1800 – 1899

Market Street workhouse was enlarged in 1800 to accommodate 150 inmates, to meet the increased need for relief for people facing poverty and destitution.

By this time Brighton had become a popular seaside resort, with high-society and royalty visiting the town to ‘take the cure’ and enjoy the contemporary entertainment that was on offer. The location of the workhouse in the centre of the rapidly developing town did not appeal to ‘polite’ society; in 1820 a new site was purchased out of town on Church Hill, close to St Nicholas’ Church.

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[Ref: FA100473 Royal Pavilion & Museums]

The new workhouse, which opened in 1822, had an ‘H’ shaped layout, which allowed for categorisation of the inmates.

Renowned historian Peter Higginbotham comments that the northern wing ‘contained wards for males not capable of hard work…opposite, were apartments for females including the sick, those lying-in following childbirth, children, and any females not capable of hard work’.

The yard included a ‘corn mill, a whiting manufactory, and workshops for dressing flax and carding wool’ and the central section housed the ‘kitchen, wash house, brew house, bake house and laundry’. The Guardians of the Poor wished to make the workhouse autonomous, and objected to any interference. Inhabitants of the Bartholomew Square workhouse were transferred to the Church Hill workhouse over a two-week period in September of 1822.

A document entitled ‘1822 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Brighthelmston Work-house’, viewed at The Keep by the Heritage Research Group, gives us a clear idea of how the institution ran. ‘The poor’, who were categorised into nine different groupings and segregated, were required to work from ‘six to six in the summer, and from day-light to dark in the winter’.

Families were separated and would seldom be allowed to communicate. Inmates who were caught swearing or intoxicated could face punishment ‘by solitary confinement, abatement of diet or distinction of dress’. The document also outlined the Weekly Bill of Fare; the standard diet of a workhouse inmate. As part of its research, the group cooked and sampled gruel and measured out the typical amounts of bread and cheese an inhabitant could expect to receive, to truly appreciate the nutritional insufficiency and stodginess of the diet; read about the session here.

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[Ref: AMS 5660 East Sussex Records Office]

The 1822 Rules and Regulations document also made reference to children of ‘inmates’, stating that ‘no woman who shall be delivered in the work-house of an illegitimate child, shall be discharged without such child, before it is one year old; or if born out of the house, until the mother has been one year in the house’.

It was also common practice that orphaned or deserted children were apprenticed to local businesses as a source of cheap labour. Our research led us to the Brighton Apprentice Register, held at The Keep. One entry reads that on 5 October 1829 a 14 year old orphaned boy named James Shaw was apprenticed to William Ranger, a builder, for a term of 7 years for a fee of £10.

Labour in the workhouse was arduously severe and exhaustingly repetitive. In fact, it is reported that some inmates of the workhouse found the conditions and work expectations of prison favourable to those in the workhouse. Interestingly, Gardner refers in his book to a decision by the Guardians in 1826 ‘to install a treadmill, which they had seen on the Lewes and Brixton Prisons, but when the media kicked up a storm, the guardians denied the purchase’. Gardner quotes the Brighton Gazette, which called it a ‘cruel, unequal, and unjust punishment on such unfortunate persons as might be placed under their hard hands by the pressure of the times’.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act was introduced to address the increase in homelessness and begging following the Napoleonic Wars. The Georgian Act, of which certain sections are still enforceable today, made it an offence to ‘lodge in any barn, or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon not having any visible means of subsistence’. It also tackled begging by making it an offence for a person to place ‘himself or herself in a public place, street or highway, court or passage to beg or gather alms’, and anyone doing so would be deemed a ‘disorderly person’ and would face a custodial sentence.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 saw the whole poverty relief system reviewed, in order to curb swollen costs.  A key principle of the ‘new’ Poor Law was that no longer was there to be relief provided outside of the workhouse, and that conditions were to be so grave that only the truly destitute facing extreme necessity would seek to enter. The general thought at this time was that poverty was caused by the individual rather than the environment, and that anyone entering the workhouse lacked drive to address their circumstances.

Image 9 w220Just three years later the Poor Law Commissioners were forced to backtrack following several instances of people dying after being turned away from the workhouse.

The 1837 Casual Ward Regulation required food and a night’s shelter to be given to any destitute person in case of ‘sudden or urgent necessity’ in return for them performing a task of work. This provision was for those people who were living between employment and being penniless.

Workhouses added casual wards to serve this purpose, which were often severe, unsanitary, bitterly cold purpose-built blocks that were substandard to the conditions of the workhouse. The Heritage Research Group visited The Spike Heritage Centre in Guildford to better understand the routine and environment of a casual ward; read about the visit here.

