Bleak houses | Workhouses

Clerkenwell’s workhouses were notorious dens of ‘squalid poverty and meanness’. Historian Peter Higginbotham tells the tale of these grim institutions…

A pint of claret, half a pint of wine, fish, oysters, cheesecake, a quarter pound of chocolate, half a pint of double-refined sugar, a quarter pound of biscuits and a helping of conserve of roses with juleps. The ingredients, you might think, for the centrepiece of some regal banquet. In fact, these were just some of the items once provided for the sick at one of Clerkenwell’s local workhouses, according to a journal entry by one of its staff.

Workhouses, which first appeared in the mid-1600s, were places where the elderly, chronic sick, and others of the ‘blameless’ poor were offered board and lodging. Able-bodied or ‘undeserving’ paupers were only admitted if they were prepared to work in return for their keep.

Over the years Clerkenwell, rather unusually, was home to three rather different workhouses. The first was the short-lived Middlesex County Workhouse which operated from 1664 to 1672 on the south side of Corporation Row (now the site of Kingsway Place) and included a section ‘for the reception and Breeding up of poor Fatherless or Motherless Infants’.

In 1702, the Quakers took over the same premises as a workhouse for orphans and ‘decayed friends’ from their own community. The elderly occupied one section of the building, with the children in another where they were employed in spinning mop-yarn. The girls also made and mended the inmates’ clothing while the boys learnt to read, write and cast accounts. Cold baths were on offer to the inmates ‘for their health or cleanliness’. It was here that delicacies such as the aforementioned chocolate and cheesecake were doled out to the sick, as revealed by a journal kept from 1711 by the workhouse’s steward, Richard Hutton. For the healthier inmates, a rather plainer menu included bread, cheese, broth, and a thrice-weekly meat dinner. There was also beer at each meal, even for the children, made in the workhouse’s own brewhouse. Weak or ‘small’ beer was widely consumed in those days as a pleasant and safe alternative to the local water.

Hutton also records the activities of a particularly troublesome young inmate named John Gorden who regularly stole workhouse property. On one occasion, Gorden broke into the workhouse storeroom and took four pounds of plum pudding, despite already having had a large portion with his supper. Hutton reports that “he ate so much in the storeroom he could not come thence without leaving behind him what is not fit here to mention.”

It was Clerkenwell’s parish workhouse though, occupying the site of what is now 143-157 Farringdon Road, that made its biggest mark on the locality. Financed by local rate-payers, the original building was opened in1727 and enlarged in 1790. Its two four-storey blocks then housed more than 500 inmates, around 40% of them over 60. It was a very rough place by all accounts. In 1815, a female inmate named Ann Keen was charged by the workhouse master, Henry Turner, of assaulting and beating him. Turner claimed that the woman frequently scaled the workhouse wall, later returning drunk and abusive.

‘Conditions inside the workhouse were dire. The Lancet described it as one of the worst in London’

Conditions inside the workhouse were dire. A report in 1865 by the medical journal, The Lancet, described it as one of the worst workhouses in London, characterised by ‘squalid poverty and meanness’. Investigators found that wards for the sick, infirm, insane, and able-bodied inmates were all jumbled together. In one ward they discovered “a poor wretch who for five days had been confined to her bed by means of a strait-waistcoat, during the whole of which time she had been raving and talking nonsense, having only had two hours’ sleep”. All the wards were overcrowded and badly ventilated with poor sanitary facilities – infirm inmates were regularly washing themselves in their chamber pots. Worst of all, perhaps, the parish dead-house was located in the narrow yard separating the two
workhouse blocks. Its ventilation system was “wafting reminiscences of departed parishioners to the inmates of the wards whose windows overlook the mournful edifice”.

Despite such a devastating appraisal, the Farringdon Road workhouse survived until the 1880s. From that date, Clerkenwell’s poor made use of Holborn’s City Road and Mitcham workhouses. Mitcham was closed down during the first world war but City Road continued in use and was renamed St Matthew’s Hospital in 1930. The workhouse system effectively ended with the arrival of the NHS in 1948 but St Matthew’s, despite being described in 1952 as ‘a dump for the chronic sick’, stayed open until 1986.

Peter Higginbotham is the author of the website and books including The Grim Almanac of the Workhouse and The Workhouse Encylopedia.