Ipswich Union Workhouse

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 4   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 1Photos courtesy Steve Girling
‘Hi. Thought these might be of interest to your website, this tablet is at the Heath Rd Hospital site in a yard with no public access so many people may not know that it exists. Regards, Steve Girling’ Many thanks to Steve for unearthing this lost fragment of Ipswich history. The decorative carved tablet reads (some characters speculative):


Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 3
Below: close-ups with broken corner of the tablet (discoloured) showing smaller lettering.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 5   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 6
Note the reappearance of the name of the Chairman, Reverend Wickham Tozer, who appears on the list of local worthies connected to Rosehill Library, which see for a note on Tozer's role the Akenham Burial Case.

Ipswich workhouses
They began their existence in the county in the second half of the 16th century. The workhouse within Christ's Hospital in Ipswich was at the very forefront of this new method of providing assistance to the poor and needy of society:-
Christ's Hospital (Borough Workhouse): 1572-c.1600 (30 places).
A parliamentary report of 1777 listed a dozen parish workhouses in operation in Ipswich: St Clement (with accommodation for up to 70 inmates), St Helen (10), St Lawrence (25), St Margaret (100), St Mary at Elms (10), St Mary at the Key (25), St Mary Stoke (30), St Mary Tower (30), St Matthew (30), St Nicholas (20), St Peter (28), and St Stephen (24).
Great Whip Street (Union Workhouse, alias The Spike): 1837-1899 (400 spaces);
(moved to Heathfields): 1899-1930 (400 spaces

In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a 'Spike', was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631.
The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death in England by restricting the movement of labourers, and ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor. But mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. The New Poor Law of 1834 attempted to reverse the economic trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse. Some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates, who generally lacked the skills or motivation to compete in the open market. Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike, perhaps the origin of the workhouse's nickname.

Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. But in areas such as the provision of free medical care and education for children, neither of which was available to the poor in England living outside workhouses until the early 20th century, workhouse inmates were advantaged over the general population, a dilemma that the Poor Law authorities never managed to reconcile.
As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared, and with them the workhouses.

Up to 1834, the story can be traced on our Tooley's and Smart's Almshouses page and our Christ's Hospital School page.
Piecemeal provision of poor houses in each parish were largely funded from bequests from the estates of wealthy citizens.

The Old Poor Law
By the Poor Law Act of 1601, the parish was made the unit responsible for the care and employment of the poor. Every household and land occupier was rated (rather like Council Charge) and the money paid into a parish fund. Two villagers, usually farmers or tradesmen, were elected each Easter, as Overseers, to administer the Poor Law, the parish fund and the needs of the poor. The Act classified the poor into three groups:-
1. the helpless, who through age, infirmity, short-term illness, accident or personal crisis, were unable to work or fend for themselves; these had to be cared for by the parish.
2. the able-bodied but unemployed; these had to be found work, so they could provide for their families.
3. those who could, but would not work ; these were to be punished in Houses of Correction. See our Woodbridge page for a surviving ‘Correction’ sign.

In practice most parishes provided for the helpless and able-bodied unemployed, by means of out-relief: the giving of money, food, fuel, clothing and medical care in their own homes. A minority of parishes placed their helpless in a ‘poor house’, rather like today’s concept of sheltered accommodation. By 1776 less than 20% of Suffolk parishes had a workhouse, in which the poor were maintained in exchange for work, usually spinning and weaving. An inventory of Assington workhouse in 1808 shows that the 23 paupers were provided with 18 spinning wheels, two reels and a loom to work on. At Long Melford, in 1802, the 29 paupers were employed in wool combing and spinning. During that year they produced 644lbs of combed wool ready for spinning and 84lb of spun yarn.

House of Industry
Many towns starting with Bristol in 1696, set up a single large workhouse to accommodate the poor from all the parishes within the town boundary. Sudbury, in Suffolk, united its three parishes in 1702 and Bury St Edmunds its two in 1747. Rural parishes, in the east and southeast of Suffolk, adopted the same idea and based on the ancient Hundred areas, closed all the poor and workhouses and built a large central House of Industry. The aim was to reduce the cost to the ratepayers, by cutting down administrative charges. Between 1757 and 1781, nine Houses of Industry, covering nearly 50% of parishes, had been built in Suffolk.  A survey of these Houses was made by Thomas Ruggles and published by Arthur Young in 1794. The poor were employed in all the Houses to comb and spin wool for Norwich clothiers. Four of the nine Houses also spun hemp into linen, used to make pauper’s clothing. In addition, at Oulton, near the coast at Lowestoft, they made nets for the herring fishery; at Bulcamp, shoes and stockings and at Nacton, ropes, sacks and plough lines were produced.

