Norfolk Workhouses: Gilbert Unions

Gilbert Unions and their houses of industry

Whereas some ‘hundreds’ in the centre, south and east of the county favoured palatial houses of industry like Gressenhall (NHER 2819), some parishes preferred the option offered by Thomas Gilbert’s Act 1783. This recognised that despite many laws for the relief and employment of the poor, and the great sums of money raised, their suffering and distress remained ‘grievous’. Often the ‘incapacity, negligence, or misconduct of Overseers’ had led to the income from the poor’s rate being misapplied, or wasted on ill-advised court cases to determine a person’s legal ‘settlement’ -  which parish was responsible for a new-comer who applied for relief and to which they could be ‘removed’ by the parish constable.

Less expensive than the local act required for incorporation, Gilbert’s Act could be adopted if two-thirds of the parish ratepayers agreed, but if two or more parishes were involved then the house had to be within ten miles of each. It banned ‘farming’ the poor to a contractor, but required the parish officers to find work in the parish or adjacent parishes for the unemployed rather than send them to the workhouse, which was to be reserved for those unable to work. If their parent/s agreed, children could be boarded with respectable parishioners to avoid being brought up with the sick and elderly. The house was managed by a salaried governor and matron with an official ‘visitor’ to make sure the poor were properly looked after.

Reepham comprised four parishes: Reepham and Kerdiston, Hackford and Whitwell, their two churches (NHER 7469 and 7470) sharing the churchyard near the market place. Reepham and Kerdiston decided to jointly support a Gilbert Union house of industry. In 1787 they leased a small brick and thatch farmhouse (NHER 3159) with a barn, stable, workshop, lean-to, yard, and orchard, from Henry Betts of Kerdiston. The lease was for sixty-three years at a rent of eight guineas a year, to be paid on 5th April and 10th October, ‘in the south porch of Reepham church’ in two instalments of £4. 4. 0d. In accordance with the Act, Isaac Neale was elected guardian, James Bartram, governor, each of whom received a salary. John Leeds was appointed the official visitor (Kerdiston: Agreement and lease, NRO PD.440/111).


The parish of Hindolveston is a good example of the law in action. On the 31st July 1786 John Dobson and John Harris, overseers of the poor, bought a copyhold property for use as a Gilbert house of industry. John Harris died, therefore John Dobson, now elected guardian, attended the manor court and paid a deposit of £10 with the remaining £80 to be paid at 5% p.a. interest secured by the poor’s rate. The workhouse, described in 1836 as brick and tiled, with four rooms downstairs, five bedrooms and an attic, and a garden of 2 roods 6 perches, is shown on the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map (available on Norfolk E-map Explorer). Adjacent to it were three ‘town-houses’, one thatched and two tiled, which had small gardens (Hindolveston: Sale of parish property 1837. PRO MH12/81851).

To make necessary alterations and repairs, furnish and equip the house, the parish obtained a £100 loan from John Lacon Esq., of Great Yarmouth. The following few extracts from the detailed accounts for 1786-1787 and an inventory of 18th January 1787 allow us to peep inside the workhouse and imagine the work going on:

      To carrying 78ft Timber from Blakeney     10s 6d

      Pd. Mr Wordingham for timber                 15s 9d

      Pd. Wm. Cubitt 3 days [and a] half work     4s 1d

      Pd. Jno. Bunkell sawing a piece of wood          3d

      Pd. Jno. Bunkell 11 days work                  13s 9d

      Gave the workmen to drink                      5s 0d

On the groundfloor the rooms had the usual coal ranges and assorted fire irons:

      Pd Mrs Barstead for coal range & fender  £2. 0. 6d

      To a copper (one of three) 42lb @ 1s lb  £2. 2. 0d

      To a door & furnace 27lb @ 3d lb.               6s 9d

Kitchen equipment included a large porridge pot, 28 tin pots, 29 saucers, 20 pans, a carving knife and fork and '13 common knives and 13 forks' and '34 small spoons'. The accounts for October 1786 include ‘a pudding bowl, hand cups, 21 spoons and a pot spoon 7s 4d’ (Hindolveston Guardians' Accounts Book 1786-1802. NRO PD 678/36).

