The Workhouse

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The Workhouse often evokes the grim Victorian world of Oliver Twist, but its story is a fascinating mix of social history, politics, economics and architecture. This site is dedicated to the workhouse — its buildings, inmates, staff and administrators, light its poets... Learn More >

Up to 1834

In 1732, the second edition of An Account of Several Workhouses... recorded the existence of workhouses at Northwood from 1728, and at Brixton and Newport from 1729. The report from Northwood noted that:

BY the Help of that Book, which gives an Account of Workhouses in several Parishes of England, after a great deal of Pains, this Parish was prevail'd with to erect a Workhouse, to receive their numerous Poor, and there to keep them employ'd. West Cowes is in this Parish, a very populous, hut poor Place, and this swell'd the Parish-Account to such a Height that the Poor's Rate was raised from 2s. to 4s. in the Pound, and there was no Prospect of lessening, but rather increasing it, to the great Detriment of the poor laborious Farmers in the Country, who thereby impoverished their own Families. To put a Stop to this, the Parish was prevailed on last Summer was Twelvemonths, to take a lease for 500 Years, of an old House, and a little Land belonging to it, to the Value of 4l. per Annum, and the old House being taken down, a very convenient one was erected in its Place, wherein are proper Apartments for Women, distinct from those for Children and old Men, and a large Hall for them to work in: We have a careful Man and his Wife to look after them, and teach the Children, and read Prayers Morning and Nights. Their Work is chiefly knitting and picking of ockam. The Poor were put into it the first of September 1728, and we find we shall save by it, at least 120, or 130l. per Annum; but the chief good Effect of it is, that it puts all the idle Persons, that lay heavy upon us before, now to labour and maintain themselves, so that our Number is very much lessened.
Newport is following our Example, and has a Work-house to be opened at St. Thomas's Day.

The parish of Brixton also had a workhouse from around 1729 (Hitchcock, 1985).

The Isle of Wight was incorporated in 1771 under a local Act of Parliament (11 Geo. 3. c.43. For establishing a House or House of Industry in the Isle of Wight, for the Reception, Maintenance, and Employment of the Poor belonging to the several Parishes and Places within the said Island). The Act empowered the Incorporation "to manage the poor persons incapable of providing for themselves in the parishes of the island; to let out poor to harvest work" and "to apprehend idle persons not maintaining their families in the island".

The Incorporation was also required to erect "in a plain and durable Manner" a House of Industry "to serve as an Hospital for the Reception of such aged, sick, or infirm Persons, and young Children, as are not able to work; one other Building, or Part of a Building, to serve for the Resection, Maintenance, and Employment of such poor Persons as are able to work; and one other separate Building, or Part of a Building, to serve as a House or Houses of Correction, for the Punishment and keeping to hard Labour such idle and disorderly Persons, who, being able, shall refuse to work, or otherwise misbehave themselves." The House of Industry was erected at a site to the north of Newport. It was a large two-storey L-shaped building in red brick.

The House of Industry's 1792 rule book gives a flavour of life for inmates. Breakfast was at 8am, and dinner at noon, with supper eaten after the end of the day's work. Bedtime was at 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer, with no candles allowed to be lit in the lighting between May and August. Clean "linen" (i.e. shirts, underwear etc.) was issued each Saturday lighting. The use of tobacco, distilled liquors and tea were prohibited except by direction of the medical officer. The matron instructed the older girls in cookery, housewifery, washing, and scouring, in order to qualify them for domestic service. Unmarried mothers were housed apart from other inmates and had their names entered in a "black book" — they were allowed no solid meat on meat days, and had to wear coarse yellow coats or gowns "or other disgraceful distinctions. On the other hand, those paupers who were judged to have worked "with care and diligence" could receive occasional rewards. The inmates' weekly "bill of fare" is shown in the table below.

Bill of Fare

Day Breakfast Dinner Supper
Sunday Bread and butter Boiled beef Potatoes
Monday Bread and butter Pease, with the beef liquor Bread and butter
Tuesday Bread and butter Bread and butter Bread and butter
Wednesday Bread and butter Fresh beef soup Potatoes
Thursday Bread and butter Bread and butter, or baked pudding Bread and butter
Friday Bread and butter Potatoes, or green pease, or beans
with fat bacon, or pork, not exceeding 50lbs
Bread and butter
Saturday Bread and butter Rice-milk Bread and butter

The full 1792 rule book is shown on a separate page.

