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Birmingham Parish Workhouse
Birmingham Soup Kitchen
Birmingham Union Workhouse
Birmingham Union Infirmary
Birmingham Cottage Homes
Greater Birmingham Union

Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteBirmingham Workhouse


Birmingham Parish Workhouse
Birmingham Soup Kitchen
Birmingham Union Workhouse
Birmingham Union Infirmary
Birmingham Cottage Homes
Greater Birmingham Union

Birmingham Workhouses

The Birmingham Parish Workhouse was founded 1734 in Lichfield Street, site of the Victoria Law Courts, following the passing of Knatchbull's Act. Further extensions were made, an infirmary was added in 1766, and a workshop wing in 1779. In 1783 Birmingham became a Poor Law Incorporation, formed by a local Act. Following changes to the law in London regarding pauper children, The Asylum for the Infant Poor was opened in Summer Lane, Birmingham in 1797. This was the first attempt to reduce high mortality figures amongst pauper children, and improve the conditions in which they lived.

As numbers increased a new Union Workhouse was called for. Designed by J. J. Bateman it opened its doors on 25th March 1852 on Western Road, Winson Green. More and more room was taken over by the sick, and calls were made for a separate infirmary. This was opened in 1889 from designs by W. H. Ward architect, and it had a corridor a quarter of a mile long linking nine pavilions, based on a model recommended by Florence Nightingale. 

Following the Introduction of the NHS in 1948 Birmingham Workhouse became Summerfield Hospital on Western Road. Summerfield Hospital has since been demolished, leaving one solitary building in the grounds ~ The Archway of Tears. The Workhouse Infirmary became Dudley Road Hospital, later re named City Hospital, Dudley Road. 

Administration of Poor Relief

The increasing expense and administrative work undertaken for the relief of poverty in the late 17th and 18th centuries reflected both the Town's growing population and its prosperity. The cost of poor relief was nearly doubled between 1676, when it was 329, and 1700 and again between 1700 and 1750. Thereafter expenditure rose even more rapidly, from 1,168 in 1750 to 22,000 in 1810, 43  although at the end of the 18th century the rise was caused as much by economic depression as by the expansion of Birmingham. At the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham had four overseers of the poor; the number was raised to five in 1720 and to six in 1729. 44 The building of the workhouse in 1733 was followed by the appointment of a Workhouse Master as the first salaried poor-relief official in Birmingham, but it was not until 1780, when two 'Collectors' or 'assistants to the overseers' were appointed, that there were any salaried officials for poor-relief outside the workhouse. 45

Poor relief remained under the control of the vestry (through the overseers and the 21 elected governors of the workhouse) until 1783, when an Act was obtained to enable the ratepayers to elect a body of 108 guardians of the poor. Under this Act the guardians were given the same powers as overseers except in the levying and collecting of rates. They were empowered to borrow money, to offer the "workhouse test" to applicants for relief, to put out children as apprentices, and to appoint up to twelve assistant overseers. The Board of guardians also replaced the governors of the workhouse. The churchwardens and overseers were to be guardians ex officio. 46

A major difficulty of the overseers in the late 18th century and early 19th century was the large number of houses not rated for poor relief. Despite the restrictions imposed by far seeing landowners in granting building leases, 47 the shortage of building land and the demand for cheap labour resulted in the building of many houses assessed at less than 10 a year. 48 At the end of the 18th century three quarters of the houses were so assessed, 49 and seven twelfths in 1832. 50 Against bitter opposition from the landlords, 51 the overseers sought powers to rate small houses; these powers were partly given by the Poor Relief Act of 1819, 52 and extended by a local Act of 1831. 53

The work of the board of guardians was done (in 1841) mainly through five committees: a relieving committee, a house (i.e. workhouse) committee, an asylum committee, an estate and law committee, and an auditing committee. 54 By 1832 the number of overseers had been raised to twelve, and there were twelve salaried assistant overseers. 55 Apart from these, a treasurer, an accountant clerk, a vestry clerk, and two levy clerks each received a salary, 56 and there were other officials whose functions were confined either to the workhouse and 'asylum' or to the provision of outdoor relief.

43 Hutton, Hist, Birm. (1806), 308-10; (1819) 310-12.
44 Ibid. (1781), 221.
45 M. McNaulty, 'Some aspects of the administration of the poor laws in Birm. between 1730 and 1834' M.A. thesis, Birm. Univ. 1942), 88. The author's permission to draw upon the material in this thesis is gratefully acknowledged.
46 Act for providing a proper workhouse ..... 23 Geo. III, c.54.
47 e.g. B.R.L. 176958 (lease of 1708); B.R.L. 181775 (lease of 1739).
48 cf. Langford, Birm. Life, i. 123
49 Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1806), 99.
50 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. B2, H.C. 44, p.239 (1834), xxxvi
51 Gill, Hist. Birm. 151. Wm Hutton was among the most outspoken opponents: Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1819), 316 sqq.
52 59 Geo. III, c. 12.
53 Act for better regulating the poor ....... of Birm. 1&2 Wm. IV, c. 67 (local act)
54 Rules and Regulations of the Guardians of the Poor ..... of Birm. (1841), 5-9 (B.R.L. 64250)
55 1st Rep. Com. Poor Laws, App. B. 2, H.C. 44, p.239 f. (1834), xxxv. The number of assistant overseers had fallen to 8 by 1845: Birm. parish, Rep. to the Guardians of the Poor, 1845. pp.3-4 (B.R.L. 73400)
56 Rules and Regulations ..... (1841), 9 (B.R.L. 64250).

