Norfolk Workhouses: Incorporations

Incorporations and their houses of industry

Because of the weekly fluctuating number of inhabitants, many of whom were unskilled, sick, disabled or elderly, parish workhouses were seldom self-supporting. Consequently many were in a bad state of repair inside and out, particularly if they were badly managed or inmates had vandalised the furniture or failed to keep themselves clean. Although we all like to think our ancestors were ‘clean and godly’, some were not! 

Some influential people thought the poor could be more humanely and economically managed if a group of parishes joined together to support a central workhouse, as at Bristol 1696 and Norwich 1712. Since the Middle Ages parishes had been combined in administrative units called ‘hundreds’. So following Suffolk’s example, Norfolk obtained local acts of parliament for the following incorporations and houses of industry: Loddon and Clavering Hundreds (Heckingham) 1764, East and West Flegg (Rollesby) 1765, Mitford and Launditch (Gressenhall) 1775, Forehoe (Wicklewood) 1776, Tunstead and Happing (Smallburgh) 1785 and Buxton (Buxton) 1806 (which since 1801 had been a Gilbert Union). (Digby, Anne, Pauper Palaces Ch.3 p.35). 

The aims of the new incorporations were summed up in a tablet over the entrance to Rollesby House of Industry, which was built on twenty-two acres of the south common:

 For the INSTRUCTION of YOUTH

The ENCOURAGEMENT of INDUSTRY

The RELIEF of WANT

The SUPPORT of OLD AGE

And the COMFORT of

INFIRMITY and PAIN

but omitted another important aim ‘the Correction of the Profligate and Idle’ (Morrison, Kathryn The Workhouse, HMSO 1999)!

Building a house of industry

Each incorporation was managed by an elected board of directors and acting guardians representing each parish.  Imagine these gentlemen busily negotiating to buy the land, and discussing building plans with their chosen architect.  The Rollesby board usually met at The Wrestlers, Great Yarmouth. On 25th November 1775 they advertised for tenders for building a ‘plain and durable’ single house of industry with separate apartments for young children, an infirmary for the sick, one for lunatics, a hospital for the aged and infirm, rooms for the able-bodied and workplaces for at least two hundred inmates. They required ‘proper apartments’ for the governor and matron, a stable for about ten horses, a small barn and other ‘necessary offices’. The principal rooms were not to be less than 9ft high, the working room floors to be wood, but other groundfloor rooms to be of brick or clamps* and the roofs covered with pantiles. Bricks 9½” long x 4½” broad x 2½” thick were to be ‘provided on the spot at 11s 6d per 1,000.’ (Norfolk Chronicle 25 November 1775). John Green was paid five guineas for the plan and the cost of building the house on the south common was estimated at £2,300 (Digby, Ann Pauper Palaces Ch.3 p.37). A footprint of the building can be seen on Norfolk E-map Explorer website. www.historic-maps.norfolk.gov.uk

*A traditional way of making bricks by piling them in a field with a clamp of coal and turf put over the top which was set on fire, whereas better quality bricks were fired in a kiln (E. Rose, Norfolk Landscape Archaeology).

Local trade and employment benefitted when advertisements appeared in local newspapers for quotations from builders, carpenters, glaziers, plumbers, well-sinkers, coal merchants, furniture makers, bedding, clothing and shoe manufacturers, butchers and grocers. The board’s responsibility to spend the ratepayers’ money wisely is reflected in their insistence on suppliers meeting their exact specifications using good quality materials and sound workmanship.

Money to build and equip the new palatial houses of industry was borrowed on security of the parish poor rates, and repaid with interest at 4-5%. Loddon and Clavering guardians borrowed £7,500 to build an ‘H’ plan house of industry at Heckingham. It had a large diningroom, a schoolroom, committee room, workrooms with access to arcades facing each other across a courtyard, a surgery, infirmary and a ‘prison’ room for those who misbehaved or needed restraint. There was a kitchen, scullery, baking office, meal (flour) room and bread room. At the side there was a yard with a coal store and dirt bin. Across the large yard at the back of the workhouse there were hog-houses with small yards and a swill house.  Adjacent to these was a coal store, slaughter-house, brew-house, wash-house, cistern house, coal bin and a large drying shed for washed linen (Digby, Ann and Morrison, Kathryn op. cit.).

Although people were familiar with parish workhouses, the idea of the poor being sent to large central houses of industry caused great opposition, so in case protesters vandalised or set fire to them, the houses were insured.  George Crabbe expressed his opinion in The Borough (1810) :

Your plan I love not, - with a number you

Have placed your poor, your pitiable few:

There, in one house, throughout their lives to be,

The pauper palace which they hate to see.

The giant-building, that high bounding wall,

Those bare-worn walks, that lofty thund’ring hall!

That large loud clock, which tolls each dreaded hour,

Those gates and locks, and all those signs of power;

It is a prison with a milder name,

Which few inhabit without dread or shame.

