Norfolk Workhouses: Poor Law Unions

Poor Law Unions

During the 18th century the population of England and Wales rose from about 5½ million to 9 million. Therefore during agricultural or trade depressions work was harder to find and parish ratepayers complained about the escalating cost of relieving the poor. Many thought that the generous out-relief given by parish overseers and the lax management in some workhouses, encouraged the work-shy to rely on the dole. Change was needed, so in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. Parishes were grouped into poor law unions, managed by a board of guardians representing each parish, controlled by the poor law commissioners in London.


There was no intention that all poor persons should go into the workhouse, so to provide for the temporarily sick and the infirm and elderly, each union was divided into out-relief districts and medical districts, each with their own salaried relieving officer and medical officer, which some unpaid parish overseers resented. Bread and flour was bought on contract from local supplier who delivered it each week to designated ‘stations’ within each district: 


Fakenham District: Fakenham, Sculthorpe, W. Rainham, Gt. Ryburgh, Kettlestone.

Walsingham District: Little Walsingham, Houghton, Hindringham, Gunthorpe, Field Dalling.

Wells District: Wells, Binham, Blakeney. 

(Norfolk Chronicle 17 December 1836)


The poor walked, or went by farm cart, from their parish to the nearest ‘station’ where the contractor distributed it  in ‘such small quantities as may be directed by the Board’, and the district relieving officer handed out whatever cash ‘dole’ had been agreed. In their weekly reports to the guardians, the relieving officers and medical officers detailed the individual circumstances of the poor, some of whom had gardens or allotments, lived with relatives or had lodgers, those who were work-shy or whose lifestyle might be considered ‘less deserving’. For example, the many applications for relief at Walsingham 6 July 1836 (Walsingham Guardians’ Minutes. NRO C/GP19/1) include:


Great Ryburgh

Charles Row 36, wife 28, employed – no relief.

John Hill and wife – no relief.

John Fuller 52, wife 48, one child. Has a pension. 1 stone flour.

Miles Green 39, wife 39, 6 children. Has ½ acre ordinary land. 2 st. flour and 2s.

Francis Howman, 38, wife 24, 4 children. No relief.

George How, 30, wife 30, 4 children. Wife ill. 2st flour and 2s for 1 week.

William Carman 48, wife 45, 4 children. 1½ stone flour.

Joseph Land 58, wife 56, 5 children. Advised to emigrate. 2 stone flour for 1 week.

Ann Frost, 36, husband transported. ½ stone flour and 1s 6d.


Little Ryburgh

Jane Smith, 56, separated from her husband. No relief.


Great Snoring

Ann Worship, 45, lame. ½ stone flour.


Little Walsingham

William Barnes, 64, Mr Adcock considers this man is not labouring under any disease. To be allowed ½ stone flour and 1s.

Martha Oliver, 22, consumption. 2s 0d.


East Rainham

Henry Watts, wife, 3 children. Man gone to seek work, wife destitute. 1½ stone flour for 2 weeks and 2s. If husband does not return family to go into the workhouse.


Boards of guardians took such personal circumstances into account when deciding the allowances, because they had a duty both to the poor and to the ratepayers. If these details have not survived, the guardians may appear to have been mean, rather than careful. Rising poor rates could over-burden the less wealthy, particularly cottagers, who might appeal to quarter sessions to have their rate reduced, which if successful would cause the parish further costs (Leigh, P.B., A Practical Treatise on the Poor Laws, A. Maxwell, London, 1836). Furthermore whenever poor harvests increased the price of bread and flour, indoor and outdoor relief rose.


Depending on circumstances, widows were allowed half a stone of flour or 2s-2s 6d, orphans and children of single mothers 1s. Unless they needed care, the elderly poor, aged over 60 to over 90, usually remained at home with an allowance of two or three shillings and half a stone (7lb) flour, more for married couples e.g. an old and infirm couple at Tattersett received 4s 6d a week (Walsingham Guardians Minutes op. cit.). Old men were more likely than old women to end their life in the workhouse, probably because in those days grandmothers and spinster aunts were likely to be more useful in a family household, helping with housework, cooking or minding children.


