Hexham Workhouse and Victorian Workhouses

by Dominic Morley

This piece of work will seek to analyse Victorian workhouses and will focus in particular on the Hexham Workhouse, a Victorian building that is still standing strong today. This composition will first analyse the rich history of the Victorian workhouses in general then proceed to analyse the history of the Hexham workhouse with copious research before touching on the condition of this Victorian building today and finally concluding with a short piece of work exclusively about the 1881 Hexham workhouse census.

Screengrab of Victorian Ordnance Survey map showing site of Hexham workshouse

http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/# Northumberland XCIV.NW, Revised: 1895, Published: 1898 map showing the geographical position of the Hexham Union Workhouse, which still stands today.

The workhouse system can be traced all the way back to Medieval times where the Poor Law Act of 1388 fixed wages of labourers in all parishes to stop the movement of workers after the Black Death. Workhouses as they are recognised today became more recognizable in the Tudor period as part of the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, which ‘proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the “persistent idler” was to be punished.’[1] Workhouses steadily grew until the Georgian era where they began to adopt even more of the form of their Victorian counterparts. Higginbotham describes this growth in the Georgian era: ‘The first authoritative figure for numbers of workhouses comes in the next century from The Abstract of Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor, which was drawn up following a government survey in 1776. It put the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales at more than 1800 (approximately one parish in seven), with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places.’[2] The Workhouse Act of 1723 had initiated this rapid growth.

The 1782 Relief of the Poor Act, proposed by Thomas Gilbert further boosted the number of workhouses before the Victorian period had even begun. Gilbert’s Act was intended to allow parishes to share the cost of poor relief by forming unions – known as Gilbert Unions – to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm for example.[3]

Not as many Gilbert Unions were set up as first anticipated, however by the beginning of the Victorian period there were workhouses in the majority of areas. The main reason for this was by the early 1830s poor relief expenditure had risen dramatically and the government ruled in favour of the establishment of a centralised Poor Law Commission in England and Wales under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which discouraged the allocation of outdoor relief to the able-bodied; “all cases were to be ‘offered the house’, and nothing else”.[4] Individual parishes were formed into Poor Law Unions, each of which was to have a union workhouse. This act sparked the mass creation of workhouses in England as from now on individual parishes were formed into Poor Law Unions, with each Poor Law Union having a union workhouse. Fraser acknowledges this huge spike in the building of workhouses by noting that ‘more than 500 workhouses were built during the next 50 years, two-thirds of them by 1840.’[5]

This leads up perfectly to the state of workhouses at the beginning of the Victorian period in 1837. The first point to analyse is the physical state of the workhouse buildings. The layout of the majority of workhouse buildings, like the workhouse concept itself, was rather frightening with the two sexes separated into their own individual physically startling building with a courtyard separating the two buildings. The bleak separation of the genders is described by Driver as he writes: ‘Separating the inmates was intended to serve three purposes: to direct treatment to those who most needed it; to deter others from pauperism; and as a physical barrier against illness, physical and mental.’[6] The layout of workhouses was rather reminiscent to that of a prison and this can be seen when looking at some of the pictures of Hexham workhouse. The buildings were intended to be physically imposing as they were not intended to be viewed as a sanctuary for the poor but rather to be feared and as a last option for the poor.

Workhouse entrants as well as being split apart by gender, were also divided over age as well. Girls under 14, women between 14 and 60, women over 60, boys under 14, men between 14 and 60, and men over 60 were the six usual categories and they were in turn assigned their own ward. Higginbotham wistfully notes that ‘by entering a workhouse paupers were considered to have forfeited responsibility for their families.’[7] There was little or no comfort as ‘clothing and personal possessions were taken from entrants and stored, to be returned on their discharge.’[8] In addition, the majority of workhouses in Victorian Britain operated a uniform policy which further degraded the people who were so desperate that they had to turn to workhouses. Despite this dehumanisation of the workhouse workers, they were, however, free to leave whenever they wished after giving short notice.

The jobs which the workhouse inmates were assigned demeaned them further. Workhouses.org provides an insightful synopsis of some of the jobs that were typically expected at a workhouse. It details: ‘Stone-breaking, corn-grinding, bone-crushing, gypsum-crushing, oakum-picking and wood-chopping.’[9] All of these jobs detailed are incredibly tiring and mundane which reflects a workhouse in general. Working days at the workhouse were long and tiring with inmates usually being active for around fourteen/fifteen hours a day. Days would typically commence at around six or seven before ending at around eight or nine. This also included around ten hours labour, typically of the jobs mentioned above. In the majority of workhouses inmates were permitted every Sunday off as well as Christmas Day and Good Friday.

Possible Hexham workhouse original sick wards prior to 1883 extension.

