Every town has its notable quirks and features that it has accumulated over its lifetime; but not everyone knows the history that you can’t see anymore. This week’s post highlights the workhouse of Sherborne that is, thankfully, long gone.
“In England and Wales, a workhouse, colloquially known as a ‘spike’, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment.”
So goes the definition of the workhouse, and yes, we had one here in Sherborne, but there is a little more to the story than just that.
Up until Elizabethan Times people in financial difficulties, orphans, or the elderly, or the sick, and so on, received assistance through established bodies such as monasteries, hospitals, and guilds.
The Poor Law had originated in the dying days of Elizabeth I’s reign after which it remained much the same until the early 1830s.
Each Parish became responsible for looking after those who were too ill, too young, or too old to work, and the cost of doing this had to be paid for by taxes on the properties of the wealthy people who lived in the Parish.
Here in Sherborne, between 1735 and 1749, the Abbey Priory served as the workhouse, and between 1735 and 1814 ‘The Parish Poor House’ is shown on the old town map on the site now occupied by the Digby Tap Public House.
So good people, do remember that fact the next time you’re in The Tap sipping your pint!
But by the early nineteenth century the population had increased, and everything to help with the poor and the deserving came under enormous pressure and strain. The return of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution throughout the country, the Swing Riots (an outburst of rick burning and machine breaking throughout southern England, and worse here in Dorset,) all led to the massive increase in the numbers of ‘able bodied’ poor draining on the funds of the Parish Relief. As such, the existing laws were very inadequate, and in 1834 the new Poor Law Amendment Act was pushed in the hopes that it would promote much more efficiency and greater economy.
This new law gave power to each parish to form ‘Unions’ and to set up institutions known as ‘workhouses’. This was meant to reduce the amount of money given to the paupers by placing the paupers into the workhouse. And, to reduce the amount of paupers applying for relief, life was made so unpleasant in the workhouse that no-one would want to enter such a place.
The very word, ‘workhouse’, conjures up images of grimness, bleakness, meanness; it was a word that terrified people.
The appalling conditions exposed many scandals that the press, at the time, made a fuss of, and horrified the nation. Neglect, brutality, hunger; everyone knows the Charles Dickens tale of Oliver twist that was so true of the times. Even as I was growing up in the 1950s I remember my parents, and my grandparents, even then treating the word ‘workhouse’ as one which one tried to avoid.
This dreadful attitude came from the mistaken belief that the able-bodied poor were idle from choice, and then it came to be applied to all types of the poor, both the deserving and the undeserving.
It was only the gradual introduction of prevention, rather than punishment, and the introduction of the State System of Pensions in 1909, and subsequently the introduction of National Insurance in 1911, that ended the working person from being forced by sickness or old age to enter the workhouse.
But it was not until 1929 that the workhouse system was officially abolished. These prison like buildings were a constant reminder to the people of Dorset, and in Sherborne, of the failure to support oneself and one’s family.
But many of these buildings did carry on in a similar function as infirmaries or old people’s homes. So the social stigma lingered. (Cerne Union Workhouse being a good example that you can still see today in use as Care Home, opposite the Giant.)
So how was it for Sherborne?
In 1837, the Union Workhouse was built to accommodate up to 240 people. It was erected on a site to the west of the town, chosen by the Guardians because it was “open to the air and the sun, and well supplied with water and conveniently situated”.
This large building was built from local Sherborne stone, on the corner of Horsecastles, and Lower Acreman Street. The entrance block on the Horsecastles side had an imposing 3-storey entrance.
It was all demolished in 1938, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Guardians Minutes from 1836 to 1930 may be viewed in the Dorset Records Office in Dorchester. Also, there are some slides held in the Sherborne School Archive, showing the building just before and during its demolition in 1938.
The site was levelled and put to use as a park for military vehicles, and later covered by Nissan huts to accommodate the American troops. A local friend of mine has told me that her father remembers the Camp Mascot; a live black bear that was tethered by a chain to a tree.
A small part of the building does remain, and this is in the top of the front portal, which is now incorporated into Westcott House (one of the boarding houses for Sherborne School.) This stands opposite the original site of the Union Workhouse in Horsecastles in Sherborne.
The site was redeveloped in 1946 into a then totally modern style of cottage community housing, and, perhaps ironically, is now retirement/sheltered housing, as if the echoes of the past are still with us; the site unable to change its purpose completely.
With special thanks to Wescott House – Sherborne International School, Sherborne Museum, & Sherborne Family History Society.