The unemployed who applied for relief would be refused, unless it could be given on grounds of ‘sickness’, whereas the fit might be spurred to seek work if  only offered maintenance in the workhouse. No reason is given why William Coe and family of Field Dalling were ‘to receive an order to go into the workhouse.’ Despite its boundary walls it was not a prison so inmates were free to leave if they allowed time for the staff to get their own clothes out of store. Some came and went so frequently they can be termed ‘the ins and outs’.


Building the Union workhouses

The large houses of industry and some ‘Gilbert’ workhouses were adapted to meet the new regulations separating males and females. Unions without suitable accommodation engaged architects such as John Brown, Norfolk County Surveyor, William Thorold and Swaffham-born William J. Donthorne, to design large workhouses with separate accommodation for ‘aged and infirm’ men over 60, ‘able-bodied’ men and boys 15-60, boys 7-15; ‘aged and infirm’ women over 60, ‘able-bodied’ women and girls 15-60, girls 7-15, and children under 7. The latter were allowed to be with their mothers ‘at all reasonable times’, nursing mothers having their babies ‘within reach’ at all times.


The clerk of each union placed detailed advertisements in local papers requesting tenders from builders, brickmakers, carpenters, plumbers, glaziers, painters, furniture, furnishing and clothing suppliers, and provision merchants, thus benefitting the local economy. At Swaffham in November 1835 the guardians told the poor law commissioners in London that it was ‘very desirable that the earth should now be prepared for making bricks, the raising of which earth will afford work for many of the unemployed poor of the Union.’ (Swaffham Guardians’ Minutes  28 November 1835. NRO C/GP 16/1).


The capacity and cost of Norfolk workhouses varied according to the number of parishes within the union and the finance available, the guardians borrowing the money at interest on security of the poor rates. Freebridge Lynn’s house at Gayton for 150 inmates cost just over £5,146, whereas Norwich workhouse for 1,200, built at Heigham in 1859 cost £29,000. Most could take 250-450, but as parish ratepayers soon discovered it was cheaper to keep the poor at home. Except in the winter and at times of crisis, most Norfolk workhouses were half empty. Although orphans, deserted children and old people might live in the workhouse for many years, the majority of poor persons were allowed out-relief (as evident in census returns). But some might have experienced short periods in the workhouse during their life.


Establishment costs and the weekly expenses of maintaining the poor in and out of the workhouse were re-charged to their parish ratepayers at the end of each quarter, with a list of those relieved, by far the greatest expense always being out-relief. For example the average annual cost of relief in Gressenhall workhouse for the financial years 25 March 1836 - 1842 was £1,441 compared to £8,311 out-relief. (Mitford & Launditch extracts from quarterly abstracts. NRO PD.684/79 and Bacon, Richard Noverre 1844 Report on the Agriculture of Norfolk p.186-7).



Each house was run by a staff whose salaries, set by the guardians, might differ in each Union.  In September 1849 Aylsham guardians advertised for staff for its new workhouse there, at the following annual salaries:  Chaplain £50, Surgeon £25 with vaccination fees 1s 6d each; Master £55, Matron £25, Schoolmaster £25, Schoolmistress £15, Porter £20, Portress £12, Infirmary Nurse £12; whereas at Gressenhall the master earned £100 p.a., the matron £25 p.a., and the schoolmaster £30 p.a.,


The local medical officer examined new entrants, who to avoid spreading infections took a disinfectant bath on arrival and changed into workhouse clothing before being sent to the appropriate ward.  From 1847 guardians could use their discretion to allow some married couples over sixty to live together.  The medical officer regularly attended sick inmates in the infirmary, prescribed their medicine and special diets, instructed the nurse/s and attended emergencies.