 

Be it agreed – the Poor who hither come

Partake of plenty, seldom found at home;

That airy rooms and decent beds are meant

To give the poor, by day, by night, content:

I own it grieves me to behold them sent

From their old home; t’is plain, t’is punishment

To leave each scene familiar, every face,

For a new people and a stranger race.

A comparison of Loddon & Clavering’s menu with that of Mitford & Launditch (below) shows that although inmates might ‘partake of plenty seldom found at home’ those in Gressenhall had a greater variety than those in Heckingham:

Heckingham House of Industry Menu 1795 (Eden, F.M. 1797 The State of the Poor. George Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1928)

Men allowed 1 pint beer each at every meal except when they have broth or gruel. Nursing mothers allowed 1 pint beer as above, but others two-thirds pint.

   

Heckingham House of Industry Menu 1795

 

 

 

Breakfast

Dinner

Supper

Sunday

Bread and cheese with butter and treacle

Butcher’s meat, dumplings and bread

Bread and cheese or butter

Monday

Bread and cheese with butter and treacle

Broth and bread

Bread and cheese or butter

Tuesday

Milk and water gruel and bread

Baked suet puddings

Bread and cheese or butter

Wednesday

Bread and cheese with butter and treacle

Dumplings and milk broth, or milk and water gruel

Bread and cheese or butter

Thursday

Milk and water gruel and bread

Butcher’s meat, dumplings and bread

Bread and cheese or butter

Friday

Bread and cheese with butter and treacle

Broth and bread

Bread and cheese or butter

Saturday

Milk and water gruel and bread

Bread and cheese or butter

Bread and cheese or butter

Income and expenditure

Unfortunately the experience of earlier workhouses continued. When Sir Frederic Morton Eden visited Heckingham in 1795 (Eden, op. cit.), ‘the high price of provisions, the lowness of wages for spinning and the late severe seasons’ had so increased the number needing relief that the poor rates had to be increased. His account of its income and expenditure illustrates the problem shared by many workhouses, particularly if they were badly managed. The governor of Heckingham, accused of incompetence, resigned in 1792.

   1789, 199 inmates, £219.7s.10d earnings, £2230.11s.8d expenditure

       1790, 233 inmates, £256.13s.93/4d earnings, £2324.10s.5d expenditure

        1791, 245 inmates, £305.2s.81/2d earnings, £2,223.11s.11d expenditure

1792, 224 inmates, £302.4s.5d earnings, £2,047.2s.6d expenditure

       1793, 214 inmates, £234.0s.10d earnings, £2,094s.10.81/2d expenditure

       1794, 239 inmates, £189.16s.11/2d earnings, £2,261.4s.11d expenditure

In Mitford and Launditch Incorporation’s house at Gressenhall, the average number of inmates between 1777 and 1794 was 447, but as Eden pointed out ‘it often happens that the same persons quit and re-enter the house two or three times a year’ (Eden, op. cit.) therefore some people would be counted more than once. If a father and mother with six children went in twice during the year, they counted as sixteen persons relieved; if three times then twenty-four.  Thus statistics can be misleading.

Eden said more than half the inmates were children, mostly under fourteen years old, at which age they were found apprenticeships. Boys and girls worked in separate rooms with a master and mistress to teach them how to spin and weave, and earned small rewards. The women spun worsted for sale to Norwich manufacturers and were allowed seven pence in the shilling of their earnings. Although no-one over sixty years old was obliged to work, the old women could earn four pence in the shilling. The men were employed combing wool, dressing flax and hemp and weaving them into useful articles for the house, or cultivating the 60 acres of fields and gardens. A few worked on the public roads. Men were allowed a penny in each shilling earned. The remainder of each person's earnings was credited to their parish thus reducing the cost of their relief.

Gressenhall’s farm had ten cows to provide milk, cheese, a little butter and shoe leather when they were killed. There was also a windmill (dismantled and sold in 1836) which ground corn for neighbouring farms and flour for the baker employed to provide bread for the staff and inmates whose weekly menu was:

 

Gressenhall Incorporation Menu

 

 

 

Breakfast

Dinner

Supper

Sunday

Milk broth or onion gruel

Boiled meat, dumplings, vegetables and beer

Bread and cheese, or treacle, and beer

Monday

Bread, cheese and beer

Pease pottage boiled in meat broth and milk broth

Bread and cheese, or treacle, and beer

Tuesday

Onion or plain gruel

Boiled meat, dumplings, vegetables and beer

Broth and bread

Wednesday

Bread and cheese, or treacle, and beer

‘Frumenty’ or think milk with bread

Bread and cheese, or treacle

Thursday

Bread and cheese, or butter, and beer

Baked suet puddings and beer

Bread and cheese, or treacle

Friday

Onion or plain gruel

Boiled meat, dumplings, vegetables and beer

Broth and bread

Saturday

Bread and cheese, or treacle, and beer

Milk pottage or onion gruel

Bread and cheese, some butter or treacle, and beer

Eden said ‘Cabbages, carrots, turnips, potatoes, beans etc., were served in great plenty during the season.’ He could not discover the quantities served, but the shares of dumpling for dinner and bread at supper was ‘abundantly sufficient, though the pieces of cheese were small’ (Eden, op. cit.). 