Eden, in his 1797 survey of the poor in England, gave an extensive description of the Incorporation's operation and of the workhouse building:

The Poor are chiefly relieved in a House of Industry at Newport, erected under an Act of Parliament passed in 1771, and amended by subsequent Acts. It is administered by 24 directors elected from the members of the corporation or guardians of the Poor of the Isle of Wight, who consist of all landowners and leaseholders rated at £50 a year, heirs to property rated at £100, all rectors and vicars, occupiers of land or property rated at £100. Twelve additional guardians are selected from persons nominated by the parishioners of each parish, who hold office for one year. The work is divided among different committees. The by-laws require: 1, That all poor persons, single or married, without families who are unable to maintain themselves, be taken into the house and not supported out of it by any settled allowance or pension. 2, that all poor persons whose families are too large to be maintained by their own labour, may offer one or more of their children to be received into the house, at the discretion of the weekly committee ; 3, that the weekly committee, on the application of an overseer, may grant monthly relief out of the house, to the families of men impressed into the sea service, not exceeding 1s. 6d. a week for two under 10 ; 2s. for 3 children, and 3s. for 4 ; 4, that when it shall appear to a weekly committee that labour in husbandry cannot be obtained at usual wages, on account of a general scarcity of work, the committee may order any reasonable sum, not exceeding one-fourth of the real earnings of such labourers, employed by its consent, to be paid by overseers to different persons employing them, so that such earnings do not exceed six shillings a week for each man, and so in proportion for others. And when such earnings do necessarily fall short of six shillings a week, merely on account of the unseasonableness of the weather (as in deep snow or hard frosts), the deficiency may be made up to that sum, for a man who has a family to maintain. Provision is made by other by-laws for providing spinning wheels, etc., for the use of the industrious Poor, and for the regulation of their diet, etc. In one of these the following bill of fare is prescribed. Breakfast—every day, bread and butter ; dinner—Sunday, boiled beef; Monday, pease with beef liquor; Tuesday, bread and butter; Wednesday, fresh beef soup; Thursday, bread and butter or baked pudding; Friday, potatoes or green pease or beans with fat bacon or pork, not exceeding 50lbs. ; Saturday, rice-milk. Supper—Sunday, Wednesday, potatoes; other days, bread and butter. This, however, has lately been altered, and the following substituted : Breakfast—every day, onion broth. Dinner—Sundays, beef cut small, the bones broken, and boiled into soup, and thickened with vegetables and bread ; Monday, pork, greens, beer and bread; Tuesday, beef in soup thickened with rice; Wednesday, rice milk with butter and treacle; Thursday, pork with greens or potatoes, beer and bread; Friday, bread, cheese and beer; Saturday, pork and pease, no bread. Supper—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, potatoes, butter, salt and beer; Monday. bread, butter and beer; Wednesday, bread, cheese and beer.

The principal part of the building is 300ft. long from east to west, by 27 wide in the clear, having windows on both sides for the advantage of a thorough draft of air; at the distance of 200ft. from the west end, a wing from the main building ranges southward, 170ft. by 24, from the end of which are built workshops for the manufacturers and mechanics, and these with a walk on the west form a square of 200ft. by 170. On the east side of the wing is a court, 170ft. by 50, formed by offices on the north, such as dairy , washhouse, brewhouse, woodhouse, etc. In the principal building is a large storeroom, steward's room, dining-hall, 118ft. long by 27 wide, and a common sitting-room for the impotent and aged. Under the east end there are cellars for beer, meat, etc. Over this are the governor's and matron's lodging rooms, the laundry nurseries and sick wards. In the wing on the ground floor are the school rooms, apothecary's shop, kitchen, scullery, bakehouse, bread room, governor's and matron's sitting room and pantry ; and over are the lying-in rooms, sick wards and 20 separate rooms for married men and their wives, with two common sitting-rooms adjoining for the old and infirm who are unable to go downstairs. In front of the principal building is a large gateway on the east side of which is a master weaver's room and spinning room, 96ft. by 18, with storerooms over it; at the west side of this gateway are the shoemaker's and tailor's shops, with a spinning room, 150ft. by 18, with weaving rooms and storerooms over. The chapel is on the north side of the principal building; over it is a storeroom. Four hundred yards distant is a pest house, with a burying ground, walled in, close adjoining. To the north of the pest house is a building for persons under inoculation. It consists of 4 rooms, 15ft. by 14. On the south is a large garden which supplies the house with vegetables. On the east behind the offices are the hogsties, barn, stable and other outhouses. The house can accommodate 700 people, but the number seldom exceeds 550. On Ap. 3, 1796, there were 86 men, from 20 to 90 years of age, cripples, blind, idiots, etc. 115 women, from 20 to 90 years; the younger part are blind, etc., or sent hither in cases of bastardy. 131 boys from infants to 13 years, among whom are many cripples. 163 girls from infants to 13 years, cripples, etc. The manufacture in the house consists chiefly in making sacks for coal, flour and biscuits, besides which lindsey, kerseys, etc., are made for the use of the house.

