18th and 19th Centuries Parishes and Workhouse

At the beginning of the eighteenth century local administrative matters were dealt with by the local parish, or the vestry, which was a committee made up usually of 24 men with wealth, good connections and high local standing. The vestry was responsible for such matters as the watch, lighting and paving the streets, maintaining burial grounds and churches, and administering the parish's charities. From the late 1700s onwards, special commissions, independent of the vestry, were established responsible for paving, lighting, cleaning the streets and keeping the watch. There were three parishes in Bankside and Borough: St Saviours Parish that roughly covered the old Clink Manor, the Parish of St George the Martyrwhich roughly covered the former Kings Manor, and the Parish of Christchurch, which covered the old Paris Garden area, now the area around Blackfriars Road and West Bankside. More churches were built and new parishes formed within these parishes to accommodate the rapidly growing population in the nineteenth century(see Victorian Churches).

Until 1834 it was the duty of the parish to administer the Poor Law, however what was given as relief varied from parish to parish. Relief could be given as 'indoor' relief where items such as food, coal and clothing were given to the poor in their own homes, or 'outdoor' relief where the poor were forced to stay in a workhouse and were provided with food in exchange for their labour. Conditions were harsh, the aim of the workhouse was to act as a deterrent. The richer householders of a parish were levied a poor rate which paid for relief to the poor. The Southwark Female Societywas founded in 1813 with a view to visiting poor women in Southwark, laid low by sickness and unemployment, and offering help: a report about their work written in 1822 can be found here.

St Saviour'sbuilt a workhouse in 1728 located in Maid Lane (Park Street) then a further one was built in 1777 in Pepper Street, near the Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark Bridge Road today. Not many years later, the workhouse was described as:

"... a spacious and convenient building situated at the upper end of Pepper Street; this house was finished and rendered fit for the reception of the poor, and they were first removed into it in the year 1777. The erecting it is said to have cost the parish five thousand pounds. The burying ground adjoining to it was consecrated by Dr John Thomas, bishop of Rochester, on the 27th July, 1780.

"... From a view of this house compared with others, we were led to remark, that those who are able, are employed on work suitable to their ability, supplied with warm and very cleanly lodging, sufficient cloathing, and provisions of very good quality. The work rooms, which consist of various employments, winding silk, carding wool, coarse needle-work, etc are under the inspection of persons employed for the purpose, but who belong to the house, and they seem to be conducted with decency and industry. The various accommodations are very convenient; the kitchen, dining-hall, and store-rooms are decent, cleanly, and adequately supplied with what is necessary. The bread consumed is baked in the house. There is a neat committee room for transacting parochial concerns.

"... In the month of February, 1784, five hundred and thirty people were supported in this house, but the general number is from three to four hundred. The sick are attended by a surgeon elected by the committee; the gentleman who now holds that office is a Mr John White, and who was elected to it by a considerable majority in the room of Mr Harrington, on the 30th January, 1783. Divine service is usually performed here by the chaplains or their curates on Monday evenings.

"The present master of the workhouse is Mr Benjamin Courtney; he is allowed a salary of 30 per annum for his services, and was elected in 1792, in the room of Mark Cork, deceased.

"The matron, Mrs Elizabeth Brown, was elected in the year 1788, and is allowed a salary of 20 per annum. To these salaries are added considerable advantages arising from perquisites.

"... As we enter the door on the right hand, is the following table of rules and orders, proper to be here preserved.


"- That every person admitted into this house shall be employed in such business as the master or mistress shall direct, unless disabled by sickness or infirmity.

"- That if any person go out of this house without leave of the master or mistress; or having such permission, shall not return by eight o'clock in the evening in the summer, or by six o'clock in the winter half year, such person shall not be admitted in again without an order in writing from one of the overseers.

"- That no person be admitted into this house, on idle visits or pretences.

"- That if any person be guilty of swearing, drunkenness, scolding, quarrelling, or fighting, report be made to the next committee, in order to bring such offenders to punishment.

"- That no spirituous liquors be brought into this house, on any pretence whatever.

"- Every person admitted into this house, is required to attend to these orders, on pain of being discharged."

The land where the workhouse was built was part of Winchester Parkowned by the Bishop of Winchester which was leased out. Parcels of land were then sub-leased and one of these sub-leases, due to expire in the early years of the nineteenth century, was assigned to the Churchwardens of St Saviour's. By the time the lease expired, there had been a change in head lessee and the area was now in demand for commercial premises which were able to bring in a higher rent. As a result, the Workhouse Committee were unable to agree terms, either leasehold or freehold, with the Bishop of Winchester's lessees who were seeking a greater rent than the Parish was able to pay. The Workhouse Committee were unable to find other suitable premises or land at an affordable cost and prepared a report regarding future provision for the poor. The Report found it would be more beneficial for the majority of the poor to be given outdoor relief whereby they could remain in their own homes (and save the parish money). What were termed the "profligate and vicious poor" would be farmed out to the workhouses of other parishes, and St Saviour's would keep a small establishment for the "respectable aged poor", thus the parish would have no need of a large new workhouse. However, at the eleventh hour, Mr Hey, the current Master of the Workhouse, showed the Committee a former coachworks in Newington Causeway as potential premises for a new workhouse. The building was surveyed and found suitable, but the arrangement was that Mr Hey acquired the building and the parish contracted the poor to his and his wife's keeping, thus the parish was saved the huge outlay of a new workhouse. By 1810, a hat factory and two large houses had been built on the land of the former workhouse.

St George the Martyropened a workhouse in Mint Street in 1729 and it was reported that in October 1731 there were 68 men, women and children resident. All who were able spun mop-yarn and yarn for stockings which were then knit by the women. 103 pairs of stocking were spun and knit between February and September 1731. Besides working the children were taught to read and recite the catechism. The house was kept very clean by the mistress and prayers were said everyday and those who were able attended church on Sundays. Those who were able to work "shall be entitled to one penny for every shilling* they earn and the rest who do other necessary business in the Family such as dressing the Victuals, Nursing, Washing, cleaning the house and the like, shall also be allowed such Encouragement Money as their Service shall deserve; but if any lay out this Money in Liquors and disorder themselves, they shall be severely punished."
*(12 pennies to the shilling)

A new workhouse was built on the same site in 1782.

In 1834 the Poor Laws were changed and administering poor relief was taken out of the hands of the parishes. Instead Poor Law Unions were formed administered by elected Boards of Guardians though the parishes would still bear the cost. Where before parishes were not under any obligation to provide workhouses, they were now central to the provision of poor relief as the poor were only able to receive help as a workhouse inmate. In 1836 the parishes of St Saviours and Christchurch joined together to form the St Saviour's Poor Law Union and just before this time a workhouse had been built in Marlborough Street in Christchurch Parish. St George the Martyr joined the St Saviours Poor Law Union in 1869 which took over the running of the Mint Street Workhouse. There is now a landscaped park in Mint Street where the workhouse once stood and Southwark College now stands on the former site of the workhouse in Marlborough Street. www.workhouses.org.ukcreated by Peter Higginbotham contains masses of information on the history of the workhouse.

An Account of Several Workhouses(1732)
Matthew Concanen and Aaron Morgan, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of St Saviour's, Southwark (1795)
LMA: St Saviour's Vestry Minutes 1804-1814 (P92/SAV/0455)
Assignment of Lease for the Workhouse (P92/SAV/1434)