The non-resident chaplain regularly visited the sick, took Sunday services, baptised babies born in the house,  and ‘churched’ their mothers.  The inmates’ religion was recorded on arrival and those who were not Church of England were allowed to attend the nearest church or chapel.


Workhouse uniform

In some eighteenth century parish workhouses the inmates were clothed in a distinctive uniform. Now the poor law commissioners said workhouse clothing did not have to be uniform either in colour or materials, but the guardians preferred a ‘corporate image’. It was usually supplied on contract, although repairs provided work for the inmates.


At Swaffham men’s suits (trousers lined with twilled calico) cost 17s 9d each, shirts 3s 9d, a cap 1s 3d, stockings 1s 11d per pair, best shoes 8s and ‘strong’ shoes 6s 6d, old men’s house shoes 5s. Women’s dresses of linsey woolsey cost 9s 6d, a serge petticoat 3s 10½, a hat 2s, stockings 1s 4d per pair, shoes 4s 6d a pair. The cost of teenage and children’s clothing varied according to size, materials being bought for shirts, shifts and dresses at so much per yard (Swaffham Union guardians’ minutes  op. cit.).


The daily routine

The workhouse bell woke inmates at 6 a.m. when they washed, dressed, combed their hair and attended roll-call, after which the workhouse master read prayers before they had their breakfast, usually bread and gruel (watery porridge), or bread and cheese. While the men went off to work on the land or on the roads, the women cleaned the house so that the master and matron could inspect the rooms at eleven o’clock. Some worked in the laundry. Dinner was served at mid-day. Guardians were given a choice of six ‘dietaries’ and a printed copy of the one selected had to be displayed in the dining room, with a pair of weighing scales on the staff table, so that anyone could have their food weighed if they thought they were being cheated.


Mitford & Launditch Union workhouse diet 1836








Men:   7oz.bread and 1 1/2 pints gruel 

Women:  6oz. bread and 1 1/2 pints gruel

Men: 14oz. meat pudding with vegetables

Women: 12oz. meat pudding with vegetables

Men: 7oz. bread and 1oz cheese.

Women: 6oz. bread and 3/4oz. b

utter (Women often requested butter instead of cheese!)


As above

Men:  7oz. Bread and 1 ½ pints broth

Women:  6oz. bread and 1 pint broth  

As above


As above

Men:  7oz. bread and 1oz. cheese

Women: 6oz. bread and 3/4oz. butter

As above


As above

Men: 7oz. bread and 1 1/2 pints broth

Women:  6oz. bread

As above


As above

Men: 14oz. suet pudding with vegetables

Women: 12oz. suet pudding with vegetables

As above


As above

Men:  7oz. bread and 1 ½ pints broth

Women: 6oz. bread and 1 pint broth

As above


As above

Men:  7oz. bread and 1 ½ pints broth

Women: 6oz. bread and 1 pint broth

As above


Compared to the menu at Gressenhall in 1795 (see Incorporations) this high fibre, low fat diet was very monotonous and, in a era of Temperance Societies, did not include beer! In February 1841 Honour Dickerson was confined to the ‘dungeon’ (the punishment room but not below ground) for 8 hours because she threw some bread for her husband into the able-bodied men’s yard, and a fortnight later John and Ann Crask each spent 12 hours there on a bread and water diet, because she had stolen her child’s bread ration, presumably for her husband (Mitford & Launditch Guardians’ Minutes. NRO C/GP 14/4).


Children over nine years old had the same quantities as women. Imagine those in Buxton workhouse (Aylsham Union) in 1839 tucking into 4oz boiled meat, 12oz potatoes and 5 1/2oz yeast dumpling for dinner on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To avoid waste, discretion was used in the amounts served to younger children. At Heckingham children had bread and milk in lieu of bread and cheese for breakfast and supper, but at Rollesby might have had bread and cheese or treacle for their supper. Old people over sixty were allowed extra tea, sugar and milk and the doctor prescribed the diet for anyone who was ill. 


