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North Walsham & Community Archive

North Walsham Workhouse

The old workhouse on Mundesley Road has often been asked about via our facebook group and via this website so I thought I'd share this text from the book "North Walsham in the nineteenth century" published by the Historical Research Group of the North Walsham W.E.A. back in 1993...

In addition to maintaining those in need in their own homes the parish also supported a workhouse from the parish rates. This was first set up in 1739 when a building was rented and adapted for that purpose. In 1786 this was replaced with a new workhouse built in brick with a tiled roof on the Swafield Road and this was used as the town's poorhouse until the mid 1830's.
There are but few details of the way of life in the workhouse. Personal clothing was exchanged on arrival for that provided. What this was like is not known. Accounts refer to flannel and other types of material bought, buttons etc., and bills for making up dresses and other items of clothing. It is found that a local barber called regularly for 'shaving and haircutting'. Amongst other bills received are bills for coffins. Burial expenses were borne by the workhouse unless relatives of the deceased were able to pay.
Amongst the resolutions made by the overseers at the end of the eighteenth century, when the new workhouse opened, was one which made church attendance twice on Sundays compulsory, all the paupers having to return to the workhouse immediately after the service ended. On weekdays the majority of the able-bodied paupers were employed in sack-making, at least in the early part of the nineteenth century. Account books refer to 'rewards' that were regularly paid out which total in all to about 7s to 9s per week. It seems that these were small sums given to those who worked satisfactorily as a reward for their labour. It is possible that the women assisted with the cleaning and washing, and perhaps cooking, as the living-in staff kept was very small - between 1812 and 1830 this generally consisted of a governor and governess and two maids. Some daily help may have been employed, of course, although no references to this have been found.
The workhouse could hold 100 paupers although from 1811 - 1825 there were seldom more that 35 - 45 residents but on the 30th May 1931, when the Census Return was made, there were 67, which is the highest figure found recorded. A list of names and the occupations of the paupers survives for this date and this is the only record extant of exactly who was resident at any particular time. Occupations for 29 of these people are given 11 were textile workers, a trade very depressed at this time, 12 were described as labourers, 4 were shoemakers, 1 was a carpenter and 1 a baker. There were five families living in the workhouse. Henry Mace, for example, a weaver, his wife Judith and five children. The youngest was four months old; the eldest, Gilbert, aged 12 yrs old, was a spinner. There was also the Whall family; Thomas a labourer, his wife Mary and four children aged from 2 to 10 years old. There were two mothers with young children and one father, presumably a widower, named Robert Dean, a labourer, with his three children. The eldest also named Robert, was 14 years old and was also a labourer, Lucy was 13 and a spinner and the youngest was Susan aged 10 years old.
There were 17 children aged 13 years and under living in the workhouse without either parent who were, perhaps, orphans or from families unable or unwilling to maintain them. Five of these children were described as spinners. George Hall was a spinner, he was 11 years old, his brother, Edward, was only 4 years old and his sister Emily was 8. Abraham Amis was also 11 and a spinner, his brother was aged 9. Little John Swann was also aged 9 and had no brothers or sisters with him; he too was a spinner. One can only speculate what the future held for these poor children, it is possible that one or two were fortunate enough to be given an apprenticeship, paid for by the parish, hopefully with a kind master, which led to a more secure life.
Of the elderly, 6 men were 65 years old or over and four women were 70 or more; the eldest was Mary Hewitt, who was 80 years old. Mary was not completely alone, she had the company of Elizabeth Hewitt, aged 73, presumably a sister or close relation. John Willis was 70 and a carpenter by trade; he was in the workhouse with his wife Elizabeth, aged 48 years old and daughter Charlotte, aged 8. John was luckier than some, he did not end his days there, he and Elizabeth are found in happier surroundings twenty years later, in 1851, living in a cottage on Bluebell Common, near the Bluebell Public House, with his brother James. James, aged 91, was a former weaver and owned his cottage. There seems to be some uncertainty regarding John's age, which was given as 70 in 1831, making him 90 in 1851 but in the Census of that year he is recorded as being 87 years old and Elizabeth 68.
A book called 'The Provision Book' survives. This is dated from 1812 - 1830 and gives valuable information concerning the diet in the workhouse, although in some years the book has not been kept up regularly. It is seen from the table, extracted from it, that diet varied little between 1812 and 1824 and the amount of food consumed per head remained much the same. The omission of potatoes in the list may be because these were grown by the workhouse in the small allotment attached. Other vegetables may also have been grown adding some nourishment to the meagre diet. The large quantities of meal and oatmeal show that gruel formed a regular part of the weekly diet - this surely must have been boiled in water, with no milk added, since the quantity of milk bought was very small and it may be that most milk was reserved for the children. The amount of meat eaten seems to have been about lib per head per week and meat broths were, no doubt, served frequently; they were cheap, easy to prepare and could be stretched to feed any number of mouths. The amount of meat eaten seems to have increased slightly by 1824. Bread and cheese formed an integral part of the diet of the poor and cheese per head seems to have amounted to about 6oz a week in 1812 and rather more in 1824. Butter was obviously used very sparingly and at the later date even less was used and the consumption of treacle rose significantly. Treacle at 4d a lb was much less costly to serve with bread than butter at Is 3d a lb! Beer seems to have been the only beverage provided but this was, in any case, the main beverage for the very poor; tea was expensive and for many a luxury only rarely enjoyed. Beer was sometimes made on the premises, rather than being bought in, and accounts refer to malt and hops being bought for this purpose. Food provided in Christmas week seems to have been just as meagre and tedious as in other weeks, there is no mention of any extras being given and no additional handout of beer. Whilst the workhouse diet was frugal it was no more so than that which many of these people had in their own homes and for some it was better than what they were accustomed to. At least meals were provided regularly, clothing was spartan but warm and shoes or boots were provided. Life could be harsh both inside and outside the workhouse for many of the poor in North Walsham.
The higher cost of food during the Napoleonic Wars is seen in the table. By 1824 the cost of meal, flour, sugar etc., has been reduced considerably and cheese to a lesser extent. Other commodities, such as soap and candles, have also come down in price.
In March 1824 two young people ran away; a note states that Robert Rudd, aged 14, and Mary Mathews, 19 years old had left the workhouse 'without leave'. What happened to Robert and Mary is not known, despite a search through numerous papers. Were they brought back or did they find a way to support themselves in the outside world? No doubt there were others who absconded although no evidence has been found.
What of the discipline in the workhouse? How stringent the rules and regulations were is not known. In April 1828 two men in the workhouse were sentenced to Norwich Castle Gao'l, for what was described, in the Norfolk Chronicle, as 'misbehaviour to the governess of the workhouse'. The exact nature of this was not reported. Is it possible that the conditions in the workhouse or the discipline imposed brought about some protest by the men leading to the incident or was it completely unprovoked and unjustified? Isaac Dye, one of the two concerned, was sentenced to one month ' on the treadwheel' and the other, Benjamin Wodehouse, to twenty-one days. Another question arises and remains unanswered, what happened to the men on their release? North Walsham overseers were responsible for their maintenance, so long as they were law-abiding, so were they accepted back at the town workhouse or did they manage to get some kind of a living in Norwich or even further afield? Three years later a Charles Wodehouse and his family are found in the workhouse - were they related to Benjamin Wodehouse?
In 1834 The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The Act was intended to combat pauperism by its re-organisation of the 'Old Poor Law', and by its stringency and attitudes to poverty. Under the Act parishes were amalgamated into Unions, a new unit of administration, and small town workhouses were closed. North Walsham was placed in Erpingham Union along with 48 other parishes in the area. The town's workhouse closed and the paupers there were transferred to one of the Union Workhouses which were situated at Gimingham and Sheringham - these were enlarged to take over 300 paupers. The old workhouse was, for a time, let as a factory and later it was sold by the parish.
There was another change in 1884 when North Walsham was re-located into Smallburgh Union which meant that those who were forced, by various circumstances, to enter the workhouse, went to Smallburgh Workhouse. Robert Palmer, of the 'Black Swann' Inn, was hired to transfer North Walsham paupers who were in Erpingham Union Workhouse to Smallburgh Workhouse. Those described as lunatics were moved further away, to the County Lunatic Asylum at Thorpe St. Andrew. The journey gave these poor people a glimpse of the countryside which some could not have seen for quite a long time.

Sources:-
1831 Census information, Poor Law material, Workhouse Provision Book, etc.,
with Parish Papers.
Census Return 1851, N.L.S.L.
North Walsham in the 18th Century', N.W. WEA., 1983.