The Chiswick Workhouse

by Kate Moorhouse

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 8 (1999)

The concept of an institution in which the poor could be set to work became popular during the end of the 17th century, alongside the philosophy of work as a panacea for social ills. John Cary combined several parishes in Bristol under a special Act and opened a workhouse in 1698. The success of his scheme encouraged other towns to follow suit. The 1723 Workhouse Act gave single parishes the legal right to build workhouses for the employment of the able-bodied and the maintenance of the old and sick; under its provisions the poor who refused to be housed in workhouses could be denied relief.

Section of the Plan of the Turnpike Road from Kensington to Hounslow, 1814.

Building the Workhouse
No parish records remain concerning the decision to build a workhouse in Chiswick but Daniel Lysons’s Environs of London published in 1805 tells us that ‘some almshouses were built by the parish at Strand on the Green in the year 1725 and a workhouse at Turnham Green in the same year.’ Vestry minutes of 1838 note that the workhouse was ‘facing the High Road at Turnham Green’ and other sources suggest that it was on the site of the present McDonalds (see Chiswick Past p. 111). On the Turnpike Map above it is thought to be the building fronting the north side of the High Road in the curve of Windmill Passage, under the N of Green.

The Accounts for the Poor of the Parish 1698-1752 indicate the type of assistance that was given both before and after the workhouse was built. Poor relief at that time was granted to the old and sick and to women with children at the discretion of the overseers. Here are two examples from the 1724 records: ‘Gave to a sick woman 1s 6d; to a big bellied woman and family 1s 7d’. These sums were so small that relief would have needed to be supplemented by other sources, such as gifts from relatives and charities. Payments were made not just to the poor themselves but also to tradespeople supplying goods and services, for example ‘to keep a man when he was ill at Mr Burford’s 9s 9d’.

The cost of providing relief in an institution was high and the Poor Rate Book of 1736-56 demonstrates the workhouse running costs. In 1736 the annual workhouse bills amounted to about £197 whereas payments to ‘casual poor’ (people who received some assistance on a temporary basis) were £10, and £5 was spent on Poor Burials. The cost of lawsuits under the 1662 Act of Settlement was also significant. Under this Act the churchwardens and overseers could remove any newcomer who might become a burden on the parish unless they owned certain property or could give security to indemnify the parish. A complicated system of laws and practices ensued and arguments about settlement and removal became a frequent part of parochial business.

Poor relief expenses increased rapidly in the 1750s and this probably led to the decision to increase the size of the workhouse in 1759 with a mortgage of £230 provided by the vicar and churchwardens. There was a further expansion in 1785, probably in response to Gilbert’s Act, which was passed in 1782 ‘For the Better Relief and Employment of the Poor’ which permitted parishes to unite to set up a poor-house for those unable to work and provide for the able-bodied elsewhere by hiring out their labour. A meeting was called in Chiswick for ‘taking into consideration a plan for the erection of an additional building of the workhouse in this parish for better employing the poor’, and a Mr Hall agreed to build the extension within three months for £275. Failure to complete it within the required time would, however, result in a fine of £20. The enlargement of the workhouse resulted in an increase in the poor rate and this was remarked on by Will Bishop, the steward at Grove House, when writing to his master, Humphrey Morice in 1785.

Living Conditions
Information concerning the living conditions in the workhouse is patchy – they may not have been much worse than for the poor outside it. The Poor Rate Book indicates the expenses met by the workhouse. In 1766 two bills for shoes and mending shoes were paid and a £4 payment made for cloth, probably for making clothes by the inmates.

The workhouse diet seems to have consisted largely of bread, milk and cheese as, together with coal, these made up the largest expenses. Beer featured largely on the workhouse menu and the cost of this was recorded as £26 per year compared with the cost of bread at £65 and milk at £6. Other bills show that the services of a barber were retained at almost £2 and chandlers’ bills of £12 were paid. The supply of meat is not mentioned specifically in this schedule but this may have been covered by a payment of £17 made to a Mr Wapshott. At a vestry meeting in 1795 Messrs Wapshott and Williams agreed to serve the workhouse with ‘Clods, Stickings, Mouse Buttocks, Muttons, legs and shoulders’. The wages of the master of the workhouse appear to have been £12 per year.

Payment of relief outside the workhouse was generally allowed for the sick, and was also granted for nursing costs. Thus Mary King, described as ‘sick’, was paid two shillings on a regular basis and Jane Carter was given 5s for ‘nursing Dame Jones’. Money was also given to people leaving the workhouse such as to Mrs Bible ‘to buy clothes for her boy going out 3s 6s’.

There appears to have been a hardening of attitudes later in the 18th century. The vestry minutes of 1799 show that ‘John Fisher, his wife and three youngest children, be immediately taken into the workhouse and in case of their refusal all allowance to them by this parish be henceforward stopped.’ It was also resolved at this meeting that all those in receipt of parish alms would ‘wear a badge with the letters CP made of red cloth’. Chiswick appears to have been fairly late in ‘badging the poor’ which was done by many parishes in the 17th century.