At Christmas roast beef and plum pudding was usually provided, although not always for all. At Aylsham in 1853 the guardians agreed to provide it for all ‘except the able-bodied men, the Board being of opinion that they have not made sufficient exertion to obtain work for the maintenance of themselves and their families out of work.’ (Aylsham Guardians’ Minutes. NRO C/GP 1/11).


After supper the master read prayers and the inmates went to bed at 8 p.m. in winter, 9 p.m. in summer. The porter locked the workhouse gates and gave the keys to the master.



Children went to the schoolrooms for three hours in the morning. Unless there was a free school in their parish, until 1870 this might be the only opportunity a poor child had to learn to read, write and do arithmetic. They were also taught scripture and sometimes geography. After dinner at mid-day, the school teachers might take them on a walk outside the workhouse, and they were also instructed in housework, sometimes sewing or knitting, and farming so they could find a job when they left.


Although discipline was strict, in 1842 the Poor Law Commissioners had given instructions that ‘Good temper, joined to firmness and self-command, will enable a skilful teacher to manage children with little or no corporal punishment. The frequent use of corporal correction is the common recourse of teachers who from their idleness or other defect, are incompetent to acquire a command over children by a knowledge of their characters and by gentle means.’ and there were strict rules as to when and how a boy might be caned. Indeed, in 1845 the schoolmaster at Gimingham was severely reprimanded when a mother complained about his ill-treatment of her seven year old son.


When they were not at lessons, children under seven might see their mother, and sometimes their father, during the day. All inmates were allowed short visits by a relative or friend on a specified day or days, though these might be supervised to prevent unauthorised gifts or other misdemeanours. The loneliest children would have been orphans and children whose parents had deserted them, which sometimes happened, but they were allowed to visit relatives for a few days. Unlike the others who might only stay in the workhouse for a short time, they were likely to remain until they were apprenticed at fifteen, or became servants in a large house. 


Adults and children were also allowed occasional treats e.g. at Gressenhall buns and ale to celebrate Queen Victoria’s marriage in 1840 and George Wombwell inviting the children to see his menagerie of wild animals in 1851. In 1875 the children in Smallburgh Union spent the day as guests of Col. and Mrs Duff at Westwick Hall, where after dinner they played various games followed by tea and presents. In 1891 the inmates of Docking Union received presents of tea, cake, fruit and tobacco in celebration of Major Hare’s 80th birthday. But Christmas was the highlight of the inmates’ year, particularly for the children for whom local residents provided all kinds of toys, boxes of oranges and apples and sweets.



It had always been difficult to find profitable employment for weekly fluctuating numbers of often unskilled men and women of various ages. Under the new regime the spinning and weaving shops and sack factories in the incorporated houses of industry were dismantled. Any work undertaken by workhouse inmates was not to jeopardise the jobs of those outside by being competitive, so there was little alternative to unpleasant and repetitive tasks. However in 1846 grinding bones for fertilizer was banned, after some men in Andover (Hampshire) workhouse were found gnawing meat off them, because the master was cheating by more food going on his table than on theirs. Another unpleasant, repetitive task, was ‘picking oakum’, unpicking tarred ropes for use in caulking boats. By the 1880’s this work was only supposed to be used as a punishment, or for casual wayfarers in return for overnight accommodation, who might also pump water, break stones or barrow gravel.


Leaving the workhouse

Adults were free to leave if they took their family with them, and gave adequate time for their own clothes to be brought out of store. If they still found they could not support themselves, out-relief would be denied and they would return to the workhouse. Anyone who absconded in the workhouse clothes was prosecuted for theft, as its replacement increased costs. As soon as ‘suitable employment at adequate wages’ was offered, the guardians could discharge a person, but were recommended not to do so against a person’s will if they could not find accommodation (Dumsday, W.H.,  The Workhouse Officers’ Handbook.  Hadden, Best & Co., 1907).


