A trip to the workhouse

The main workhouse is on the left

The main workhouse is on the left

My workhouse writing has not made much progress lately; I’ve done just about all I can on the actual families, I’m on an economy drive so can’t afford the petrol to go to the archives centre for more general research on the workhouse, and I haven’t yet managed to get focused on the background reading.

I did order the death certificates for Edwin and Fanny Newing, the parents of the orphans – they both died of tuberculosis, a couple of years apart.  Edwin’s death was reported by his brother Edward, who had been present at the death in Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and records his occupation as house painter and age as 32. Fanny’s certificate recorded she’d had the disease for years, and her death was reported by her cousin, who was present at death. The cousin must have been illiterate, because the certificate shows “the mark of”.  Fanny’s occupation was marked as “the widow of Edwin Benjamin Newing, Painter (master)”.

Poor Fanny. A widow and mother of five children at the age of 28, already in ill health, and dead by the age of 30. She’d already been in the workhouse for a few weeks before her death, with all the children, whose ages ranged from 14 to 2. They all moved back out for a while, then the children were back in and Fanny presumably went to stay with a cousin, where she died a few weeks later.

I decided it was about time I visited the site, so this morning I walked out that way with a camera. It’s about 15 mins’ brisk walk from home along the main road, and as I walked I found myself wondering if Philadelphia ever walked that route; it would have been vastly different then. No busy traffic, just the occasional horse and cart, or other walkers maybe. The route is lined by a hedge and horse chestnut trees on one side; I wondered whether they had been there back then, whether the children ever picked the blackberries or collected conkers. Maybe, just maybe, one of the children planted a conker at the side of the road and it grew into one of the trees that are there now.

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

I walked along what had been the main entrance track to the workhouse, looking at the the buildings and trying to tell the old converted buildings from the new buildings that had blended in so well. The original descriptions of the workhouse say it was built in a quadrangle with an enclosed courtyard (“Build poor men’s houses, but instead of having one long street, bend it into a quadrangle, which forms also a prison,” said the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for the area), and that extra, separate wings were added later, for nursing infectious patients – stables and a carriage house, with a fever ward over, reports one source. There are accounts of the bell between the fever ward and the main building not working, and repeated notes from the medical officer that it should be fixed. Reports also tell of draughts in the women’s ward, with requests for something to break up the windflow so the patients did not get so chilled.

Even later in its history, further wings were added as the building became a home for “difficult” women and then a hospital for the chronically sick.

Now the whole area has been turned into housing, with some houses converted from the original building and others built either free-standing or adjoining the existing buildings. I visited the place once, when it was a hospital, but have only very vague memories of it. It’s not a tall building – only two storeys – but sprawls over a large area, and looks very peaceful and pleasant – a far cry from when the sewage flowed freely only yards from the windows!

From the other side of the old entrance

From the other side of the old entrance

I really want to find out more about the building and the people who lived in it, so I think the next stage for me is to start looking at the notes from the Guardians’ meetings. I’ve no idea how specific or detailed they are: at worst there’ll be very brief summaries of each meeting, and at best detailed accounts of issues arising from specific inmates.

That’s when I get settled with income again and can justify the expense of the petrol to get there. In the meantime, it’s writing up the notes I have about each family and carrying out general research.



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  1. Ohhh now you might be able to answer a question for me would a persons place of birth effect their ability to enter a workhouse? The reason I ask is doing my own family tree husband and wife come to England from Ireland census records show them as born in county Galway I tracked the son (my great granddad) and the husband to yorkshire but the only further reference to what looks like the wife is that she remained where she was the only info I find on her lists her in a work house all the information matches her except she now lists her place of birth as the area in which she is living. Is this normal do you think or is it I have just found another woman sharing the name and date

    • I do believe that there was an expectation to go to the home workhouse for support – so could imagine someone could “become confused” about their place of birth if it’s a long way away! Haven’t looked into that side of it properly yet though, so can’t be certain. Have you tried proving it IS someone else, by looking for other records of this other person? Sometimes that’s how I get round problems – investigate as if you’re wrong to prove you’re right. And good luck!


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