Part of my history assignment this year was to create a resource pack for an area of local history. I thought this might well provide the basis of an interesting blog post, to some people anyway. I looked into the local workhouse or to give it it’s full title “Ringwood Union Workhouse”.
Like many workhouses in Britain, Ringwood Workhouse still exists. Many former workhouses are hospitals or museums now but Ringwood Workhouse has been converted into a row of cottages. You can even go and stay in one of them during your holidays. It’s bizarre that you now have to pay large sums of money to stay somewhere that people were forced to go to because they had so little money.
The image above shows the building in the present day, though it was originally a bit bigger. This picture taken in 1905 shows what the workhouse looked like when it was being used for it’s original purpose:
A plaque above the entrance informs us that Ringwood Workhouse was built in 1725.
The point of a workhouse was fairly simple. Around this time poverty was a significantly bigger problem than it is now. From the time of Elizabeth I the law was that parishes had to give “outdoor relief” to the poor. This meant giving them a small amount of money each week. However, this caused the creation of a group known as the “idle poor” who were perfectly able to find work and work was readily available yet took advantage of the system by just claiming the money every week and using it to live of. Workhouses were created to prevent this. Help to the poor changed to “indoor relief” where the poor who couldn’t or wouldn’t work for whatever reason were sent into the workhouse. This method officially became law in 1834, with the workhouse being a last resort for the poor. Conditions within the workhouse were supposed to be made worse than the worst conditions outside of the workhouse so only the most needy would enter them.
Each parish was supposed to have a workhouse unless they were too small to justify it when they were grouped together into unions. The Ringwood union consisted of Ringwood and four other parishes, still small villages today: Burley, Ellingham, Harbridge and Ibsley. The union was run by a Board of Guardians, nine in total with one for each small parish and the remaining five for Ringwood.
As this little graphic shows, even today the building is some way from the town and this was the idea of keeping the poor “out of sight and out of mind”.
The 1881 census gives some interesting information about the residents of the workhouse. It was run by Stephen Street and his wife Amy, who had an eight-year old son. The only other full-time member of staff was a school-mistress. There were 57 inmates at the time, with all but one born locally. The most common occupation of inmates before they entered the workhouse was farm labourer. All of this is very different to some other workhouses. The census of the same year for Birmingham Workhouse, one of the biggest in the country, shows us that there were thirty-two member of staff controlling 2,427 inmates. Occupations were much more varied in the Birmingham Workhouse, with the more industrial nature being obvious.
So what was life like in the workhouse? This clip from the BBC’s 2009 adaptation of Oliver Twist gives an idea of what the atmosphere was like. There are only boys present because in most workhouses inmates were separated into men, women, boys and girls.
One thing you may have noticed from that clip is the poor quality of the food. This is a sample of a weekly menu from Hertford Workhouse, which shows the lack of excitement in the food.
However, various sources tell us that Ringwood Workhouse may have been better to live in than others. It’s small nature meant that there was something of a family atmosphere. At the beginning of the 20th century the visiting doctor, Doctor Little, recorded that the Board of Guardians provided free beer for the inmates on Christmas day as well as other extras for the Christmas meal. He also said that “the food was always excellent, for all the vegetables were grown there, the bacon came from their own pigs and the House had its own poultry and eggs”. Compare this to the great scandal of Andover Workhouse where the inmates were so hungry they were sucking the marrow out of the bones they were supposed to be crushing. It would seem that though Ringwood Workhouse may have not been somewhere you wanted to go, it was better than being in many other workhouses. Ringwood Workhouse finally closed it’s doors in 1936, more recently than you might have imagined.
This post has been another factual one, though in a rather different area to “Earth 2.0”. Let me know if you enjoyed this posts and if there’s good feedback I shall do some more in the new year. Thanks for reading!
Images 2,3 and 5 are Copyright www.workhouses.org.uk . Much of the research into this came from that website to. Visit it to find out about your local workhouse if you are in the UK!