The Workhouse

A safety net for the poor

The following passage is taken from the book, “Essex Workhouses” by John Drury and talks about the Benfleet and Thundersley approach to the problem.

Unlike Brentwood, Thundersley parish was much more organised for its in respect of the records it kept for its workhouse. In the parish vestry minute book are some copies of entries that the governor(master) of the workhouse had entered into his journal. It seems that this journal did not commence until 1932 which was only a year before recommendations were made to the Brentwood vestry  for something similar.  Thundersley though recorded the state of health of the inmates which was not specifically mentioned for Brentwood although the Brentwood doctor was asked to sign the journal.

The Thundersley workhouse was not included in the national survey of 1777 which indicates it was not open at this time.  The inventory of the workhouse showed that it had the following rooms :  kitchen, bakehouse, keeping room (day room), pantry, bedrooms (probably two).  The inventory and the list of inmates indicate that the workhouse was jointly run by Thundersley and South Benfleet parishes.  The journal gives a comprehensive record of the comings and goings of individual inmates but there is only one entry that actually indicates how many were in the workhouse at any one time.  This was in March 1835 when there were five inmates, two from South Benfleet and three from Thundersley.  Four were aged over sixty four with the fifth being Lucy Maylen aged seven. Lucy entered the workhouse when she was five years old with her mother who was described as a widow aged forty five.  Lucy Maylen senior also brought into the workhouse a son, Jonathon, aged nine months.  The entry records that both children were bastards, Lucy by a Mr Reevs and Jonathan by James Johnson.   The mother and Jonathan are not recorded as inmates later in the year and one can only presume that she died or left the workhouse with Jonathan and left Lucy there.

Many of those taken into the workhouse only stayed a short time presumably until someone could look after them or they got their financial affairs in order or they could find alternative accommodation.  A typical example was that of John Dodd, aged  fifty, his wife and three children aged 13, 9 and 2 who came into the workhouse on 20th January 1832 but they all left on the 24th of that month. The governor and the parish would have assured themselves that the family had accommodation to go to and there would be future family income. The Thundersley parish workhouse closed in November 1836 with the inmates being transferred to the parish workhouse in Billericay.      

The National picture

As early as 1388 the problem of destitution was recognised by the state in the passing of the Poor Law Act. The workhouse provided, as the name suggests, both shelter and work for those who had fallen on hard times. It was often hard work such as stone breaking, crushing bones for fertiliser or picking oakum using a spike. On the plus side inmates received free medical care and free education.  By the nineteenth century the system was under strain because of mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic wars, technology replacing agricultural labourers and a series of bad harvests…the consequence of which was the 1834 New Poor Law, which sought to provide a more consistent approach and one which would deter the able-bodied poor. The work element grew less as increasingly the inmates were elderly or sick.  The workhouse was formally abolished in 1930, but it was not until the 1948 National Assistance Act that the last vestiges of the poor law disappeared.

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