Norfolk Workhouses: Parish Workhouses

A borough workhouse and Spinning School 

Prior to the Elizabethan poor law act 1601, the problem of employing the poor and providing a suitable workplace is illustrated at King’s Lynn. Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries resulted in the medieval chapel of St James the Apostle (NHER 5484) being partly demolished. In 1581 the Corporation converted it ‘at great expence’ as a workplace for the poor to make ‘bays’, woollen cloth, but it soon failed and by 1586 the poor were dressing hemp and making ‘strings and tows for the fishermen’. 

 `The workhouse Raised out of the Ruins of St James’s Chapel’ in Benjamin Mackerell’s book 1738 

In 1682 the Corporation repaired and equipped it as a school teaching poor children to read and to spin. By act of parliament 1701 it was run by Guardians of the Poor. It was endowed it with £20 p.a. plus 4d per chaldron on all coal imported by strangers. 

The children worked (with breaks for prayers and mealtimes) from 6 a.m. to 12 noon from Lady Day (25th March) to Michaelmas (29th September); from Michaelmas to Lady Day from 8 a.m. to mid-day, and all afternoons from 1 p.m. to7 p.m. except on Thursdays when they finished at 3 p.m. for ‘reasonable recreation’. Church festivals and holy-days were also allowed for recreation. They were taught good manners and duty to God, attending daily services in their chapel at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and St Margaret’s church (NHER 1026) on Sundays. For an hour and a half each day after prayers, they were called from their work four at a time to be taught to read. If they misbehaved they were to be mildly chastised, but if this failed they could be sent to the House of Correction for punishment.

Each day they had a ‘reasonable’ breakfast and supper and a hot dinner at twelve noon, meat being served three times a week. Bread, beer, meat and all other food was to be ‘good, fresh and wholesome’. A month before Christmas they had new uniforms, underclothes, shoes and stockings, which were washed as often as necessary. Their workroom was heated during winter. If they were ill they were nursed in a sick room and isolated if infectious. To ensure the house was properly managed members of the Corporation visited at least four times a year (Mackrell, Benjamin, 1738 History and antiquities of the flourishing corporation of King’s Lynn).

Life in rural Norfolk parish workhouses

After 1723 parishes were encouraged to have a workhouse, where the poor could be accommodated and those able to work found employment, which might help to offset maintenance costs. Thus a town house or poor house might become a workhouse, or be referred to by any or all three names, or the parish might have a town house providing low-rent or rent-free accommodation and a workhouse for those needing care, as at Hindolveston.

The poor might be managed solely by a contractor who lodged and employed them and profited by their earnings.  Letting in this way was called ‘farming’, just as the income from medieval custom houses was ‘farmed’, and the contractor called a ‘farmer’. Alternatively the workhouse might be ‘partly-farmed’, the parish officers providing and furnishing the house, clothing the poor on entry, setting the rules and menu, and engaging a contractor to look after the poor. He employed those fit for work and was allowed their earnings.

Swaffham parish workhouse was partly farmed. The parish provided and furnished an old house near the tithe barn, and clothed the poor on entry. The clothing might have been uniform as at Docking (NHER 15008) where the men wore brown coats and blue stockings, the women blue gowns, petticoats and stockings (Docking Poor House Minute Book 1786-1813 – transcript by Mrs Mo Eeles). At Bressingham the men had ‘a stout blue jacket and breeches and the women a blue jacket and petticoat’ .... ‘their own clothes to be properly washed and laid up and labelled’ (Bressingham overseers’ accounts. NRO PD.111/90) for return when they left.

At Swaffham the parish officers set the rules and menu and employed a contractor who was allowed two shillings a week for each inmate. Out of this he had to keep the furniture, furnishings and clothing in good repair, provide the meals, make sure the inmates behaved properly, escort them to church on Sundays, and nurse them when sick. 

