The idea of a Workhouse had been superseded long before the buildings themselves had been converted to other uses – mostly residential. They no longer housed the unemployed or the destitute by the post war period, but they still were still used for that other function of the Workhouse – the hospitalisation of infirm and aged members of the population. My uncle Bertie Bullen ended his days Swainsthorpe Workhouse in 1960. It had a slightly more friendly name (The Vale), but the Workhouse was what it was. Swainsthorpe was closed as a hospital in 1984. The Workhouses were not particularly pleasant places, but at least they were not run for private profit, as such end-of-life establishments now are. The residents who were bed-ridden were kept on wards, not in their own rooms. At least then they were less likely to be forgotten.
By the 1960s Workhouses were falling out of use even for the purpose of care homes. I remember many abandoned buildings in the 1970s, such as the Workhouse at Shipmeadow in Suffolk. After years of dereliction Shipmeadow Workhouse was converted into flats in the 1980s. It was built in the Georgian period as one of the earlier Workhouses, dating from 1776. The Workhouse at Pulham Market (the Depwade Union) has also been converted into housing. The enormous pile at West Beckham, built in an opulent Neo-Elizabethan style, lay abandoned and unloved in the 1960s. This building was not so fortunate and now only the ruins of the infirmary wing remain. Gressenhall House of Industry has found a new use as the Norfolk Museum of Rural Life. What many people may not realise is that the Norwich Community Hospital in Bowthorpe Road- formerly the West Norwich Hospital – began life as the Norwich Workhouse.
St Michael’s Hospital in Aylsham has now been closed by the NHS. It lasted within the Health Service for longer than almost any other former Workhouse in Norfolk. Only the West Norwich remains as far as I know. The conversion of St Michael’s into flats is now almost complete. The turreted building in vaguely Elizabethan style was completed by 1850 as the Aylsham Union Workhouse. It was done on a large-scale and had places for 600 poor residents. The hospital had moved out of the former Workhouse buildings by the 1990s, and was in an adjoining modern single storey building by then. I visited several patients at St Michael’s and always found it a peaceful place of healing in attractive grounds. I am glad that it has found a new use as residences. The flats that have replaced the Workhouse are not cheap however. It is paradoxical to think that a place originally intended to punish the poor has become homes for the well-to-do.
Faden’s map of 1797 places Holt Workhouse just outside the town, on the corner where the Cromer Road joins Grove Lane. This was where, 150 years later, I arrived as a young schoolboy in 1959. The building was a later construction and its name was by then Crossways. It is still there, though much enlarged; it is now used as a girl’s boarding house. You might like to compare the Boarding School to the Workhouse, but although the school could be grim at times (as during the harsh winter of 1963), it had its magical moments which I doubt the workhouse ever shared. Nevertheless it all goes to show the various uses Workhouses are put to.
The 1834 changes to the Poor Law made life in the Workhouse, which had previously been tough but fair, really inhumane. Families which earlier had been housed together were split up; a uniform was introduced and rations were meagre and lacked variety.
But although Workhouses were harsh places they were not prisons. You could leave if you wished, but circumstances seldom allowed such a course. Life for a pauper had no other kind of support. There were cases where your period of voluntary incarceration could be brief; George Edwards and his mother were placed in the local Workhouse when her husband was imprisoned for a fortnight for stealing turnips to feed his family. When her husband was released she was able to return to the family home. [You may recall that George Edwards was the founder of the Agricultural Workers’ Union who rose from extremely humble beginnings to be an MP.] With no home, few friends, and for single women, often an illegitimate child to support, the options for many were bleak.