At this time the middle and upper social classes were ignorant to the conditions within the workhouse; those experiencing true deprivation were out-of-sight and out-of-mind. That was until James Greenwood, a social journalist, sought to highlight the plight and educate the masses by disguising himself and entering the Lambeth Casual Ward.

In his publication from 1866 he described his experience; ‘as for the coughing, to lie on the flagstones in what was nothing better than an open shed, and listen to that, hour after hour, chilled one’s very heart with pity’. He commented that the hunger and cold experienced by the inhabitants was ‘almost enough to make a man cry’. Greenwood’s investigation inspired a number of other journalists and writers, including Jack London, whose 1903 publication The People of the Abyss, which proved very popular despite its depressing and revealing intent.

The writer, who immersed himself in a life of poverty and starvation for seven weeks in the East End of London, described how men would ‘unbind the filthy rags with which their feet were wrapped’, before being forced to wash in water that ‘the two men preceding had washed in…and it was not changed for the two men that followed us’. He wrote that the ‘smell was frightful and sickening’, and commented from his experience that ‘it seems that not only the man who becomes old is punished for his involuntary misfortune, but likewise the man who is struck by disease or accident.’ These first-hand accounts grabbed people’s attention and certainly made significant contribution to exposing the conditions and environment of the provisions for the country’s poorest people.

Other forms of accommodation were available to people who could pay; Higginbotham explains that common lodging houses were ‘often hardly any better than the charitable establishments…[but]did not demand a stint of hard labour or participation in a religious service in return for food and a bed.’ Common lodging houses were often overcrowded, unsanitary, and operated bed sharing or a relay system to earn as much as possible. Depending on their wage, people would often swing between paid-for accommodation and the casual wards.

In 1848, workhouses were urged to distinguish between ‘the honest unemployed, those temporarily and unavoidably in distress, who were in search of work’ and ‘the habitual tramp or vagrant’, Higginbotham writes. Those who demonstrated willingness to work might have received preferential treatment over those who didn’t.

As an aside, referring back to a previous note on settlement on the pre-1800’s page, an act in 1846 granted settlement to anyone who had resided in a parish for five years. Just under 20 years later, in 1865, this was reduced to one year.

Image 10 w300By the 1851 Census, which the Heritage Research Group viewed at The Keep, there were 3959 ‘paupers’ in Sussex workhouses, 404 of which were under 5 years old, and 3 of which were 95 years or older.

In 1853 the operational responsibilities of the workhouse passed to Brighton Corporation, which sought to build a new institution, which opened on Race Hill in 1867. The largest of the three workhouses, Race Hill was a four-storey building with separate sections for male and female inmates, and a population of over 1000 inhabitants by 1881. 1882 saw a new Casual Poor Law act which stipulated that casuals must be detained for two nights to allow for a full day’s work in between.

New casual wards were erected at the entrance to the Race Hill Workhouse in 1885; claimants would line up along the tall, thick stone wall in anticipation for the door being opened at 6pm and processing commencing. Those accessing the casual wards were not permitted to enter the same ward within 30 days. The new requirement to stay two nights meant that they could leave early in the morning, thus allowing time to reach the next parish’s casual ward, which could be 20 miles away, before 6pm in the evening.

Outside of the workhouse charities had begun to emerge. The first soup kitchen had opened in Spring Gardens in 1829, followed by two more at different locations a decade later. The Model Dwellings for the Poor, a five-storey block of flats, was constructed on the corner of Church Street and Jew Street in 1852. The fifteen flats were aimed at providing good quality accommodation that was affordable to working people. Also significant was the founding of Brighton YMCA in 1870. Accommodation for single people such as servicemen and apprentices was provided at its base in Steine House, which still stands today, albeit closed due to fire damage.

Image 11 w300Around this time there was great focus on the relationship between poor sanitation and disease, with the spotlight firmly on areas such as Church Street and Gardner Street, where up to 1,000 inhabitants were living in overcrowded, squalid and unsanitary dwellings.

Brighton Corporation’s slum clearance programme commenced here in the 1870’s, and other strategies including the opening of public slipper baths in North Road and Cobden Road to promote health and cleanliness, were adopted. Initially, occupants were not rehoused, however as the scheme developed and extended to areas such as Carlton Hill and Edward Street, where disease and crime were particularly prevalent, occupants were relocated to new estates on the edge of the town.


A History of the Brighton Workhouses, James Gardner, Brighton James Gardner, 2012

A Night in a Workhouse, James Greenwood, Office of the Pall Mall Gazette, 1866

The People of the Abyss, Jack London, Macmillan & Co., 1903

The Victorian City: Images and Realities Vol 1, H.J. Dyos and Michael Woolf, Routledge, 1998