The New Poor Law
The dual system of parish workhouses and Houses of Industry ended in 1834. Population increases, rising unemployment in rural areas and economic depression, following the Napoleonic wars, had led to a massive increase in expenditure on the poor. Edwin Chadwick was appointed, by the Government, to devise a more effective, national system of maintaining the poor. His solution, based on the earlier ideas of Jeremy Bentham and evidence from the Suffolk Houses of Industry, was that the 15,000 parishes of England and Wales should be formed into 600 Union districts, each with a central workhouse. Thus the New Poor Law was partly based on the earlier Suffolk system. The New Poor Law was the first instance of a nationwide organisation, being controlled by central government. The Poor Law Commissioners and Board laid down uniform rules and regulations, which were applied to every pauper in every workhouse in England and Wales.

The never-realised aim was to end out-relief and make all paupers go into the workhouse. Daily life was intended to be monotonous; the food to be just below the quality of that available to the poorest family who kept themselves out of the workhouse; the work tedious and repetitive and often pointless. Even though the new workhouses were often of the same design as prisons and seen as such by the inmates, anyone could leave if they wanted to. But if they had no employment there was little choice between starvation and the workhouse.

Pre-Union Workhouses
In Ipswich relief of the poor was reorganised in 1835 to comply with the previous year’s New Poor Law. Three Relieving Officers replaced the parochial overseers and most of the old poor houses were shut. The inmates at this time totalled 176; these were divided between the three largest poor houses: St Margaret’s for women and girls, St Clement’s for men and boys and St Mary-Le-Tower for the aged and infirm. It is worth noting that slums were a Victorian phenomenon; the word first appears in an 1812 dictionary. Unemployment in rural areas led to mass migration to the towns to seek work. This in turn led to a huge demand for accommodation – something which became increasingly profitable for those who owned land and any sort of buildings. Overcrowded, poorly-built housing with insanitary conditions and lack of hygiene led swiftly to high mortality rates, particularly amongst the infants.
Drunkenness and lawlessness accompanied the selling, churning populations of the slums. The main focus of slum dwelling in Ipswich was the Parish of St Clement which included ‘The Potteries’ and streets running south from St Helens Street down to the river, as mentioned in our page on Courts & yards. By the 1830s the problem of slum-living became an issue which could not be ignored by the authorities. However, much of the early moves to alleviate the problem stemmed from philanthropists.
Ipswich Historic lettering: Felaw map 7
Great Whip Street Workhouse
In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a 'Spike'. This may have been due to the use of a metal nail or spike to tease out rope fibres. The new, purpose-built Union Workhouse was built between Great Whip Street and the Orwell in 1837 with a capacity for 400 people. Everyone from the other three houses were transferred there. Townsmen usually located institutions which dealt with ‘undesirables’ away from the town centre, so perhaps Over Stoke was seen as a suitably remote place to deal with the destitute. The Great Whip Street workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1848 and 1867 maps on our Felaw Street page.

The men – as in most of the rest of Suffolk – were set to pick oakum; this is is a  the tedious process of unraveling set lengths of tarred ship’s ropes into fibres to be used in shipbuilding for caulking or packing the joints of timbers. Other work included making rush matting, pumping water, or grinding corn, by hand crank wheels or by a tread-wheel (a device common in prisons), gardening and farming the workhouse land to grow wheat, oats and potatoes. During a 14 hour workhouse day, between 6am and 8pm, the able-bodied paupers spent 10 hours, from 7am to 12pm and 1pm to 6pm, at work.  The boys were set to mend shoes and the women and girls to knit. Nobody was now paid for their work.
Ipswich Historic lettering: Oakum pickerOakum pickers
Women were also given domestic work to do, including scrubbing floors, forms and tables with cold water and soda. They also laundered clothes, looked after the infants and helped to nurse the sick. Vagrants, or tramps, known as Casual Paupers, would be given a night’s shelter in exchange for work the next morning. For men, this was picking 1lb of oakum and for women, 3 hours washing, scrubbing and cleaning.

Although designed mainly to provide work for the able-bodied poor, by the end of the 19th Century the workhouse had become a combination of hospital, lunatic asylum, old people’s home and school.  Costs were cut as demand for relief rose. Life within the workhouse was almost unremittingly bleak, yet some lived their whole lives within its confines.

