The best of Dorset in words and pictures

New work unlocks the secrets of Christchurch’s workhouse

Sue Newman reports on some important research into how the town housed its paupers and sick

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

The front of the 1764 workhouse. The stone wall-fronted gardens are where the cottages absorbed into the workhouse stood, and on the extreme right, the second gabled building is the site of the original barn used as the first workhouse.

The Christchurch and Bournemouth Union Workhouse opened in 1764 in what is today the Red House Museum. Its purpose was ‘to restrain and prevent Idleness and Vice, to encourage industry and good manners’ and to keep the inmates ‘constantly employed’. Recently, I discovered an illuminating survey made in 1856 which gives the function and dimensions of every room. Armed with this, a tape measure and calculator, I have prised out more secrets about the workhouse’s layout.

It was brick-built and roofed with stone-trimmed clay tiles, traditional to Christchurch. But there were once many more buildings than this one. A row of tall, thatched old cob cottages lined the road now bounded by the stone wall. On the right, in place of the Art Gallery, was an ancient and lofty thatched barn. This was the first workhouse, pressed into service nearly twenty years before the purpose-built one.

Only the far left doorway is original (there was not a second entrance) and all three floors of accommodation to the left of it were the territory of the Master and Mistress. To the right of the door was the paupers’ accommodation. The long first-floor window is not original, nor is the archway entrance, now glazed in.

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

The window of the former Ward 8 faces the front of the present-day museum's coffee room. The doorway is not original. Imagine it, too, without radiator or shelf fitments. In this space were crowded the able-bodied men.

Imagine that barn in 1745, crammed with people: the poor, orphaned, aged, unemployed, or sick. The Overseers of the Poor kept a watchful eye on them, ready to send them to their ‘pest-house’ on St Catherine’s Hill, well away from the town, should those poor folks’ countenances become suspiciously spotty. Smallpox was the great killer of the age.

The first room beyond the barn site, today’s coffee room, was then Ward 8, the first room of the 1764 workhouse. It was a day room housing about eight able-bodied men who were often hired out to the parish for such work as road repairing. But most of the time they would have had plenty of work within the ‘House’. There is a stone-flagged floor and a fireplace as in every ward, but there was no staircase and no door either to the front or rear. The narrow corridor has a ceiling betraying the long-gone presence of the original staircase for the paupers to reach their sleeping quarters.

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

Ward 5 was originally also floored with flagstones but as attitudes softened, its inmates – the elderly or infirm men – were permitted warmer planked flooring. Note the huge fireplace, showing that this was the original 1764 kitchen.

The next room in the old workhouse has a different floor – no longer stone flags but wooden planks. This was Ward 5 for ‘infirm’ men, resurfaced in the 1870s to make it warmer for the poor old men, about twenty of whom crowded into this small room. The huge fireplace shows that this room was the 1764 kitchen, across the corridor from which is a filled-in doorway. Through this the able-bodied men could get out into the garden grounds beyond to work on the vegetables and herbs – ‘green stuff’, as it was called.

The next room was the main room: the dining room. A regular mealtime routine was enforced. Breakfast was at 9 am – after the inmates had worked for two or three hours already. Dinner was at 1 pm, supper at 7 pm. Food was simple fare. Breakfast was broth, or the infamous thin gruel made from oats and water. Dinner was meat with vegetables or suet. Supper was always bread and cheese.

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

The front of the 1764 workhouse. The stone wall-fronted gardens are where the cottages absorbed into the workhouse stood, and on the extreme right, the second gabled building is the site of the original barn used as the first workhouse.

This room might have doubled up for work, although not all paupers could be ‘constantly employed’ in practice. A large number of flax-spinning wheels, bundles of straw for plaiting into hats and, for a brief ten years, fusee chainmaking tools might have filled this room. There were also household chores, from making beds to laundry work and sewing their own clothing and footwear.