While the able-bodied worked (ages 14 to 60) the children were fortunate enough to receive some form of education at the workhouse as ‘under the 1834 Act. Poor Law Unions were required to provide at least three hours a day of schooling for workhouse children, and to appoint a schoolmaster and/or schoolmistress. The children were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and the principles of the Christian Religion, and such other instruction as may fit them for service, and train them to habits of usefulness, industry and virtue.’[10] Most, if not all workhouses provided this education. Despite this though the education children received in workhouses was not of a particularly high standard. Fowler notes this problem by writing that ‘workhouse teachers were a particular problem. Poorly paid, without any formal training, and facing large classes of unruly children with little or no interest in their lessons, few stayed in the job for more than a few months.’[11] Although, many children were given practical skills which stood them in good stead for apprenticeship jobs in their local area.

In 1835 six sample diets were released by the Poor Law Commission with each Poor Law Union choosing the one they saw best fit. Food at the workhouse was not of a particularly high standard with regular shocking cases over the quality of the food. Nonetheless, the workhouse diet did provide some form of nourishment for its inmates.

A breakfast of bread and gruel was followed by dinner, which might consist of cooked meats, pickled pork or bacon with vegetables, potatoes, yeast dumpling, soup and suet, or rice pudding. Supper was normally bread, cheese and broth, and sometimes butter or potatoes.[12]

Children and the elderly often received a slightly better diet with more protein-based foods but ‘the food was generally nutritionally adequate’[13]

A peek through the gate at the possible original sick wards

A peek through the gate at the possible original sick wards

Management and discipline at the workhouses was also very harsh as one would expect. Punishments were regularly administered and could range from anything from the suspension of a certain food substance, for a period of time, to severe beatings and/or imprisonment.

After 1834, the breaking of workhouse rules fell into two categories: Disorderly conduct, which could be punished by a withdrawal for food “luxuries” such as cheese or tea, or the more serious Refractory conduct, which could result in a period of solitary confinement.[14]

The number of Workhouse staff employed varied from workhouse to workhouse, typically depending on the size of the workhouse and the number of inmates. Every workhouse, however, had a master and a matron who were the two in charge of running the whole workhouse and overseeing it. They were typically a married couple. Fowler best describes their plans for running the workhouse ‘at the minimum cost and maximum efficiency – for the lowest possible wages.’[15] The duties of the master and matron were dictated by the Poor Law Commissioners which included for example: (for the master) visiting the workhouse at morning and at night to ensure the workhouse was running smoothly, which usually included disciplining those who stepped out of line. Whereas, for the matron her main responsibility was ensuring that the female and child inmates kept the workhouse looking tidy. Teachers were also employed to educate the children, as mentioned previously. Medical staff were also often employed, however, they were very low-qualified due to the inferior pay and a porter was employed sometimes depending on the size.

Hexham Workhouse

The Victorian workhouse that this piece of work is focusing on is Hexham workhouse. Hexham workhouse is of a reasonable size and covered the the majority of south Northumberland. Figure 2 shows one of the old workhouse buildings in its current state today opposite one of the main roads into Hexham town centre. The workhouse itself was built in 1839,  as before this there was no major workhouse in this particular area of Northumberland as ‘a parliamentary report of 1777 recorded local workhouses in operation in Corbridge (for up to 100 inmates), Hexham (55 inmates), and Horsley (8 inmates).’[16] This smaller workhouse in Hexham was located on Priestpopple Street, with this newer, bigger building replacing it and pooling together the poor from many local Northumberland towns and villages.

The newer workhouse cuts a rather impressive image today with its numerous buildings still standing, albeit rather desolate with many of the buildings completely sectioned off and access to all of the buildings forbidden due to intense vandalism. The exact purpose and use of every building is somewhat unclear as there is little or no information about the buildings which form part of the Hexham workhouse complex. Figure 3, 4 and 5 show a peek through the barriers at what may well have been the original Hexham workhouse sick wards. The Hexham workhouse ‘underwent major alterations and additions in 1883 with the addition of a Master’s house and sick wards at the western end of the buildings.’[17] These additional buildings can be seen in the pictures below.

A wide shot of the 1883 extensions with the building furthest to the right being one of the new segregated sick wards, the centre building being the new Master’s house and the building with the white fencing around it being the other new segregated sick ward which is not available for public access.

A wide shot of the 1883 extensions with the building furthest to the right being one of the new segregated sick wards, the centre building being the new Master’s house and the building with the white fencing around it being the other new segregated sick ward which is not available for public access.

Prior to this construction there were detached, gender-separate schools built in 1863. Unfortunately, how these buildings were used is not common knowledge and the current restriction of public access to the workhouse buildings has only heightened speculation. Consequently, prior to this there was no education for the children and they would mainly do housework which is detailed in a 1847 report of children in the Hexham workhouse on the National Archives website: ‘The boys besides being employed in household work in their own ward work in the garden and two are placed under the tailor for instruction.’[18] (The full report will be attached in the further reading section).

