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A Look Back At The Guildford Union Workhouse – Masters, Paupers and Soldiers

Published on: 11 Oct, 2018
Updated on: 12 Oct, 2018

By David Rose

The Guildford Union Workhouse was like all others – grim, disciplined, monotonous and impersonal.

The Guildford Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 under Government legislation (The New Poor Laws of 1834). Its role was simply to minimise expenditure on the poor.

This was achieved by providing conditions that discouraged people from seeking help. The Union also reduced administrative and maintenance costs by holding the destitute from 21 Guildford parishes in one place. It had accommodation for 300 inmates and opened in 1838 on the edge of the town centre, later to become Charlotteville.

There are few photographs of the Guildford Union Workhouse. Part of it can be seen at the top of this 1900s picture that looks down Cooper Road in Charlotteville.

Its Board of Guardians governed activities. The Union was administered by a clerk to the guardians. Day-to-day running of the workhouse was by the master and matron, who had to be a married couple. 

On entry people, including families, were separated by age and gender. Children under the age of seven were allowed to stay with their mothers. All clothes and personal belongings were taken away for storage and workhouse clothing was issued.

Pauper inmates were kept inside the walls, needing permission of the master to leave. They were required to work in return for their keep – hence ‘work house’. This could be gardening, cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, or hand grinding bones for use as a fertiliser.

Food was basic, monotonous and eaten in silence. Communal dormitories (called wards) were entirely single sex, cramped and unheated with minimal furniture. Beds were narrow and provided with a straw mattress, a pair of sheets and two thin blankets.

But what of the people who ran the workhouse, the paupers and also the soldiers who were treated there during the First World War? The Spike Heritage Centre’s volunteer researchers have tracked some of them and their stories.

Workhouse Master Charles Henry Bessant.

Charles Henry Bessant and his wife Elizabeth were appointed Master and Matron in 1907.

From their testimonials prior to being appointed, Charles and Elizabeth appear to have been eager to improve their positions in the Poor Law Service. They had risen from porter and portress at Watford to Master and Matron at both Amesbury and Andover Unions before coming to the larger Guildford Union in 1907, when Charles was aged 34.

Workhouse Matron Elizabeth Bessant.

Colonel C. D ’O Harme, Chairman of the Andover Union, wrote: “Mr Bessant is a very good disciplinarian and the wards have always been kept clean and regular. The number of tramps has decreased by half since he has been with us. Mrs Bessant is an excellent Matron and does everything for the comfort of the sick and infirm.”

Lieutenant Colonel (Hon) Herbert Andrew Powell was a member of the Guildford Board of Guardians. He began his career as a doctor in practice in Winchester. In 1897 he moved back to the family home, Piccard’s Rough in St Catherine’s Village, Guildford. 

Lieutenant Colonel (Hon) Herbert Andrew Powell and his wife Elizabeth.

In 1915, during the First World War, Herbert and his wife Elizabeth placed their house at the disposal of the War Office. It was used to house soldiers who were recovering from war wounds.

Herbert Powell became the Commandant of the Guildford Military War Hospital when it took over the infirmary of the Guildford Union Workhouse in 1916.

Lance Corporal Robert ‘Bob’ Oliver Gay.

Lance Corporal Robert ‘Bob’ Oliver Gay served with the Australian Imperial Forces during the First World War. On June 9, 1917, he suffered a gunshot wound and fracture to the right foot at the Battle of Messines. He was promoted while at the Guildford Military War Hospital and returned to his battalion in France. He was killed in their last action, a bloody assault on the Hindenburg Line, on September 29, 1918, aged 21.

Priscilla Cinderella Standing (nee Cooper) was a pauper at the Guildford Union Workhouse. She was widowed and had to leave the family’s tied cottage, entering the workhouse in 1901 with her three boys Harry, aged five, Thomas, aged four and Edwin, aged two. She was also deaf.

Her children would have been taken away from her at a very young age. Priscilla was still living at the Guildford Union Workhouse 10 years later when the 1911 census was compiled, but her sons had all moved to other accommodation.

Priscilla Cinderella Standing (nee Cooper).

Edwin, aged 12, now lived at the Guildford Union Workhouse’s Scattered Home for Boys at 37 Recreation Road, Guildford, with 11 other boys and a foster mother appointed by the Guildford Board of Guardians.  

Thomas, now 14, was still in Warren Road, but in the Children’s Receiving Home, where John William Sowers, the superintendent, was aided by a matron and two foster mothers in looking after 12 children aged three to 15.

Henry (Harry) Standing was now 16, so he had been sent to the training ship Exmouth, at Grays in Essex. Despite their earlier separation, Priscilla and her sons kept in close contact throughout their lives until her death in 1953.  

She was described by one of her grandchildren as “a lovely grandmother” who was able to lip read and communicate well. She spent her last years living at the Sunset Home at Merrow House, Guildford.

The workhouse era officially ended in 1930. 

The Guildford Union Workhouse then became the responsibility of Surrey County Council and became Warren Road Hospital, renamed St Luke’s Hospital in 1945. However, the Casual Ward, dating from 1906, that provided basic accommodation for tramps and vagrants remained in use right up until 1962, by which time it was known as a reception centre. It was then used as a store room by St Luke’s Hospital.

The main part of the workhouse was demolished in 1965. The hospital finally closed in 1995 and soon the site was being redeveloped for housing by Crest Homes.

Entrance to The Spike Heritage Centre.

However, and most importantly, the Casual Ward building was given Grade II listed status in 1999. It is now a popular heritage and community centre called The Spike run by the Charlotteville Jubilee Trust, a self-funded organisation.

The trust re-opened this important historic building for public use in 2008 after spending more than £1.6 million on its refurbishment. It is open for tours on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10am to 4pm. Group visits can also be booked on others days, these are popular with schools, history societies and so on. If you haven’t visited, make sure you do, it is well worth it!

Experience life as it was for paupers and tramps at the Guildford Union Workhouse’s Casual Ward.

For more details see The Spike website or call 01483 598420.

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Responses to A Look Back At The Guildford Union Workhouse – Masters, Paupers and Soldiers

  1. Moira MacQuaide Hall Reply

    October 11, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    It’s interesting to see from the 1911 census that there were more than 450 people in the Guildford Union Workhouse. Including: 30 officials, 139 sick, 157 aged and infirm, 69 able bodied, 20 children and 33 vagrants.
    More women than men were sick – perhaps the women used the workhouse infirmary for help with childbirth in the days before the NHS?

    More men than women were aged nd infirm; also more men were vagrants. It’s a fascinating topic.

  2. John Lomas Reply

    October 12, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Looking at the 1939 register there are 2 entries for “Hospital and Institution”

    Sign in needed.

    Each entry only shows one name when opened to the treanscription, but if you look at the “original image” option there are many pages of staff and patients

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