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The Workhouse


In the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth's government was forced to develop a compulsory system of rates payment to help give relief to the poor; this consisted of money, clothing, fuel and medical help.  The major reason for the increase in poverty was the lack of work and in 1601 special officers called Overseers were elected in each parish; their job was to collect rates and to help the poor.

In 1742 the Workhouse Act came into force necessitating the formation of workhouses.  The Act stipulated that anyone refusing to enter the workhouse became ineligible for relief.

In 1778 Robert Seaman, a farmer and shopkeeper at Street Farm sent an invoice to the Overseers of Thorndon Parish which read “for goods for the parish poor”.  The bill for two months amounted to £2 11s 1d (£2.55p) and included the following:      

  • pints of butter 
  • soap by the pound 
  • half an ounce of bluen (used for laundry work) 
  • Saffron 2d  
  • 3 1/2 yards of bayes  3s 9d (a coarse woollen cloth used as a tablecover)   
  • 1 pint of gin  1s 4d  
  • 1/4 pint brandy  4d  
  • 1oz lowest grade tea called boehea   
  • 1/2 pound of sugar 10d    
  • 4 cakes
  • one chamber pot 7d   

In 1819 outdoor relief was carried out: 

  • James Haddock received 6d (2.5p) for one piece of pickling for a bed, 9s (45p) was given for an undercoat for his wife and 5s (25p) was paid for a midwife with an additional 1s (5p) for a horse to fetch the midwife.  
  • £9 9s 5d (£9.47p) was given to John Baxter for removals. 
  • Edward Thrower aged 27, who had five children, received 2s 6d (12.5p) when his wife was ill; 2s (10p) was paid for a shift and £1 for shoe repairs.  
  • Joseph Peck was given 5s 6d (27.5p) for five weeks when suffering from frozen fingers. 
  • Ann Tyler, a widow of 48 years, received 1s (5p) for a shirt and 13s (65p) for a pair of highblows which were a form of boots.  
  • Robert Feveryear was given relief to travel with books for one year and 7s 6d (37.5p) for leeches when ill.

Another burden on the parish was the cost of medical care for the poor.  The following entry in the Parish Records shows the cost of care for 1827.

“Mr. Edwards, surgeon for Eye, agreed to attend all the poor of Thorndon (medicinally) for the sum of £18 to be paid for all surgical and midwifery cases.  For journeys out of the Parish he was paid 4s (20p) to Wetheringsett, 2s 6d (12.5p) to Occold, 5s (25p) to Kenton.

In 1801, John Hayward, a surveyor from Stanwell Lodge was asked to draw up a list and map of town lands.  An old cottage to the North of Church which was thought to be the old Guildhall was chosen as a suitable site for the Workhouse. The cottage together with an adjoining yard measured 1 rood and 6 perches (12,524 sq. ft/1,164 sq. metres).  The Workhouse was situated where the Primary School is today with the garden situated to the north.

The Workhouse had a Governor by the name of Cornish who received £6 10s (£6.50p) per quarter.

There were five bedrooms and the general rule was to place two men or three/four boys in one bed. The only room with a candlestick was the sick room; it also had three rugs. It seems that the chamber pots for the bedrooms were kept in the sick room, as there were 17 of them listed there.  One room was called the dark room; possibly because there may not have been a window.  In the long room there were 11 spinning wheels where the girls would spin wool and the boys would spin hemp.

The men worked in the village on tasks such as clearing out the clay pit or working on the roads;  one entry shows £5 5s 3d (£5.26p) for digging at Brizzel (Briswell).

The inmates were given allowances; 4s 6d to 5s (22.5p to 25p) for men and young widows, 2s to 3s (10p to 15p) for elderly men, 1s to 2s (5p to 10p) to elderly widows and 1s to 2s (5p to 10p) for children.

Food was pretty basic; an inventory reads 18 stone of salt beef, twelve and a half stone of pork, twelve sacks of potatoes @ £2 14s (£2.70p), and 3 3/4 stone 6 pounds of cheese @ £8 3s 6d (£8.17p).  There were inventory entries of lime which was used to whitewash throughout.

In 1840 general poor relief was given to one male, three females and one child indoors (workhouse-based). 14 males, 26 females and 14 children were given relief outdoors totaling 59 persons.  In Thorndon outdoor relief was gradually taking over from indoor relief.  In some parishes more than two thirds, never established their own workhouse.    

Between 1846 and 1853 the Thorndon Workhouse was closed and the inmates sent to a similar establishment at Wortham Ling.

Everyone hated the thought of being sent to the workhouse and did their utmost to avoid it even if it meant living in poverty.