Heath Road Workhouse and Infirmary
The workhouse in Over Stoke lasted only sixty-two years or so. It cannot have been built to a good standard as one writer describes it towards the end of its life as 'crumbling'. After thirty years of encouragement/demands by the Poor Commission, an expensive (and extensive) new workhouse was built from 1896 on heathland at the east end of Woodbridge Road – today this is known as Woodbridge Road East. It was
known as Heathfields Poor Law Institution. The redbrick receiving block and Porter's Lodge stood here until late 2015 acting for a number of years as the Borough's Homeless Families Unit, eventually giving way to a large modern health centre. The workhouse complex opened in 1899 and was built with special regard for the sick and elderly; the rest of the residents were almost by definition deemed lazy or, at best, immoral. Although listed as having capacity for 400 souls, some say that it was around 500. By 1912 it housed 385 inmates and 17 officials.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Heathfields map1902 map
The 1902 map detail of the north-east corner of the California estate (above) shows Woodbridge Road running east-west along the upper part of the image. Spring Road meets it at the 'Lattice Barn' – still standing at this time (the public house named after it was built over the road). Working from the far right: Heath Road as we know it today, Lattice Avenue and Goring Road were yet to be built, as was Colchester Road which would eventually join Woodbridge Road just east of the Workhouse Porter's Lodge.
The geographical relationship between the Workhouse and St John's Home (at lower left, as mentioned below) is clear here.

In the early 20th century it was decided to change the Victorian name of Union Workhouse to 'Heathfields'. The Union was dissolved in 1930 when Poor Law Unions and their Boards of Guardians were dissolved and the task of dealing with poverty was made the responsibity of the Ipswich Corporation's Public Health Department. The workhouse continued as an 'Old People's Home' and eventually served as the nucleus of the new general hospital in the 1970s, eventually replacing Anglesea Road Hospital in the early 1980s. The site has seen several modern developments down Heath Road.

St John's Children's Home
During the 1870s up to 235 workhouse children, initially not all from the Ipswich Union, were rehoused. St John's Children's Home opened at the
southern end of Bloomfield Street on the California estate in 1879. See our Brickyards page for an 1883 map of the Bloomfield Street brickyards showing 'St John's Home' to the south. Our 1902 map above shown the Home in relation to the Heathfields Workhouse. 'Freelands' as it became known was demolished in the 1970s and was eventually replaced by housing.

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse plan 1
'Thought these might be of interest too although they are drainage plans they show a basic layout of the workhouse. Kind regards, Steve Girling'. These plans give an idea of the 'pavillion-style' and extent of the The Ipswich Workhouse on the east of the town. As so often occurs, this complex formed the basis for Heath Road Wing ('H.R.W.') of Ipswich General Hospital, which supplemented health services provided at the Anglesea Road Wing ('A.R.W.'), which opened in 1836 as the Ipswich & East Suffolk Hospital. By 1988 all hospital services had moved to Heath Road and the site at the north of Berners Street was used to build a care home, retaining the eye-catcher portico.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse plan 2

Steve Girling's seemingly bottomless archive turns up this intriguing postcard:
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse postcard
'I have attached a copy of a postcard in my collection of a group of people with a board written on it "DINNA FORCE, HEATHFIELDS" on the back of the card is written "Feb 1918". I don't think the building in the background exists anymore: the building is possibly the one on Peter [Higginbotham]'s workhouse site [see Links] in a photo dated c1937. I think this building faced the Woodbridge Rd side of the site and has been demolished, there is a very similar doorway still on the site hidden by a modern flat roof extension at the entrance 15 of today's hospital (also pictured on Peter's site dated 2001) but the windows above the door canopy are different to the postcard windows.' Thanks to Steve for this enigmatic image with its even more enigmatic inscription: 'DINNA FORCE'? The only linguistic context we can come up with is in the Scottish dialect e.g. "Dinna force me to answer ye."Presumably, this is an assemblage of institution staff at the end of the First World War.

Heathfields in the 21st century
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 7   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 82016 photos courtesy Steve Girling
'I have attached photos of the concealed door of the old Heathfields workhouse behind the current entrance 15 at the hospital, there is also a couple of photos of the date 1898 in the brickwork on the  'cartouche' at the top, on the photos of the back façade of the building the 'cartouche' is blank as it would not of been so visible as it looked over other buildings. Regards, Steve Girling.' Thanks to Steve for these photographs of the surviving Heathfields buildings. The dated brickwork tympanum provides interest on several counts. The beautiful monogram features the interlaced '1   8   9   8', although you would have to know a bit of the background to put the  numerals in the correct order (see also the date monogram in the interior spandrels of the Corn Exchange). Moreover, we have stated above that 'the new workhouse was built from 1896'; this suggests that this particular wing, at least, was opened in 1898.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 9   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 10
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 11   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Workhouse 12

See also Peter Higginbotham's excellent resource Workhouse: the story of the Workhouse in Britain (see Links) for much more information plus images about Ipswich – and Suffolk – Union Workhouses.


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