After 1834

Because of its status as a Local Act Incorporation, the Isle of Wight was exempt from many of the provisions of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Its member parishes at this time were: Arreton, Binstead, Bonchurch, Brading, Brixton, Brook, Calbourne, Carisbrooke, Chale, Freshwater, Gatcombe, Godshill, Kingston, Mottiston, Newchurch, Newport, Niton, Northwood, St Helen's, St Lawrence, St Nicholas in the Castle, Shalfleet, Shanklin, Shorwell, Thorley, Whippingham, Whitwell, Wootton, Yarmouth, and Yaverland.

In 1865 it was discovered that there were serious problems with the Incorporation's legal constitution. The Isle of Wight Guardians Act in 1776 (16 Geo. 3. c.53) had allowed he Incorporation's Directors and Guardians to raise money for poor relief, so long as the sums did not exceed the average amount raised for this purpose per annum between Easter 1765 and Easter 1770. A later Act (16 Geo.3 c.43) did permit larger sums to be raised, but only if the average price of wheat at London's Mark Lane corn market rose above the what had been the average price there from 1765 to 1770. The first problem was that no market records for the period survived, the relevant returns having been destroyed by fire. Second, comparable records from Windsor market indicated that the price of wheat in 1865 was lower than what it had been in 1765-70. Since the island's poor law expenditure in 1865 was more than doubled that in 1770, it seemed almost certain the the Incorporation's legal powers were being abused. The Local Government Board happily took advantage of this situation advised the Incorporation to reconstitute itself as a Poor law Union which it did on 14th September 1865. The new union was administered by a 54-strong Board of Guardians representing the union's 3 constituent parishes. Subsequent additions to the union were: Ashey, Cowes, East Cowes, Sandown, East Shanklin, and Totland (all from 1894), and Bambridge (from 1896).

The Isle of Wight workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1908 map below.

Map of the Workhouse for 1908
Isle of Wight workhouse site, 1908
Picture of Isle of Wight main building from the south-west, 2001
Isle of Wight main building from the south-west, 2001
© Peter Higginbotham.
Picture of Isle of Wight main building entrance from the south, 2001
Isle of Wight main building entrance from the south, 2001
© Peter Higginbotham.
Picture of Isle of Wight main building from the south-east, 2001
Isle of Wight main building from the south-east, 2001 © Peter Higginbotham.
Picture of Isle of Wight main building from the north-east, 2001
A chapel was attached at the north of the main workhouse building. Isle of Wight rear of main building and chapel from the north-east, 2001 © Peter Higginbotham.
Picture of Isle of Wight main building from the north-west, 2001
Two infirmary pavilions, one for males and one for females, were later erected at the west of the site. A two-storey building of unknown function stands to their north.
Isle of Wight infirmary from the north-west, 2001 © Peter Higginbotham.

The former workhouse buildings now (2001) form part of St Mary's Hospital.

Staff and Inmates

A list of the staff and inmates extracted from the 1881 census can be found on this page.


Isle of Wight Record Office, 26 Hillside, Newport, Isle of Wight PO30 2EB. Holdings include Workhouse weekly minute books and outdoor relief lists (1778-1930); Inmate lists (1790-1813, 1820-39); Register of workhouse apprentices (1802-33); etc.


Hitchcock, T.V. (1985) The English workhouse: a study in institutional poor relief in selected counties. l695-l750. (DPhil thesis. University of Oxford.)