So what did they have to eat? Payments for wheat, flour, bread, milk, cheese, mutton, potatoes, onions and peas, suggest the usual workhouse diet of bread and cheese, or broth for breakfast, meat and vegetables for dinner and bread and cheese for supper. Many bills were not itemised, but are likely to have included beef, bacon or pork, suet for dumplings and treacle. It was customary for workhouses to brew their own ‘small’ (weak) beer, served at mealtimes.

      Pd Mr Jary for 2 Beer vessels   6s

      A Bushel malt & hops              5s 4d

For the bedrooms there were 11 bedsteads, 13 bed mats (mattresses not rugs) at 6s each (an example to be seen at Gressenhall workhouse is made of thick reed). The 7 feather beds and 5 ‘flite’ (oat straw) beds would have gone on top of the mats. One bed cost £1.11 6d, another £1.14.0 and 4s was paid for straw, cutting it and stuffing the beds and carrying them up to the house. Bedding comprised 26 sheets (Pd Mary Bunkell for making 6 sheets 1s 0d), 15 blankets and 11 rugs.  10 chamber pots were also necessary!

A ‘Gilbert’ workhouse was only for those unable to work because of sickness, infirmity or old age, but when mothers were admitted their children under seven accompanied them. Mr Dyball was the governor when in November 1786 three spinning wheels were bought at 7s 6d each plus carriage 9d and five shillings was paid to Boy King for learning the children to spin. However, if their parents agreed, the children could be boarded with respectable parishioners, which could happen to orphans, thus safeguarding them from having to live with the the old and sick. From eight years old they could be apprenticed, so a list of their names and their employer was given to the Visitor (Edward Asthorp at Hindolveston) to make sure they were properly treated.

As usual the parish provided clothing for the poor, usually home-made:

      Pd woman Bunkell for making two caps    1s 0d

      Woman Fuller making 6 petticoats          8s 0d

      Pd Mrs Dent making 5 shifts & shirts       1s 5d

      Pd Mrs Bunkell 2 pairs stockings @             1/2 d

For everyone’s sake inmates were expected to obey the house rules, which had to be printed in ‘plain legible characters’ and conspicuously displayed. Norfolk Record Office has a list and history of those in Hindolveston workhouse in 1811, but unfortunately it is worn and not available for research.

Foulsham workhouse, built on Cockle Green around 1782 was also managed under Gilbert’s Act. It could accommodate forty-five people and found farm work for unemployed boys and girls:

      'a Mr Cubitt employed ‘2 Girls Crow Keeping 4 weeks from 10th March to 8th April 1832      8s 0d'

      'Mr E. Leamon for Boy Clethero for the above time at 1s a week                                   13s 0d'

      '2 men Pulling 2 acres of Turnips                                                                               4s 0d

      Benjamin Hobbs for ditto                                                                                         4s 0d'

      (Foulsham workhouse accounts 1819-1835 NRO MC 1337)

More enduringly, the able-bodied unemployed at Fakenham are said to have built the bridge over the River Wensum by the mill in 1833 (Norfolk Mills - Fakenham watermill, and Baldwin, Jim and Tickle, Alan 2000 Memories of Fakenham Lancaster).

Under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, Hindolveston and Foulsham became part of the Aylsham Poor Law Union. In 1837 Hindolveston requested permission to sell the workhouse, which was in good repair. Benjamin Barstead rented part of it for £3 a year, and Coll Lewis rented the garden for £1.10.0d. The three cottages, one in good repair but two dilapidated, were occupied rent-free by poor persons (Hindolveston: Sale of parish property 1837. PRO MH12/81851). Foulsham workhouse was converted into tenements (White’s Directory 1845 p.348).

The Gilbert Union workhouses at Buxton (NHER 7666) and Oulton (NHER 7417) were adapted for use by Aylsham Union until 1849 when the inmates were transferred to the purpose-built Union workhouse at Aylsham (NHER 7416), later known as St Michael’s Hospital. Those at Sheringham and Gimingham (NHER 15848) were used by Erpingham Union until West Beckham 1849-51. Both these Union workhouses were designed by Swaffham-born William J. Donthorn.

Gilbert Union Workhouses in Norfolk

Acle (NHER 12198


Bawdeswell (NHER 18405)

The building is now a restaurant.

Booton (NHER 15238)


The building is now in private ownership.

Gimingham (NHER 15848)


Oulton (NHER 7417) 

The building is now a house in private ownership.

St Faith's (NHER 8025)

The building has been demolished and the site is now a crematorium. 

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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