Relatives were notified verbally and in writing so they could visit anyone who was dying and make arrangements for their body to be taken back to their own parish for burial, if necessary at parish expense. Pine Deal coffins of specified dimensions and thickness were bought on contract at c.5s 6d-9s 6d each according to size. As in the case of all supplies, contractors were reprimanded by the guardians and could lose the contract if the quality did not meet their specifications. If the deceased was not claimed, the workhouse master had to arrange for the body to be properly identified, given a shroud and coffin, and be ‘decently buried’ in the workhouse burial ground with the chaplain conducting the service.


The end of the story

By this time, the difficulties of bringing up large families on low incomes were being recognised. Since the 1830’s working men had been encouraged to contribute a few pence each week to medical clubs and benefit societies, to provide for sickness and burial, and so avoid claiming parish relief. In the early 1900’s national insurance schemes were introduced to help those unemployed through accident or illness, and small pensions were available to the elderly. In 1929 boards of guardians were replaced by Public Assistance Committees and workhouses became Public Assistance Institutions, many children being moved out to orphanages or children’s homes. With the introduction of the national Welfare State in the 1940’s, poor law institutions were put to new uses. Gressenhall became a modern old people’s home, but is now a popular museum; Aylsham St Michael’s hospital, Wicklewood St George’s school and Pulham St Mary Bumbles Hotel before being converted, like Wicklewood, to ‘luxury apartments’, whose residents no doubt enjoy living there.


Poor Law Union Workhouses in Norfolk


Aylsham Union (NHER 7416)

Located in Aylsham. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects, in Tudor style with four polygonal towers and transom window overlooking entrance. Corridor type with central hall with galleries. The building is now St Michael's Hospital.


Blofield Union (NHER 15943)

Located in Lingwood. Designed by John Brown, Norfolk County Surveyor, with a double-cruciform plan with four ranges extending from an octagonal hub.


Depwade Union (NHER 10965)

Located in Pulham St Mary. Designed by William Thorold in a cruciform plan enclosed by a full octagon externally reflecting the internal hub. it has now been converrted into apartments.


Docking Union (NHER 15008)

Located in Docking. Designed by John Brown, Norfolk County Surveyor, with a double-cruciform plan. The building is now used for modern housing.


Downham Union (NHER 12230)

Located in Downham Market. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects, in a square plan. Parts of the building are now incorporated into an old people's home.


Erpingham Union (NHER 6572)

Located in West Beckham. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects. A corridor type plan with central hall with galleries. The building is now in private ownership.


Freebridge Lynn Union (NHER 3607)

Located in Gayton. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects. A square plan. The building is now in private ownership.


Guiltcross Union (NHER 20143)

Located in Kenninghall. Designed by William Thorold. The plan is thought to have been similar to that at Pulham St Mary.


Henstead Union (NHER 9770)

Located in Swainsthorpe. Designed by John Brown, Norfolk County Surveyor, with a double-cruciform plan.


King's Lynn Union (NHER 12083)

Located in Exton's Road. Designed by James Medland and Alfred W. Maberley in Tudor style in dark orange brick ornamented in cream brick. The building has now been converted into offices.


Norwich Union

Located in Heigham. Designed by James Medland and Alfred W. Maberley.


Swaffham Union (NHER 38034)

Located in Swaffham. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects. A hexagon plan. The building has now been demolished.


Thetford Union (NHER 1092)

Located in Bury Road, Thetford. Designed by William Thorold in a cruciform plan.


Walsingham Union (NHER 2105)

Located in Great Snoring but known as Thursford. Designed by William Thorold in a cruciform plan enclosed by a full octagon as at Pulham Market.


Wayland Union (NHER 8988)

Located in Rockland St Mary. Designed by William Thorold. Thought to be in a similar style to Pulham St Mary.


Wisbech Union (now in Cambridgeshire)

Located in Wisbech. Designed by William J. Donthorne, born at Swaffham, founder member of the Royal Institute of Architects. A square plan.


Yarmouth Union (NHER 10549)

Located in North Denes, Great Yarmouth. Designed by John Brown, Norfolk County Surveyor.


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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