Saturday, January 31, 2015

A history of the Rotherhithe Workhouse on Lower Road - 1728-1884

The Rotherhithe Workhouse in 1820. By George Yates.

Workhouses were, crudely, buildings owned and administered by the state, in which impoverished people lived and for whom work was provided in return for their keep.  They are an 18th and early 19th Century phenomenon but they had been a long time coming.  The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor put the care of the poor firmly into the hands of parishes, who funded their poor relief by imposing a poor-rate tax on property owners.  In its earliest phases the sort of assistance that the poor could expect was usually in the form of hand-outs of essentials like food, clothing and fuel with which to cook and heat their homes.  However, the concept of the workhouse gradually began to evolve as a means of improving efficiencies both in terms of cost and the administration of relief.  Intentions were good, and these early forms of workhouse were successful.

Darton's 1817 map shows the location of the
workhouse (highlighted here in red).
These institutions were formalized with a 1723 act that gave parishes the freedom to deny the poor any form of relief unless they moved into the workhouse, where they were given shelter, clothing and food in return for labour.   Not all workhouses were purpose built, but there was a growing trend in that direction throughout the 18th Century.  Poor law unions were an outcome of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, and these were responsible for joining together parish management of the poor and creating big, purpose built workhouses to create economies and scale and centralize operations, the Poor Law Unions.  As well as dormitory accommodation and work rooms, they also included infirmary facilities.  These big 19th Century workhouses received bad publicity from a variety of sources, notably Charles Dickens, but although not all of them were the horror stories that the word conjours up, many clearly were.  They were run on a minimal budget. Conditions were basic, food  unappetising, beds arranged in large hospital style-large dormitories with men segregated from women, and all inmates had to wear uniforms. Workhouses were intended to deter potential residents. They were very much a last-ditch option for the poor and were often the dumping ground for orphans, the elderly, unmarried mothers and the mentally impaired. However, although they were organized along the lines of the prisons of the day, residents were free to leave at any time.

Rotherhithe workhouse was established in the 1720s and came under the St Mary Rotherhithe Parish, and its Vestry.  There are almost no images of the workhouse so I have supplemented this post with photographs and paintings from other London workhouses, as examples.

The workhouse is first mentioned in the Vestry Minutes on April 29th of 1722 when the proposal to establish a workhouse was put forward. Nothing was actioned at that time and it was only in 1728 when the proposal resulted in a workhouse on Deptford Lower Road (since 1888 simply Lower Road, opposite today's Neptune Street). 

An example of a work room in a London workhouse.
From Pyne and Combe's book (1810) "The Workhouse"
It is described in a remarkable book that describes numerous workhouses in the early 18th Century.  Assembled by the Society for Promoting Christian knowledge, a London group that supported and promoted workhouses, it described the Rotherhithe workhouse as follows:  "A Workhouse is lately set up here, near the Footway to Deptford, and though it is not yet finished, there are 8 Poor Men and Women, and 32 Boys and Girls put into it, under the Care of a Mistress; their chief Employment at present is the picking Ockam." Ockam, or more usually oakum, will be discussed below.

The Rotherhithe workhouse continued to remain under the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Parish, and its Vestry until 1836. From 1836-1869 the workhouse was placed into the care of the St Mary Rotherhithe Board of Guardians.  Boards of Guardians were bodies who were responsible, by law (the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) for the management and administration of workhouses and related buildings. Those serving on a Board of Guardians were elected by the owners of the properties that were liable for the poor rate, a tax gathered by residents in order to provide provision for the disadvantaged. The board was elected annually.

This illustration from the Police Illustrated News gives
an idea of the light in which the workhouses were regarded
The Workhouses website ( reproduces an account from the 1865 edition of The Lancet, which describes the workhouse as follows at this time:  "The workhouse consists of three distinct blocks of building. The main block, which fronts the east, is 300 years old, and is now used for the "able-bodied" and for offices. The block which lies on the west was built in 1837, and is now occupied by the "old and infirm," and by the midwifery and nursery wards." The report mentions that the infirmary was often the victim of the high water table, but that drainage was generally good.  It also says that the handling of the infirm within the workhouse was less than ideal:  "The position and pay of the medical officer is a deplorable subject. He visits the house daily, and has about forty sick, besides the aged and infirm, under treatment; and attends about twelve midwifery cases yearly. For the whole of this duty, and for supplying and dispensing all the drugs, Mr. Firth receives £35 per annum! Any comment on these facts would be quite superfluous.  The mortality of the year 1864 was eighty-eight, and presents nothing remarkable; and there is no evidence of the outbreak of epidemic disease as far back as the records extend. This last circumstance is one for which the guardians are certainly not to be thanked." Sanitation was clearly appalling and the report takes the management severely to task on this as well. See the above page for the full report.