The diet at Swaffham appears to have been reasonably varied (Swaffham agreement re ‘farming’ the workhouse. NRO PD 52/208-9):


Swaffham Workhouse Menu 1785







Gruel and bread

Roast or boiled meat with suet or plain puddings

Bread and cheese and small (weak) beer


Meat, broth and bread

Milk, broth and bread

Bread and cheese and small beer


Gruel and bread

Pork or beef with pease, bread and small beer

Bread and cheese and small beer


Pease pottage (pea soup)

Milk, broth and bread

Bread and cheese and small beer


Gruel and bread

Beef and suet puddings, bread and small beer

Bread and cheese and small beer


Meat broth and bread

Pease pottage and small beer

Bread and cheese and small beer


Pease pottage

Milk, broth and bread

Bread and cheese and small beer

The kitchen-dining room had two long tables, six forms, nine chairs and two children’s chairs (Swaffham. NRO PD.52/206-7). In farmhouses wood tableware was often used, being more durable than earthenware. In the ‘back-house’ at Swaffham workhouse there were twenty-one trenchers and twenty-two wood dishes on which meals would be served, perhaps using wood spoons like those at Ashill. Even when Swaffham Union workhouse (NHER 38034) was being furnished in 1836, they bought a gross of quartered sycamore trenchers nine inches in diameter, at £3 gross (144) (Swaffham Union Guardians’ Minutes 8 August 1836.  NRO C/GP16/1 Aug.1835-Sept.1837), although some workhouses used tin plates and cutlery.

The contractor at Swaffham was to employ the fit in ‘suitable’ work e.g. the men ‘stubbing ling and cutting flags and turf for firing’. In 1768 there were sixteen spinning wheels and five reels in the workhouse schoolroom, and the contractor in 1785 was allowed to use the spinning wheels for spinning wool or jersey ‘and have the profit for his own use.’ (Swaffham. NRO PD.52/208-9). At Ashill, where the overseers hired a farmhouse (Ashill costs in hiring a workhouse. NRO PD.548/70) the contractor had to allow the inmates two-pence in the shilling out of their earnings and ensure the children employed in spinning had an hour’s exercise and play each day ‘for the good of their health’ (Ashill costs in hiring a workhouse. NRO PD.548/70). 

House inspection

At Ashill, and other parish workhouses, the churchwardens and overseers could enter the house at any time to inspect the inmates, their clothing, beds, bedding and food. If any inmate or resident complained about the contractor the vestrymen would investigate the matter and if necessary give him a month’s notice. If he wished to leave before his contract ended he had to give two months’ notice (Ashill Agreement. NRO PD.548/107).

Leaving the workhouse

Workhouse managers were responsible for those in their care so they could not let them come and go whenever they wished. However if an inmate asked permission to go out or to stay with family and friends, their request was usually granted providing they returned on time and not intoxicated, and they went dressed in their own clothing. If an inmate over seventy wished to leave Ashill workhouse and could find lodgings, the parish would pay them a weekly allowance.

Although parish officers endeavoured to ensure that the workhouse was properly managed and maintained, some resentful inmates might have damaged the property, its furniture, furnishings or the clothing, just as they did in the later Union workhouses. In such circumstances, over the years well-meaning parish officers and ratepayers might have become disillusioned and found it uneconomical to continually carry out repairs, which increased the poor rates, however sympathetic they might have been to its sad occupants. George Crabbe, familiar with Suffolk workhouses, wrote:

 The Parish Workhouse (1783)

by George Crabbe


Theirs is yon house that holds the parish poor,

Where walls of mud scarce bear the broken door;

There, where the putrid vapours, flagging, play

And the dull wheel hums doleful through the day;

There children dwell who know no parents’ care;

Parents who know no children’s love, dwell there!

Heart broken matrons on their joyless bed,

Forsaken wives, and mothers never wed;

Dejected widows with unheeded tears,

And crippled age with more than childhood fears;

The lame, the blind, and, far the happiest they

The moping idiot and the madman gay.

Here too the sick their final doom receive,

Here brought, amid the scenes of grief, to grieve.

Here, sorrowing, they each kindred sorrow scan

And the cold charities of man to man.


Because contagious diseases like plague, smallpox and cholera were killers, it was essential to minimise the risk by isolating those who had not been protected by immunisation or subsequently vaccination. ‘Pest’ was an abbreviation for pestilence – a fatal disease or epidemic and the house was an early form of isolation hospital usually run in conjunction with the parish workhouse. At Dereham until 1776 the parish workhouse was down Holl Lane, now Swaffham Hill, but its ‘pest-house’ was a small cottage on Toftwood Common (Dereham Pest House inventory 1767. NRO PD.86/137).

Banham’s town lands included a building called the Pest House, but in 1845 it had become rent-free accommodation for poor persons (White’s Directory 1845 p.422).

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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