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    “The Kingsbridge Union Workhouse”

    Liz Hext

    There were 700 workhouses nationally in Victorian times. The Kingsbridge Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the 113 square meter workhouse in Higher Union Road was built the following year, for the princely sum of £5,673, to accommodate a total of 350 inmates from Kingsbridge and the surrounding 26 constituent parishes, although it usually housed only about half that number. The building is now home to various small businesses.

    The Victorians regarded poverty as a crime and there was a massive stigma attached to being in the workhouse. Contrary to popular belief, you were not ‘sent to the workhouse’; it was a voluntary request and a person or family could be refused if they were deemed by the Guardians not to be deserving enough. Inmates could leave at any time, but only as a family. One great hardship was that families were separated into men, women, male children and female children. The adults were expected to work most of the day at tasks such as oakum picking and stone breaking, and the children were given basic schooling in reading, writing, arithmetic (and religion) for 3 hours a day. Their daily timetable involved getting up at 5.00 am and going to bed at 8.00 pm, with short breaks for meals and no recreation time. The dormitories were very basic and you were only allowed one bath a week, but in those days that was quite a luxury for the poor. Food was pretty basic, too, with gruel featuring quite a lot, but it was agreed that it wasn’t as bad as portrayed in “Oliver Twist”!

    Liz peppered her talk with anecdotes she had discovered in various archives, including the occasion when two paupers were punished for disorderly conduct and had their daily pint of gin withdrawn! One worthy quotation was “An empty workhouse is a successful one.”

    It was interesting to trace the development of free healthcare, as the previously inmate-managed infirmaries in workhouses evolved, with the introduction of trained nurses, into precursors of our hospitals. They truly were the forerunners of the Welfare State.