Beyond the dining room is a rear extension to the workhouse, built in 1835 when Christchurch Parish joined with Holdenhurst and Sopley to form the Christchurch Union. The feared Union workhouses date from this period. Parish workhouses were basic but at least the inmates were not punished for being poor. In the first room of this extension, the Master or the Mistress would watch through a glass door, keeping a beady eye on the passageway to the front door where paupers would seek entrance. New arrivals were separated into classes based on age, sex and health and confined to corresponding wards. The workhouse Master and Mistress would be a married couple but the position was not prestigious. Nevertheless, they had to set an example: no swearing, quarrelling or drunkenness was allowed!

This end of the workhouse has the staircase, which replaces the original, allowing the Master and Mistress alone access to the wards above. On the first floor, the left-hand Resources Room was part of their quarters. The back room, now the office, was where the Master could keep an eye on inmates in the grounds or laundry yard through the windows.

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

The Master and Mistress's extension, from where they supervised women and girls in the laundry yard (foreground) and men and boys in the garden grounds behind. Note the pergola, site of the schoolroom and wards above, and the trace of the doorway to the cottages.

The rest of this floor housed infirm women and children at night, lit by candles with very little space between the straw beds. The first section was Ward 12, for sixteen or so infirm women and children. Infirm men slept in Ward 20 beyond: this is above their day room below and accommodated the same number, eight. There is a huge fireplace behind the museum displays, between the men’s and women’s wards, the chimney continuing up from the old kitchen fireplace and carrying on up into the storey above.

Today’s northern staircase did not then exist. This area and the next gallery were one room, Ward 19, a night ward for able-bodied men.

Up on the top floor, the room at the southern end was again reserved for the Master and his family. A new feature of the museum is a large space, open to the rafters, the Sue Wickham Room, accessed from the other staircase. In 1856 it was more sleeping accommodation. The superb run of double beams arose from the pressing need for yet more accommodation, after the parish workhouse became the Union for three parishes. The innermost beams are from 1764, the outer ones from 1835, the date of the Union. The Guardians re-built the roof onto these outer beams to make the room wide enough to accommodate fourteen infirm men in two rows of beds. That equates to about eighteen inches between beds and an aisle between of five feet wide. It is obviously an attic room, being just six feet and seven inches at its highest. This was Ward 11. A dividing wall by the massive central fireplace led to where the boys slept in Ward 10: about sixteen of them.

Christchurch and Bournemouth Workhouse, the Red House Museum

The present museum gardens flourish on the site of a long row of cob cottages gradually acquired to augment cramped workhouse accommodation. The proximity of the Priory Church is significant, as the Vicar headed the workhouse committee.

Beyond here, at the northern end, remembering that the staircase is a later insertion, is Ward 9, where able-bodied women and children slept. Some women might have had illegitimate children and it was common for babies to be born in the ‘House’. These women were often the most explosive element in the workhouse.

Outside, in the pleasant museum grounds, another leap of imagination is required. The original use of the ground was for growing food, and herbs for medicinal use, not flowers. Through the archway set into the wall built in the Union period to oppress the inmates, the modern herb garden was then two exercise yards, for boys and men, divided by another wall. The projecting first-floor window is not original, replacing an ordinary window matching the others.

At the end of the long extension is a building added in 1845 as a day room for the boys. On the other side of the extension is a pretty pergola. In workhouse times most of this was a schoolroom and the rest another night ward (Ward 13) for yet more able-bodied women and children.

The parapet wall has traces of windows from a second storey. Indeed, four more wards were above the schoolroom, including sleeping accommodation for the schoolmistress and for able-bodied women and girls, Wards 14 to 16. The schoolmistress’s room was just fifteen feet by six feet, and that was considered enough for two!

There were so many people in the workhouse in hard-pressed times: starting with 68 in 1768, the population was closer to 200 by 1800. Imagine the museum building cramming so many into the barn and the paupers’ section of the three-storey workhouse. So the cottages were bought, one or two at a time, for additional space. The cottage closest to the gates became a new kitchen. A doorway was cut through to it and the outline remains. The other cottages were women’s wards and a nursery. By the well there was another long back extension, incorporating the laundry. The pretty gardens today were the laundry’s drying grounds.

The 1856 survey at last ‘decoded’ the workhouse as it was laid out over 150 years ago. The next step would be to find a 1764 plan!

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