Weller's 1868 map of Rotherhithe,
showing the workhouse (in red)
sandwiched between Lower Road and
Southwark Park. Rotherhithe was
becoming increasingly busy.
Another bad report followed, this time from one of the workhouse's own employees. In the mid 1860s a nurse from the workhouse infirmary, one Matilda Beeton, wrote with such effect to the Poor Law Board that the master and matron of the workhouse were both dismissed following an investigation. Matilda Beeton worked as Head Nurse at the workhouse infirmary from 9 July 1864 and left 16 April 1865.  Here's the text of her letter (with thanks to the website for reproducing it):

"On the 9th of July 1864 I took office, as head nurse, in Rotherhithe Infirmary, where I had 50 patients sick and infirm; with this number I found I was really able to personally superintend the actual nursing, which is as much as one paid nurse can do with any satisfaction to herself or those by whom she is employed. For this number of patients I had four pauper nurses, all of whom were old and inexperienced; two could read but neither could write.

Of the four nurses allowed me three were all I could expect them to be; drunk only when they had the means or the chance of getting anything to drink; the fourth was a confirmed drunkard, so much so, that I was in constant fear of her doing bodily harm to the sick patients. She would beat them till they were black with bruises, more especially those who were unable to help themselves and friendless; and I found, by the patients, that they lived in fear of her, and only by giving her their beer, or other nourishment, could they feel themselves safe to ask for the most trifling thing to be done for them.

I complained to the matron and assistant master, and was told she had always done very well till I came there; they supposing she did not like a paid nurse over her. I must therefore do the best I could with her, as there was no one in the house she could put in her place.

Dinner at Marylebone workhouse
I then complained of the dirty state the patients were in, when the matron said I must get used to all that, as workhouses were not like hospitals.
When I had been there about four months, I had a pauper sent to the sick ward from some ward up at the workhouse. I understood this poor creature had been in the house for some time, she was an imbecile. This poor patient I believed sensitive to all her sufferings and yet she was the victim to the most cruel treatment from this inhuman pauper nurse.

This state of things went on till one morning I sent for the master to come to the infirmary. Immediately on his coming, I told him he must that moment remove the sick ward nurse, or I would go and bring in the guardians to see what could be done in the shape of finding me another nurse; the master, fearing I should do so, very reluctantly ordered what he thought a model nurse to the body of the house.

I do not think I am wrong in saying many a poor creature went to their home long before the time, by the hands of this inhuman nurse. It was my firm impression that when patients had got bad and troublesome she gave opium, put them on the left side, and so they passed out of this world as natural deaths.

Respecting things for the use of the patients, there was an insufficiency of everything throughout the whole infirmary.

As regards the sick diet, I considered on the whole it was insufficient; the mutton broth and beef tea were only mockery, the meat was more often than not one lump of fat, and nearly cold, so that a patient very ill could not eat it. Milk in the sick ward was never heard of till I asked the doctor to allow it with arrow-root; then the master made a great fuss about it. I had forgotten to say nightdresses were not allowed for the sick patients, with the exception of three or four of the union blue, made out of the skirts of worn out dresses. Patients were allowed to wear their own if they could pay for the washing; and I found they often had to sell their nourishment to do it.

On the whole, it did not seem to me that a pauper's life was regarded in any other light than the sooner they were dead the better.

I left Rotherhithe workhouse 16th April 1865."

Matilda Beeton
23 April 1866"

"The elderly at the workhouse" by Hubert von Herkomer
In 1869 the workhouse became part of St Olave's Union, under the administration of the St Olave Board of Guardians, named for the Church of St Olaf at London Bridge.  The Vestry of St Mary Rotherhithe continued to work with the poor, offering help, building churches, improving education and generally helping to support those in need.  The workhouse played a different role, consolidating those who had no other recourse but to turn to the workhouse for shelter.

Although it had included an infirmary of its own, the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867 required that infirmary accommodation be separate from workhouse buildings and a separate infirmary was built next door in 1873.This will be covered in another post.

Residents of the Rotherhithe workhouse were employed in a number of tasks, many of which were directly related to the local shipping industry.  In the early Nineteenth Century a rope manufacturing operation supplied new rope to ship builders and owners.  Stephen Humphrey says that in 1836 it turned a profit of £592 2s and 2d (with thanks to the National Archives Currency Convertor, £582 2s 2d would have the same spending worth of around £25,670.98 - very impressive). Another of their tasks was the creation of oakum.  Old ropes and cables ("junk") were chopped into manageable lengths and these were in turn picked apart to reduce them to their component fibres.   These were then tarred and used as packing ("caulking") to fill gaps in wooden planking of ship hulls and decking.  It was a laborious job, and was commonly assigned to workhouse inmates.

Failure to comply with workhouse rules resulted in severe punishment.  Stephen Humphrey gives the example of four girls who were housed in the women's block in 1835 who were threatened with deportation to Tasmania.  

The workhouse closed in 1884, but the separate infirmary continued to operate until the 1970s, and will be described on another post. In 1889 the workhouse was still standing because the Minutes of the Board of Guardians state that it was "dilapidated and unused."  

Today, the land where the workhouse used to be located is covered by the residential estate on Ann Moss Way.  Although there are remains of the infirmary that survived the demise of the workhouse, there are no extant remains of the workhouse itself.

Ann Moss Way

With thanks to Stephen Humphrey's book "The Story of Rotherhithe" for untangling much of the history.  For more about workhouses and their history see Peter Higginbottom's fascinating and comprehensive Workhouses website.

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