Norfolk Workhouses: Introduction


From the Middle Ages to the 20th century how the poor were cared for depended on the parish in which they lived. Some parishes had several charities in addition to the income provided by parishioners who, after 1597, paid compulsory variable rates to maintain their parish roads, the church and the poor. Under the Elizabethan poor law 1601, each parish was responsible for finding work for the fit unemployed, and supporting orphans, the sick, infirm and elderly, usually at home unless they were homeless or needed care. The accommodation provided to meet these needs varied from early, non-medical ‘hospitals’ or alms-houses for elderly persons, cottages for poor widows, and poor houses or town houses for orphans, single persons and families. By combining accommodation with a workplace, it was hoped that the poor houses would be self-supporting, which introduced the term ‘workhouse’. The following texts, with examples, explain the origin and provision of poor relief, early hospitals and almshouses, poor houses, town houses and parish workhouses, incorporated houses of industry, Gilbert Unions, Poor Law Unions and Poor Law Institutions, through which the Welfare State evolved.

Why people had to work

In the Middle Ages the labour shortage caused by the Black Death resulted in such high wages and prices that the government passed laws to make every fit labourer or servant under sixty work for their living (Leonard, E.M., The Early History of English Poor Relief). Subsequent poor laws reflected the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to this work ethic.  Those too ill or old to work were helped by charities, trade guilds and the monasteries, whereas vagrants and unlicensed beggars were punished. When trade guilds declined and Henry VIII decided to close large monasteries less charity was available, so parish churches were ordered to have a box or chest with a hole in the lid for people to contribute alms for the poor when they attended Sunday services.

 From 1530-97 vagrants could be stripped naked, tied to the end of a cart and whipped through the streets. Then whipping posts replaced carts and offenders were only to be naked from the waist upwards, but whipped until their body was bloody. The whipping post which stood in Saturday Market Place, King’s Lynn, was replaced in 1745 with this one, which was still in use in 1847. It can now be seen, by appointment, at King’s Lynn gaol house.

Parish relief

Because of insufficient donations, from 1597 churchwardens and overseers of the poor (elected officers of the parish church’s vestry committee), were ordered to assess how much each property might be rented for each year. On that valuation owners or occupiers paid rates, a variable number of pence per pound, according to the annual cost of maintaining the church, the roads and the poor. This was in addition to a variety of national taxes.

From 1662 the laws of settlement and removal were intended to protect parishes from being burdened by unemployed strangers entering the parish in search of work and subsequently applying for relief. One of the criteria for residency was occupying a property worth £10 or more per year and therefore paying parish rates. Evidence of rate assessment being used as a definition of poverty is illustrated by Sarah Adamson’s charity, 1791, which provided the income from £500 invested in 3% consols, ‘for the poor of the parish of Wereham, who are those not possessed of more than £10 p.a.’. Also the fuel allotments awarded under the Enclosure Acts e.g. at Shropham where in 1801 58a 2r 22p were awarded to ‘parishioners not occupying above £10 p.a., who cut turf upon it’ (White’s Directory 1845 p.419).

Overseers’ accounts record relief to the poor in cash and kind according to individual needs; paying their rent, giving them money, providing fuel, candles, tools, clothes, shoes and their repair. Medical, maternity, nursing and funeral costs were paid, including a shroud, coffin, beer to refresh its bearers, and burial fees to the clerk and sexton.

Extracts from the overseers’ accounts at Weston Longville illustrate how James Taylor’s family was helped from Easter 1771 to Easter 1772 (Weston Town Book 1733-1778 NRO PD. 92/39): 

      Nursing Taylor's Wife 2 weeks                               £0. 10. 06

      Paid James Taylor’s (Wife - crossed through) Rent   £2. 10. 00

      Gave Taylor in need                                            £0. 04. 00

      Shoes for Taylor’s Children                                   £0. 09. 08

      Paid to the Nurse                                               £0. 08. 00

      More to the Nurse                                              £0. 04. 00

      Paid for Beer at the Burial [of] Taylor’s Wife            £0. 02. 00

      Paid to ye Clarke & Laying forth                            £0. 04. 00

      Wool*                                                              £0. 01. 06

      To 2 Weeks pay for Taylor                                   £0. 03. 00 

      To a Bed for Taylor                                            £1. 00. 00

      4 weeks pay to Taylor                                         £0. 06. 00

      Gave to Gooch and 4 weeks pay to Taylor              £0. 08. 00

      To a coffin for Taylor’s wife                                  £0. 08. 00

      Doctor’s Bill for Taylor's wife                                 £8. 06. 00

      5 weeks pay and gave to Gooch                            £0. 10. 06

      To Boy Taylor Cloathing                                       £0. 10. 06 1/2

      Shoes for Taylor & 3 Qrs Coal for them                  £0. 15. 02

*to help the wool trade, from 1678-1814, the shroud and coffin lining had to be made of wool and an affidavit given by the relatives that no other material was used. Affidavits were often recorded in a special book and anyone involved in the funeral could be heavily fined if they contravened the law.

Because some people cheated the ratepayers by begging or working while receiving parish relief, from 1697-1810 they could be distinguished by a badge on the right shoulder of their top garment. In 1769 Watton parish officers spent fifteen shillings on badges for the poor ('The Poor of Watton in the 18th and 19th Century’, Watton in an Earlier Age 1700-1900 p.35). To ‘detect fraud or imposition’ in 1827 Fakenham published a list of those receiving relief with a request that anyone who had employed them or any of their family, write the amount paid against their names (Poster - Fakenham Lancaster Relief granted to the Poor July 9th 1827. NRO PD 204/89).

Less generous out-relief was given after 1834, money, bread and flour being distributed weekly by a relieving officer within each ‘out-relief district’, with poor law guardians ordering clothing, bedding be given to individuals when necessary (see Poor Law Unions).


The Elizabethan poor law required the ratepayers of each parish to care for orphans, the sick, infirm and elderly but, as today, charities made an important contribution. Benefactors left money to be distributed in cash, bread, clothing, education, apprenticeship, or provide housing e.g. White’s Directory 1845:


1719 William Dewing left the poor twenty shillings a year.

1728 John Leeds founded and endowed a Free School for 12 poor boys of Bawdeswell and 8 of Foxley.

Weasenham St Peter

1729 Charles Wilson left an annuity for a weekly distribution of bread.


1661 John Chapman left 10a 2r 6p land for its rental to provide gowns etc., for poor widows and other women in the parish.

Swanton Morley

1654 William Small left £10 p.a. for schooling and apprenticing poor children.

Some churches have a benefactions board giving details of such charities.

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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