females - total 106 70
Girls (under 16) 61 23
Women (total >16) 45 47
of which :
over 60 5 (11%) 19 (40%)
married 13 (29%) 4 (9%)
widowed 10 (22%) 15 (32%)
The composition of the workhouse inmates can be explained as follows; few farm workers could save money for their old age, and once they were too old to perform the full range of tasks on the farm, they would have to fall back on parish relief and the workhouse. Initially this was only during the winter, as there would still be physically undemanding summer jobs on the farm, such as hoeing, but they would eventually become full-time inmates, and live out their days there. The women were slightly better off, as their skills were less physical, and they could take in laundry, do dressmaking and other odd-jobs to
earn money. Many of the children present would have been illegitimate, (note the low proportion of married women, particularly in 1881).
Source: Submitted by Andy Kerridge
From Census Statistical Volume 1901
County of Suffolk in PP 1902 Cd 1,345
Submitted by Alan Longbottom
Summary of Results.
Pauper inmates of Workhouse establishments in the Registration County number 2,309 persons of all ages, 1,427 Males and 882 Females.
These represent approximately 0.64% of the general population.
At advanced ages the proportion is far higher; at 55 years and upwards the % is 2.56% and at 65 years and upwards is 3.97%.
Prisoners in the Local Prison in the Registration County number 91. 80 Males and 11 Females.
The Blind, Deaf and Dumb
The number of persons returned as Blind is 323, and of these 13 suffer from some other Infirmity also.
Deaf and Dumb persons including 16 returned simply as Dumb, number 179 and of these 7 suffer from some other Infirmity also.
Lunatics number 904, including 5 afflicted with some other Infirmity also; and the Imbecile and Feeble-minded 688, including 11 otherwise afflicted. The total of these classes is 1,592.
It may be noted that, of the 1,592 persons returned as mentally deranged, 1,051 were the inmates of institutions, including 885 in Public and Private Lunatic Asylums, 164 in Workhouses, and 2 in other Institutions, the remaining 541 were residing with relatives
or in unlicensed houses.
Of the 164 mentally deranged persons enumerated in Workhouses, 42 were returned as a Lunatic and 122 as Imbecile, or Feeble-minded; and of the 541 not enumerated in Institutions, 10 were returned as Lunatics and 531 as Imbecile or Feeble-minded.
From PP 1867/68 Vol XXXI pp 1-301
Twenty Second Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy
to the Lord Chancellor
p 255 J - Workhouses, List of those visited in 1867
With Name of the Workhouse and numbers of
insane, idiotic, and imbecile inmates
Page last updated 12 March, 2008 by Rossbret