Cheltenham Workhouses

Project group: Owen Adams, Kelly Rimmer and Carla Walker

In a new series of posts, History students at the University of Gloucestershire will be outlining progress on new research projects for the 2019 Gloucester History Festival.

Our group project is to investigate what happened within the Cheltenham workhouses and to reveal the unrelenting grim reality for the 250 to 600 destitute men, women and children who had no choice but to become inmates, with food and conditions said to be worse than prisons. The Workhouse was designated for those who were unable to support themselves due to poverty and supplied accommodation in return for hard labour with wards divided between men; women, children, able-bodied and disabled, old and infirm. We have identified three former workhouse sites on the Lower High Street (1780s), Knapp Lane (1809-50) and Swindon Road (1841-1948). Yet, there were other smaller workhouses in surrounding parishes (Charlton Kings, Prestbury and Coberley) administered within the Cheltenham Poor Law Union. All that remains of the main Cheltenham Union Workhouse, is a chapel almost next door to Francis Close Hall campus on Swindon Road. Our aim for the end of the project is to illustrate the journey of what it may have been like for a poor person and their experience of the workhouse.

Workhouse sites plotted via Google map

Cheltenham’s workhouses often had double the average number of inmates of other Poor Law Unions, and a higher proportion of able-bodied women than men. They were almost always full to capacity, with hundreds or even thousands more people requiring relief from outside. Until the advent of the welfare state in 1948, the workhouse was the dreaded trap facing any labourer who found themselves out of work due to bad weather or a decline in the building trade, or a female servant who had been made redundant or sacked, had become a single mother, or been disabled or old with no money. Cheltenham was a town of two extremes – the wealthy and fashionable and those who built their mansions and were their servants.   

The Swindon Road Workhouse from a 1932 map –
Courtesy of Cheltenham Borough Council and The Cheltenham Trust.

Carla chose to base her research on the poverty within Cheltenham, why the poor moved to Cheltenham and then how the poor moved into the workhouses. There was a huge attraction for poor outsiders to move to the town due to the amount of employment that was available during the boom of the ‘Spa’ years in the early 19th century. The main employment building work and catering for the wealthy were in roles such as waitressing, butlers and dervants. Middle class families on average employed one to two servants. However, the amount of people that migrated to Cheltenham for work was on a large scale meaning that the unemployment rates increased significantly. This caused poverty to be even bigger in Cheltenham. The population in Cheltenham in 1801 was 3076, which increased to 35,051 in 1851 – a rapid expansion, peaking in the mid-1820s which slumped in the 1840s. Education also became increasingly important meaning that employment was easier to find for those with a good education, especially once Cheltenham College was built in 1841 and Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1851 meaning those less able to attain such an education found it much more difficult to receive a job. Carla will be using the archive to get specific figures about the poverty. Carla will also examine and analyse images from the 19th century that Owen has found whilst scanning through the sources within the archive.

The Board of Workhouse Guardians (1898).
Courtesy of Cheltenham Borough Council and The Cheltenham Trust .

Kelly’s focus on the project is to introduce the workhouse system, what the workhouse was, why were they used and who used them. Kelly will be using secondary sources such as books wrote by Peter Higginbotham and research found and filtered by Owen. Kelly is also researching what life was like within the workhouse, looking for first-hand accounts of how grim or horrific life was in the Workhouse, exploring evidence of poor sanitary conditions, food and diet, and working conditions. Kelly’s appeal on Facebook has resulted in finding some images of the workhouse and we have also been pointed towards some photographs we can use of inside the former workhouse premises.

Owen has been concentrating on in-depth research especially using the British Newspapers Archive (there were five weekly Cheltenham newspapers in the mid-19th century, which carried reports of Poor Law Guardians board meetings in every edition) and has also been spending time at the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub archive, trawling through 14 bundles of correspondence to the workhouse. From this, as well as details and passenger lists for the three mass pauper emigrations between 1850-52 he has discovered some truly grim tales and is currently writing up notes with sources. Together we discussed an idea for the format, a real-life horror story which on four boards will begin with ‘entering the workhouse’, move into what life was like in the workhouse, an 1874 scandal where the workhouse regime was described as “terrorism” and inmates were starved of their rations, and then ‘escaping the workhouse’, which will focus on the assisted emigration of about 700 Cheltenham paupers to North America.

We now have almost all background info we need. Yet, various gems may yet be unearthed such as first-hand accounts which will help build a picture of the workhouse experience for those institutionalised indefinitely within it. While the workhouse regime softened in the early 20th century, it was renamed a Public Assistance Institution in 1930 and was taken over by the NHS in 1948 and repurposed as St Paul’s Hospital – the stigma of the workhouse remained until all the buildings except the chapel were demolished by the late 1990s.

The next stage after logging all sources and research will be finding images as well as panning the mass of information for the real gold (or workhouse grime). Workhouses were deliberately designed to be as grim as possible as a deterrent to encourage people to work hard – but, due to downturns in available work and for others unable to work due to personal circumstances as many could not escape the workhouse trap including many innocent children, single mothers and aged or disabled people. At the very least, our project should be able to honour the victims – many of them blameless – who were trapped, sometimes for their whole lives, in the awful workhouse.