The need to provide the workhouse inhabitants with employment and reduce spending was important during the Napoleonic Wars. In March 1794 there was a petition by the churchwardens and overseers to obtain two acres of land for the use of the workhouse. It must already have had a garden as we know that in 1759 a man was paid 2s 6d for a day and half digging in the workhouse garden. When the workhouse was finally sold it included ‘a piece or parcel of ground situated in Fishers Lane containing nearly one acre thereabouts of copyhold.’ The increase in wheat prices following the 1795 poor harvest led to a nationwide economic distress and the government took measures to reduce grain consumption. Chiswick parish agreed ‘to exert all direct economy in the use of grain’ and a vestry meeting was held in May 1800 to consider enclosing 10 acres of the common adjoining the workhouse to be planted with potatoes and vegetables for the benefit and employment of the parish poor.

Inmates and Employment
The Government gathered national statistics to review parish affairs and the 1801 census gives details of the inmates of the Chiswick workhouse. Mr Goldthorp, the master, reported that there were 39 males and 66 females resident; of these three were employed mainly in agriculture and 18 were employed in trade. The majority, however, were not employed, although the numbers of old people and children were not specified.

In 1802 the overseers of every parish were required to submit details concerning their total expenditure on poor relief. In Chiswick, £492 was spent on allowances to the poor who lived in the community during this year compared with £1,577 spent on those within the workhouse. The workhouse inmates had earned £51 by processing materials sent into the workhouse to produce goods such as quills. There had been a proportionate increase in allowances made to those outside the workhouse since the middle of the 18th century and money was being paid on a permanent basis to 128 children and 72 adults. The figures also showed that the costs of poor relief in Chiswick had fallen during the 1780s against the national trend, indicating that the methods adopted by the overseers had been successful in reducing costs.

There appears to be growing sympathy towards the poor in Chiswick in the 19th century. In 1809, on the celebration of the Jubilee, £100 was spent on supplying the poor with meat, bread and beer. During the severe winter of 1813-4 a subscription of £622 was raised to give the poor employment in repairing roads and footpaths; money to provide work was raised again in December 1816.

The men most likely to be subject to distress were market gardeners and fishermen and these formed the majority of the men who were given assistance outside the workhouse in the form of provisions rather than money, according to the 1834 Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws.

There were 21 men resident in the workhouse at this time alongside 27 women who were widows or servants, also 10 children. Within the workhouse men and women were strictly segregated and not allowed to communicate with each other. Their dietary allowances were met according to ‘what is absolutely necessary and nothing more’. Those who were deemed capable were required to work in the workhouse garden and the women were employed in housework and nursing the sick. By 1834 materials were no longer being sent to the workhouse to be manufactured.

Chiswick adopted the recommendations of the 1819 Sturges Bourne Act which was aimed at improving the administration of poor relief by allowing parish vestries to establish a select vestry of between five and twenty ‘substantial householders’ to deal with the concerns of the poor. Following the institution of a select vestry in 1820 there appears to have been a tightening up of procedures and an increase in affiliation orders such as that against ‘William Perry, the reputed father of Frances Lovett’s illegitimate female child born in the workhouse.’

Pensions were paid on a regular basis to the aged and to widows with children, also to ‘casuals’ for a limited period. A widow aged 93 was the oldest claimant in 1825. Regular pensions were also paid to 19 illegitimate or ‘fatherless’ children. Men received money on a casual basis if they were ill or temporarily unemployed, like William Hawkes of Tumham Green ‘out of work, wife and five children’.

The management of the Chiswick workhouse does not appear to have been all it should be. Complaints were made to the magistrates in 1807 that the poor were ‘without a proper person to govern or command them’, and the conduct in the house was ‘extremely riotous’. The magistrates also found that ‘some indecencies have been committed by the men and the boys towards the girls’ and that many parishioners had been in the habit of going into the workhouse to eat and to drink alcohol. Recommendations were made that a new master and mistress be appointed but there were further problems in 1816 when the overseers prosecuted the master of the workhouse for an assault on one of the children.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act heralded a new and more rigorous approach to the treatment of the poor through setting up a central authority, the Poor Law Commission, to administer poor relief. This was to take over the management of the workhouses, unite parishes for poor relief purposes and compel them to build new workhouses where necessary, as well as curtailing allowances paid to anyone outside the workhouse. The Act had no real impact on Chiswick until June 1836 when Chiswick parish was united in terms of poor law administration with Acton, Ealing, Greenford, Hanwell, Heston, Isleworth, Perivale, Twickenham, West Twyford, Old and New Brentford, which jointly became the Brentford Union. A review of the workhouses showed that the workhouse in Chiswick ‘containing 38 paupers’ was unsuitable for Union purposes and an agreement was made that it should be sold. This had taken place by February 1839. The parish was required to contribute to the cost of a new workhouse building on land in Isleworth, bought by the Brentford Union Guardians.

Kate Moorhouse has lived in Chiswick for 20 years. She researched Poor Relief in Chiswick for her MA Dissertation at Thames Valley University.

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