Norfolk Workhouses: Poor Houses and Town Houses

Poor houses

The annually elected overseer of the poor, authorised to provide for poor residents according to their individual needs, might pay for lodgings or house rent e.g. at East Dereham in 1651 (East Dereham Churchwardens’ Accounts 1575-1692. NRO PHI 610, 578X6):

      Item to Jo. Woodes towards his howse Rent     £0. 3. 0d

      Item ffor Widd. Lawses howse Rente               £1. 0. 0d

      Item to Tho. Chainey for ffoxes howse Rente    £0. 11. 0d

Some benefactors bequeathed a tenement (house and/or land), or a cottage for the poor. Occupiers might live rent-free, or pay a low rent towards repairs.

The Rev. James Woodforde, rector of Weston Longville, wrote in his diary 11 October 1784 ‘Gave poor old Mary Dicker this Morn’ 0.1.0. She came to pay Rent for her House belonging to the poor Widows of this Parish.’ On 20 January 1789 he said ‘Mr. Howlett and Mr. Forster called here this Afternoon to speak to me respecting the Rent due for the Poor Cottage where Dick Buck etc., live, which belongs to the Widows Charity – I told them that I expected the Parish would pay the Arrears.’ Next day the overseer of the poor confirmed that it would (Beresford, John, 1978 The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802.  OUP).

If the property became too costly to maintain the parish officers might let it, or eventually sell it, investing the income for the greater benefit of the poor.

Because the poor law required parishes to care for orphans, the infirm, elderly and sick, some parishes accommodated them in a poor house. In 1777 Watlington poor house was broken into, the thief stealing Susanna Hewitt’s box of clothes. Richard Harper ‘an old offender’ was tried at King’s Lynn quarter sessions and publicly whipped, then sent to Thetford Assizes where he was sentenced to hard labour on the River Thames for four years (Norfolk Chronicle 1 February and 22 March 1777. Norfolk Heritage Library, Norwich Millennium Library). 


When from the mid-18th century improved agricultural methods provided the opportunity to increase food production for the escalating population, some parishes obtained an act of parliament to enclose commons and waste land, which adversely affected some poor persons more than others. ‘Common’ land did not necessarily mean open access to all, because to prevent the land being over-stocked, grazing was often restricted: those who occupied properties with a ‘right of common’ were allowed to graze a specified number of cows or horses for a limited period during the year, as at Etling Green, Dereham.

Arthur Young (1804) said at Shouldham before enclosure about forty people had kept cows, not all of whom had rights of common but their fines were small. After enclosure in 1794 only one or two people kept cows, because the cottages with rights of common were then let only as houses and their allotments given to the farms, which caused much discontent by those who used to have ‘cows, mares, geese, ducks etc’. However at Shropham ‘very few kept cows’ but after enclosure in 1798 ‘several little proprietors of two or three acres will now have double allotments added and be better able to keep’.

Heacham, enclosed in 1780, had 55 houses with rights of common, none of which belonged to poor people, but to small occupiers and tradesmen. Arthur Young, said that ‘the really poor and distressed people had no stock on the fields or common further than geese’ so only suffered by that loss (Young, Arthur, 1804  A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk, p.160-161.  David & Charles reprint, 1969). Furthermore as they did not have any right to cut fuel on the common before the enclosure or since, ‘they burn coal supplied by the parish.’ Indeed even when an enclosure act gave a ‘fuel’ or ‘poor’s allotment’, the parish often found it more beneficial to rent the land and supply the poor with coals or other benefits, as given in White’s Directory 1845: 


15a 3r 35p awarded by the enclosure act 1810 was let for about £30 p.a. which was distributed in coals, with £2 the rent of 2r 30p allotted to a cottage formerly used as a poor-house.


At the Enclosure 1797 the Town Lands in trust for the church and poor were exchanged for 19a 2r 38p, let for £22 p.a. and a house and 2r 36p land occupied rent-free by poor families.

Burgh St Margaret

House and 5a 1r 26p land left by Thos. Wymer for use of poor. With a further 5a 3r 10p awarded at enclosure in 1804, by 1845 all was let for £22. 8. 6d p.a. and distributed to poor in sums of 5s-£1. But the poor also had an allotment of 146a 1r 4p of which 40a 1r 20p was let for about £60 p.a. and the rest was used for cutting fuel, reeds etc., and the poor cottagers allowed to turn cows upon it.

At Shotesham St Mary and All Saints where enclosure occurred in 1781, those occupying properties with a rental value under £5 a year were allowed a good grass common of 48 acres, 6 acres of turf for fuel and even poor cottagers without common rights had a right to keep a cow, whereas before enclosure only four people did so. Those with a half right of common could keep a colt under a year old, or an ass or three geese, a gander and their followers, whereas those with a full right could keep double the number or a cow or a horse.

The principal landowner, Mr Fellowes, had also established a poor-house for the very old and very young of both parishes, but only if they could not maintain themselves on the same relief at home. The house accommodated about 30 people at a cost of 2s 8d each per week, offset by their earnings. Mr Fellowes also asked farmers to give older children from the cottages or poor house a year’s work, if necessary offering the farmer ten shillings or more for their trouble. If the farmers objected to take a crippled child or perhaps one with behavioural problems, he would employ them himself without charge (Young, Arthur, 1804  A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk, p.160-161.  David & Charles reprint, 1969). 

Town houses

Many parishes were given land and property for its rental income to defray parish costs such as maintaining the church and the poor e.g. at Shipdham. At Hockering, in addition to four cottages with gardens, the ‘town lands’ included rent from the Cock Inn, and at Colkirk the parish bought the Crown with a hundred pounds left by Samuel Collison in 1764, which with other rental income was used for the poor (White’s Directory 1845 p.318).

Without a suitable property a parish might build a town house, not a town hall, but a poor house.  In June 1712 Elsing parish officers agreed that with a loan from the lord of the manor they would ‘Build and set up a Town House .... for ye Relief of ye poor Inhabitants...’ (Elsing. NRO PD.286.53). Weston Longville Town Book gives a glimpse of costs 1771-2 (Weston Town Book 1733-1778 NRO PD.92/39.):

      To Blacksmith’s work at town house   £00. 01. 02d

      Bed for the Town House                   £00. 18. 00d

After the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 such houses were often retained as rent-free or low-cost housing for the poor. Little Ellingham and Thompson town-houses were ‘occupied by paupers’ and that at North Pickenham by three poor widows (White’s Directory 1845 p.365, 368, p.384).

Parishes which preferred to sell them and use the money to offset the poor’s rate, or assist those wishing to migrate to the northern manufacturing towns or emigrate to Canada or Australia, or help finance the costs of the new union workhouse, needed permission from the Poor Law Commissioners in London.  Heacham, which had spent 7s 5d on repairs in October 1835, applied in October 1838 to sell its ‘six freehold tenements, built with stone, brick and tiled, situated near the Clay Common... leading to the sea’ then occupied by poor persons ‘but no Rent has been received for about twenty years.’ (Heacham application to PLC 1 August 1838. NRO PD.699/89/2). Attleborough sold its Town Lands, 35a and several cottages, for £1,274 which was used with the poor rates (White’s Directory 1845 p.412).

Some other Norfolk town-houses

Barton Bendish 1851 Census: 3 families occupying town house/s

Belaugh 1845 a double cottage

Blakeney 1845 Westgate Street


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

Joy Lodey 2007.

Norfolk County Council logo Heritage Lottery Fund logo

Powered by HBSMR-web and the HBSMR Gateway from exeGesIS SDM Ltd, and mojoPortal CMS
© 2007 - 2024 Norfolk Historic Environment Service