From 1770 to 1833 there had been a continuous programme of land improvement; draining the moors, raising river banks, improving navigation and enclosing agricultural land. It was land enclosure that led to thousands of agricultural workers being unemployed and desperately struggling to survive. The number of destitute people was such that Bridgwater could boast two workhouses.
The first workhouse was in Old Taunton Road, near the junction with St Saviours Avenue. This was the parish workhouse and dates back to 1693 when the south gate almshouse was rebuilt. It was part of this which was afterwards used as a workhouse. By 1820 the whole building was a parish poorhouse and in 1831 typically held 86 people. Conditions were harsh, crowded and unhygienic. Within a period of only eight months, 39 of the 155 inmates died from small pox and dysentery. Then came 1834 and the Poor Law Amendment Act, within two years of which 17 Poor Law Unions had been set up, run by governors under the control of a commission, remote politicians rather than local people, focussed on keeping down the costs.
This was the problem faced by Bridgwater’s second workhouse established in 1837 at Northgate, where the Enterprise Centre now stands. It was the Union Workhouse, covering 40 parishes from Shapwick to Nether Stowey. It was a white brick, stuccoed building holding 388 inmates. Once again conditions were harsh but at least there was some heating and lighting, and three insubstantial meals a day. Their diet was typically 8 ounces of bread (six for the women) and a pint and a half of gruel.
It was a bleak existence. Conditions were crowded, dirty and frightening. Children slept six to a bed, 50 to a room 27 feet by 15. The elderly and infirm were sent to the Poor House where conditions were not much better, but the inmates didn’t have to work. In the workhouse, they did, mostly crushing stones used to improve the roads.
In 1893, such was the demand on the workhouse that 61 tramps were admitted in one week. In both workhouses, the principle was followed that no inmate should ever be better off than the worst conditions experienced by anyone in work. In other words, there had to be a real incentive not to be there. Despite that, the establishment was full of the dregs of society mingled with those who had simply fallen on misfortune. For the latter, admission of families came as a severe shock with the immediate separation of men into one dormitory and women into another, children into a third. Cramped conditions and appalling diets caused sickness and diarrhoea. Weakened inmates easily fell prey to diseases which were endemic. The dead were rapidly removed form their beds to make room for the next inmate. The high death rates of 1837 and 1838 could have been avoided simply with a change of diet – but the law wouldn’t allow it. Reducing the food available to the inmates had reduced the running costs by £5,000 a year. The increased rate of deaths was convenient in that each death solved a problem. The workhouse logbook recorded that everything was satisfactory ‘under the circumstances’.
John Bowen did not agree. His outspoken views about workhouses brought him much criticism. Nonetheless, he joined the Board of Governors of the Bridgwater Parish Union and saw conditions for himself. He was appalled. He found terrified, disease-ridden occupants, their bodies emaciated. He resigned his position and published his findings. Letters to the Times and Parliament, detailing 27 deaths in six months, and how 94 deaths from dysentery had been caused by the change of diet to a cheaper one, just brought more criticism. “Is killing in a Union Workhouse criminal if sanctioned by the Poor Law Commission?” was the title of one article. At the same time, the Governors congratulated the workhouse chairman for saving £4,843!
Bowen took his arguments to the House of Lords, showing that half the inmates had died in one winter compared with a death rate of only 3% for prison inmates. Little changed – but at least the situation got no worse. The workhouse records for 1843 show local women working in the fields at a wage of 4 shillings a week plus 3 pints of cider a day. In 1948 the Union Workhouse was transferred to the National Health Service to become a hospital known in 1990 as Blake Hospital when the name of Northgate was dropped and with it the workhouse stigma.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans