Essex Workhouses – Serving the Community for 600 Years

St Johns Hospital and Workhouse
St Johns and The former Chelmsford Union Workhouse
The former Chelmsford Union Workhouse

If you have read Oliver Twist, or just watched the musical, you will have a good idea of what workhouses were like. They provided basic accommodation and shelter for those who were homeless, destitute and poor. Essex had many workhouses spread across the county and many date back long before Victorian times.

Parish Workhouses in Essex

The first workhouses, or poor houses, were set up during the 14th century. At this time it was mostly the church that took on this role of helping the poor. Workhouses fell under state control in 1723 when the government decided that local authorities within the parishes should take the responsibility.

There are 400 parishes in Essex and it is thought that around 160 of these had workhouses. Generally the larger parishes would have a workhouse, many smaller ones did not need one as there was not a great demand by the under-privileged. We do not know what the poorer people in smaller parishes actually did.

Generally wives would work in the kitchens and house while men would work the fields and perform the more labour intensive duties.

Essex Union Workhouses

As the population of Essex increased, along with the rest of the country, it started to become harder for the parishes to provide work and shelter for the poorest people. In 1834 the government made a new law and this time gave the workhouses to the Union Workhouses.

These workhouses covered larger areas, meaning that everyone had the chance to gain shelter and work, not just those in the largest parishes. However, these became more like prisons than charities.

Families were often separated in Union Workhouses with men and boys living on one side and the women and girls on the other. Families could not live together in the same room, instead people shared bunks in large dormitories.

The workhouses were built from red brick and often had white painted windows. They were rather imposing in the otherwise more countrified market towns such as Dunmow nd Saffron Waldon. The Dunmow Workhouse was built in a mock-gothic style while the Saffron Waldon one was built in yellow. However, the exterior variations did not mean that the interior was any more confortable for  the poor residents.

New Essex Hospitals

In 1930 the 17 Union Workhouses in Essex were given to Essex County Council and converted to hospitals. Chelmsford’s St. Johns was still the working hospital until 2011, other hospitals include St. Peters in Maldon and St. Michaels in Braintree.

Many were closed years ago to provide sheltered accommodation. Chelmsford’s St. Johns is currently being developed into new residential properties, although there is likely to be many flats and houses the fall under the share ownership scheme to help people take their first steps on to the housing ladder.

Was the Victorian Workhouse Diet Healthy?

Please sir, I want some more”.

Possibly the most famous words from any Charles Dickens novel. The words of Oliver Twist, asking in the workhouse for more food. However, this raises an interesting question – what was life in the Victorian work houses really like? Were the workers in need of more food or were they adequately fed?

Observations on the Victorian Diet

Fortunately, this question is not too hard to answer today because historians and health researchers have worked together to determine what workhouse diets were really like. In fact, a book was published in 1843 entitled A treatise on food and diet by Jonathan Pereira MD which reported in great detail exactly what people living and working in Victorian workhouses were allocated on a daily basis.

The book described the recommended diets of 9-year-old children in the workhouses.

Jonathan Reinarz, a lecturer in the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham, was approached by Andrew Williams to use this text to produce a Dickensian workhouse diet plan. What they found was that contrary to the belief that the children in the workhouses were underfed, the diets set out by the Poor Law actually provided plenty of food and adequate nutrition for the children.

Children consumed substantial amounts of thick gruel made from oatmeal and vegetables along with protein from mutton, beef and in coastal areas, fish. This actually provided a reasonably healthy and balanced diet.

Of course, inmates in the various institutions and workhouses may not have received the food as set out in the book. It is expected that many suppliers cut corners and bulked oatmeal out with sawdust to make more money. While the reality may not have been exactly what was set out in the dietary guidelines for workhouses, it was probably closer to the truth than the fictional world created by Charles Dickens.

Workhouses Provided Plenty of Food

So, Oliver Twist may not really have wanted or even required more food. Although there were reported cases of starvation and malnutrition, the average portions were substantial and easily enough to allow a 9-year-old child to work hard all day while maintaining a relatively healthy body.

They did not have the luxuries that Charles Dickens was accustomed too, but the wealthy middle classes in Victorian times were really not much healthier than the average person today – overeating and drinking too much alcohol were commonplace in Victorian Britain. Overall, Oliver Twist and his peers were well catered for.

Learn more

The Workhouse – The story of an institution

Workhouses and the poor of Essex

Photo credit: Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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