Quoted from the Victoria County History, Warwickshire, volume 7,
pages 321-322, by permission of the General Editor.

Incorporation of Birmingham

The 18th century boast that Birmingham was a Town without shackle 32 referred to its lack of a municipal corporation. The powers of the Street Commissioners seemed adequate to supply the needs that were outside the scope of manorial or parochial government, and it was not until after the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 33 that there was any marked enthusiasm in Birmingham for the incorporation of the Town, 34 although there had been a petition for a Charter as early as 1715. 35 

The municipal borough was to have the same boundaries as the parliamentary borough, that is, it was to include Edgbaston, Bordesley and Deritend, and Duddeston and Nechells. 38 Municipal elections were held in December, and before the end of the year the first Council had met and chosen a Mayor, William Scholefield. Incorporation was followed by the establishment of a Coroner's Court, Quarter Sessions, and a Commission of the Peace. 40 

Development of the Corporation

By the Charter of Incorporation of 1838 the borough was divided into thirteen wards, governed by a Council of a Mayor, sixteen Aldermen, and 48 Councillors. Ten of the wards (All Saint's, Edgbaston, Hampton, Ladywood, Market Hall, St George's, St Martin's, St Mary's, St Paul's and St Thomas's) elected three Councillors each; the remaining three wards (Deritend and Bordesley, Duddeston and Nechells, and St Peter's) elected six each. 53 This arrangement survived until 1873, when the number of wards was raised to sixteen, each electing three councillors. Deritend and Bordesley, and Duddeston and Nechells were each divided into two separate wards, and the boundaries of all the others were changed. Hampton and St Peter's wards were dissolved and three new ones (Rotton Park, St Bartholomew's and St Stephen's) were constituted. 54 This change restored an electoral balance which had been upset by changing population densities and the extension of municipal suffrage;55 it did not affect the size of the Council.

When the City was enlarged in 1891, most of the existing wards remained unchanged. Of the areas newly added to the City Balsall Heath became a separate ward, Harborne was included in Edgbaston ward (which lost part of its eastern end), and Saltley and Little Bromwich (together with part of Bordesley) became a separate ward. Thus the number of wards rose to eighteen and the membership of the Council from 64 to 72.56  In 1909, on its incorporation in the City, Quinton was added to Edgbaston and Harborne ward.57 

The far larger extension of the City in 1911 caused a major rearrangement. The enlarged City was divided into 30 wards, 16 for the old City and 14 for the five added areas. Among the old wards four pairs were amalgamated (Duddeston and Nechells, St Martin's and Deritend, St Mary's and St Stephen's, St Paul's and St George's), St Thomas's was divided between Ladywood and Market Hall, and three new wards were created; Harborne and Washwood Heath became separate wards, and Bordesley was divided into Smallheath and Sparkbrook wards.

The added wards were: (in King's Norton and Northfield) Moseley and King's Heath, King's Norton, Northfield and Selly Oak; (in Yardley) Acock's Green, Sparkhill, and Yardley; (in Aston Manor) Aston, and Lozells; (in Erdington) Erdington North, and Erdington South; (in Handsworth) Handsworth, Sandwell, and Soho. The membership of the Council rose to 120, three Councillors and one Alderman for each ward.58 Perry Barr from its inclusion in the City in 1928 until it became a ward in 1933, was represented on the Council by one member.59 

The Corporation acquired control of the Police Force in 1842,63 and, under the Birmingham Improvement Act of 1851, took over the functions of the Birmingham Street Commissioners.64  In the 1870's the Council's activities extended more strikingly, and this period of municipal growth is particularly associated with the Mayoralty of Joseph Chamberlain (1873-6).

Birmingham became a County Borough under the Act of 1888,72 and in the following year was ordained a City. The Mayor was raised to the dignity of Lord Mayor in 1896.73

In 1903 the Corporation took over responsibility for Education from the Birmingham School Board, and in 1930 became directly responsible for the administration of the Poor Law.78

32 Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1795), 376.
33 5 & 6 Wm IV, c.76
34 Gill, Hist. Birm. 216-19
35 See pp.273-4
38 The Charter is printed in Hist. Corp. i.359-66
40 Hist. Corp. i.171-9
53 Hist. Corp.i.359-65
54 Lond. Gaz. 1873, pp.3380-4
55 The number of voters in the new wards varied between 2,696 and 4,648, the boundaries being drawn to anticipate further population movements in the old wards it had varied between 935 and 8,936: Hist. Corp. ii.508. The number of voters increased from 7,000 in 1852 to 68,380 in 1875: Hist. Corp. ii.519
57 Ibid. iv.28
58 Local Govt. Bd's Prov. Order Conf. (No. 13 Act, 1 & 2 Geo. V, c.36 (local act)
59 Hist. Corp. v.597
64 See p.327
72 Local Govt. Act, 51 & 52 Vic. c.41
73 Kelly's Dir. Birm. (1908), I.

Quoted from the Victoria County History, Warwickshire, volume 7,
pages 327-331, by permission of the General Editor.


Birmingham Archives
Central Library
Chamberlain Square
B3 3HQ
Tel: 0121 303 3390 

Baptisms St Patrick, Dudley Road 1856 - 1879
Includes the register of the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Workhouse, Western Road. 
Original registers are held by Birmingham Archdiocese.


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