Health and sickness

The governor and matron were instructed to make sure the children’s hands and heads were kept clean. At Ashill parish workhouse the contractor had been told to keep the children’s hair short and combed each day. This discouraged head lice ‘nits’ and ringworm which spread quickly if not controlled.

The house of industry at Gressenhall was designed to have two wings, but finances only allowed one. This was divided into ‘cottages’ for married couples, widows and widowers, rooms being ‘fitted with a fireplace for the comfort of the aged and infirm better sort of poor.’ (Universal British Directory 1794). The boys and girls at Gressenhall had separate bedrooms, each with about twenty beds and the children generally sleeping three in a bed – a reminder of the song ‘There were three in a bed, and the little one said “Roll over!”’. Even in the twentieth century, children of large families in cottages often slept at both ends of the bed. Each bed had a flock mattress, a pair of sheets, a pair of blankets and a coverlet. The inmates had clean linen every Saturday evening, their dirty clothes taken for washing next morning (Eden, op. cit.).

Although the rooms were lofty, well-aired and periodically fumigated, with so many coming in and out it was difficult to keep the house free from ‘vermin’. Gressenhall employed a house surgeon, and four doctors to attend the poor living at home, but people coming in or visiting could easily transmit infections. The Rev. James Woodforde, rector of Weston Longville, who visited on 20 March 1781 remarked ‘about 380 poor in it, though they don’t look healthy or cheerful, a great number die there, 27 have died since Christmas last.’ (Beresford, John (ed.), James Woodforde – The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802 p.168).

In Heckingham house before 1788 on average one child in eight died. Whether rich or poor, at home or in the workhouse, children died from sickness and diarrhoea, measles, and whooping cough, and adults from fever or smallpox. At Heckingham in 1795 Eden said ‘a very fatal putrid fever is now raging in the neighbourhood.’ Those who survived such infections and epidemics often lived to their eighties and nineties e.g. Mary Teasdale 88, Elizabeth Simons 91 and Jane Browne 93 who died in Smallburgh house of industry in 1788.

Initially the farmhouse at Gressenhall was used as a hospital to which those living at home could be admitted if necessary:

Mitford & Launditch Guardians’ Minutes 29 March 1785 (Mitford & Launditch Incorporation Minutes July 1782 - June 1785 NRO C/GP 14/137; microfilm MF.X/328/8).

Litcham, Thos. Rix aged 6 years admitted an object for the hospital – stone.

(Probably a bladder or kidney stone).

From the cradle to the grave

In each house of industry a chaplain was employed to conduct Sunday services, baptise the babies, and teach the children to read the bible and learn the Church of England catechism. He also visited the sick and elderly. When a person died their relatives were expected to take their body back to their parish for burial. If the family could not afford it, the cost of the shroud, coffin and funeral was charged to the ratepayers. If no-one claimed the body, it was given a shroud and coffin and the chaplain arranged a service for its interment in the parish churchyard, unless like Gressenhall, the house had a consecrated burial ground, extended in 1785 (Universal British Directory 1794).

Building loan repayments, administration costs, complaints about slack management and over generous allowances (e.g. at Heckingham) encouraging the poor to be dependent on the dole, plus the difficulty of finding profitable employment during trade and agricultural depressions, all contributed to the opinion that change was needed. This resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 and the re-organisation of parishes into poor law unions.

Incorporated Houses of Industry in Norfolk

Buxton Incorporation (NHER 7666)

Built at Buxton in 1806, in its time this house of industry (now demolished) served an incorporation, a Gilbert Union and after 1834 Aylsham Poor Law Union.

East and West Flegg Incorporation (NHER 14967)

Located in Rollesby. Built in 1775.

Forehoe Incorporation (NHER 8931)

Located in Wicklewood. Built in 1776.

Loddon and Clavering Incorporation (NHER 10539)

Located in Heckingham. Built in 1764.

Mitford and Launditch Incorporation (NHER 2819)

Located in Gressenhall. Built in 1775.

Norwich Incorporation (NHER 26575)

Located in Duke's Palace, St Andrew's, Norwich. Built in 1712.

Tunstead and Happing Incorporation (NHER 8278)

Located in Smallburgh (later known as Smallburgh Union). Built in 1785.

East and West Flegg, Forehoe, Norwich and Tunstead and Happing remained Incorporations for some time after 1836 despite adopting the Poor Law Commissioners' regulations.

We are most grateful to the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) for permission to include extracts from poor law documents.

Joy Lodey 2007.

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