On Wednesday February 24th four clients visited The Spike Heritage Centre, formerly the Vagrants and Casual Ward for the Guildford Union Workhouse.
The Spike opened in 1906 on a separate site to the workhouse, which housed 300 men, women and children. ‘Vagrants’ and ‘Casuals’ would queue up along the tall brick wall, in anticipation of the heavy wooden gate opening at 6pm. Visitors would then have to wait to be processed, where they would have to provide their name, age, profession, where they had come from and where they were going. ‘Vagrant’s and ‘Casuals’ were only able to stay once in 30 days so many would try to disguise themselves during this process, so that they could return later in the month. This ran this risk of getting them barred for life, but many were so desperate that this was their only option.
Once processed, visitors were given gruel which would have been leftovers brought down from the workhouse site. They were then expected to take a bath to eradicate the transfer of disease; however it was possible that up to 30 men would bathe in the same water and dry themselves with the same towel, therefore having the opposite effect. Their clothes were fumigated on arrival, but later this was found to have actually made disease worse. If during the processing stage a person was found to have pneumonia or tuberculosis they would be accommodated in the isolation ward where there were fifteen hammocks. Bodies of the dead would be piled up in the corner until ‘inmates’ from the workhouse came to lay out the bodies, which included breaking their bones and resting the corpses in coffins. This task was so awful that people wouldn’t do it for money so the Guardians had to pay the workers with alcohol. The Coroner refused to enter the building.
A 2-night policy was introduced so that ‘vagrants’ would enter on the evening of the first night, work a full day, and then stay a second night before moving on to the next casual ward. The nearest workhouse to Guildford was 26 miles away, and people would not have been able to travel such a distance after completing their work. During the time that they were at each casual ward ‘vagrants’ would only be released from their cells to empty their slop bucket.
Casual workers would pay a penny to stay for one night. Problems arose due to there being many pubs between the town and the workhouse. If they spent their money on the way they would have to stay two nights and would lose their casual work.
Typical work at the Guildford Spike was breaking stones to a size that could pass through a metal grate in the working cell, which backed onto the sleeping cells. Strong draughts would come in through the grates, making the sleeping cells unbearably cold. The cells for casual workers didn’t have grates as they weren’t expected to work for their accommodation, and they were on the side of the building where the sun rose, so were far warmer.
If ‘vagrants’ didn’t finish their jobs they would be sent to prison for 3 months hard labour. For some, this was more appealing than ‘tramping’ between workhouses day-to-day. Others were forced to return to their own parish to enter the workhouse.
Following the closure of the workhouse the building became a hostel up until the 1960’s, and was used for hospital administration until the 1990’s.