The Master's house

The Master’s house

Religion (particularly the Anglican religion) played a huge role in workhouse life and particularly within the lives of the Hexham workhouse inmates with the impressive Anglican Hexham Abbey being less than a quarter of a mile away. Prayers formed an integral part of the daily routine in workhouse life and the Church of England regularly sent representatives to the workhouses. This is shown in Figure 9, which is an extract from a January 1900 edition of the Hexham Courant discussing the use of an Anglican visitor to Hexham workhouse.

A copy of the Hexham Courant from the 27th January 1900 detailing the discussion over the use of an Anglican visitor to the warehouse.

A copy of the Hexham Courant from the 27th January 1900 detailing the discussion over the use of an Anglican visitor to the warehouse.

Workhouses were generally phased out by the 1930 UK Act on the 1st of April which abolished workhouses. This brought to an end the Hexham workhouse as it was originally known ‘but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils until as late as the outbreak of the Second World War.’[19] Hexham workhouse continued as a Public Assistance Institution, thus, carrying on as a watered-down form of the original workhouse. After the NHS was introduced in 1948 the workhouse buildings became part of Hexham General Hospital. After this HMC took over the property in 2004 mainly using the old site for car parking before leasing it to The Therapy Centre which moved into the site in 2013, transforming part of the property into a specialist holistic healthcare centre.[20] However, The Therapy Centre vacated the buildings in 2015 and the Workhouse has been standing in a rather desolate state since with all of the buildings firmly locked and some completely sectioned off from the public in an effort to prevent vandalism. In addition, there is little commercial interest in the buildings leading to numerous efforts to knock them down, only to be matched with local conservation opposition due to its rich history, which still goes on today.

1881 Hexham workhouse census

The 1881 Hexham workhouse census[21] is a fascinating document as it shows the size of the Hexham workhouse towards the end of the Victorian period when workhouses were generally now of a reasonable size. The census (all information used is from workhouses.org) details that the workhouse was run by John Jameson and his wife Eliza with their two sons and daughter also on the staff as Merchants Clerk and Scholars. In addition, to this there is only Mary Robson, Joseph Coats and Walter Murray on the staff as schoolmistress, schoolmaster and House Porter. This suggests that the workhouse was not quite as big as the size of the buildings would suggest. With regard to the inmates on this census it is somewhat surprising to see that there are only a meagre 195 inmates, which is quite astonishing after experiencing the size of the buildings. However, this may have risen dramatically after the extension of the workhouse in 1883, which is detailed in the main article. Furthermore, as expected the vast majority of inmates are extremely local. However, there are a few from further afield such as Robert Boyd from Ireland. The census also lists the previous occupations of the inmates which is rather intriguing as in some cases it can show a dramatic fall in grace from a well-respected job to a place in a workhouse.

Guide to further resources



[1] Fraser, Derek (2009), The Evolution of the British Welfare State (4 ed.), Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Higginbotham, Peter. “Parish Workhouses”

[3] Nixon, Cheryl L. (2011), The Orphan in Eighteenth-Century Law and Literature, Ashgate Publishing

[4] Fowler, Simon (2007), Workhouse: The People: The Places: The Life Behind Closed Doors, The National Archives

[5] Fraser, Derek (2009), The Evolution of the British Welfare State (4 ed.), Palgrave Macmillan

[6] Driver, Felix (2004), Power and Pauperism, Cambridge University Press

[7] Higginbotham, Peter (2006), Workhouses of the North, Tempus

[8] Fowler, Simon (2007), Workhouse: The People: The Places: The Life Behind Closed Doors, The National Archives

[9] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/life/work.shtml

[10] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/education/workhouse.shtml

[11] Fowler, Simon (2007), Workhouse: The People: The Places: The Life Behind Closed Doors, The National Archives

[12] Anon (1836), Reports from Commissioners, Fifteen Volumes, (8. Part I), Poor Laws (England), Session 4 February – 20 August 1836, 29, part 1, HMSO

[13] Smith, L.; Thornton, S. J.; Reinarz, J; Williams, A. N. (17 December 2008), “Please, sir, I want some more”, British Medical Journal, 337: 1450–1451

[14] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/life/rules.shtml

[15] Fowler, Simon (2007), Workhouse: The People: The Places: The Life Behind Closed Doors, The National Archives

[16] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Hexham/

[17] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Hexham/

[18] http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/victorians/transcripts/2a_03_workhouse_report.pdf

[19] Means, Robin; Smith, Randall (1985), The Development of Welfare Services for Elderly People, Routledge

[20] http://www.hexham-courant.co.uk/Hexham-Workhouse-is-a-danger-d43522c7-fb6d-4280-9570-83e508d56dba-ds

[21] http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Hexham/Hexham1881.shtml

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