Return to Newmarket Town

Workhouse / Institution

The History of the Workhouse and Institution


White Lodge today, once the old Workhouse, now stylish apartments.

The Background to the Poor Laws

There is an old saying “The Poor are always with us”, and always in the history of this country that has been true. Every city, town and village have always had people less fortunate than others. It was the result of many things – war, pestilence, failure of the harvest, economic depression, family breakdown, health or just an inability to cope with life’s challenges.

What to do with these unfortunate people has always been a problem. This, of course, was well before the Welfare State. If you do look after them whose responsibility, is it? Who pays to look after the poor and how is the money raised? In our country’s history that has always been the question.

Up to the Reformation of the 16th century and the dissolution of the monasteries any relief offered to the poor relied chiefly on personal charity (arising mainly from religious beliefs) and the large religious institutions such as monasteries and abbeys, most of them maintained sick bays.

The earliest official attempts to do something occurred near the end of the reign of Elizabeth I when, in 1601, the Poor Relief Act was passed, this gave parish officials the legal right to collect money from ratepayers to help the deserving poor, the sick, the elderly and the infirm by providing non-residential handouts of food or clothing, where possible in return for work.

Small local workhouses first appeared after 1723 and by the 1770s had soared to around 2000. based on the principle that the prospect of entering was sufficient deterrent to all but the most needy.

The 1830s government decided on a programme of large, centralised workhouses to take the place of the many smaller houses dotted around.


Dullingham Guildhall served as a local workhouse in the 18th century.

Prior to the centralized workhouse in Exning Road a number of small workhouses existed in Newmarket and district. An early map shows Workhouse Yard in what is now All Saints Road and there were houses in High Street and elsewhere in the town. According to Peter Higginbotham the old Guildhall at Dullingham was a workhouse in the 18th century.

In 1832 The Great Reform Act was passed. Workhouses would be funded by ratepayers but administered by Unions with locally elected Board of Governors. The return of injured servicemen from the Napoleonic Wars led to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

1867. An Act was passed that led to the provision of Workhouse Infirmaries.

In 1930 Workhouses were re-designated as Public Assistance Institutions and were made the responsibility of County Councils.

1939. Institutions finally closed at the outbreak of World War II and remaining inmates were absorbed into Hospitals and Care Institutions. Some, including Newmarket, became Emergency Hospitals to deal with wartime casualties.

Attitudes towards the Poor and Destitute

The general attitude to the unfortunate people who for some reason or other found themselves in the unenviable position of having to take the ‘hospitality’ of the Workhouse or Institution verged towards scorn rather than pity.

The common belief was that there must be some weakness of character for human beings to get themselves into such a disreputable state. Surely, they had only themselves to blame? The Victorian principle that hard work builds character prevailed. Paupers and the idle must not be encouraged in their habits, so the Workhouses must be made unpleasant places where no one would enter by choice.

A letter from Edwin Chadwick, Secretary of the Poor Law Commission Office sent to The Clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Newmarket Union, dated April 1836 sums up the official attitude towards the treatment of Workhouse inmates. Dealing with diet he writes:

“In making this selection, especial reference must be had to the usual mode of living of the Independent Labourers of the District in which the Union is situated, and on no account must the Dietary of the Workhouse be superior, or equal to, the ordinary mode of subsistence of the labouring Classes of the Neighbourhood.

Want of attention to this essential point, has been the cause of much evil, by too frequently exhibiting the Pauper Inmates of a Workhouse, as fed, lodged and clothed, in a way superior to Individuals subsisting by their own honest industry, thereby lessening the stimulus to exertion, and holding out an inducement to idle and improvident habits.”

In 1909 Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George pushed through Parliament the introduction of the Old Age Pension against strong opposition. Many members of the Tory Party considered that this would simply encourage idleness. Although only five shillings a week it was sufficient to cover basic living needs.

This, later combined with health insurance and the increasing number of schools, hospitals and asylums for the feeble minded, meant that there was far less need for the able-bodied unemployed to have to go into the Workhouse which became more of a refuge for the poor and helpless, unmarried mothers and children.


One of the inmates, James Wanless, painted this picture of the front of the Workhouse in 1927
Picture from ‘A History of Newmarket General Hospital’ by Dick Heasman


Tramps, Vagrants or “Gentlemen of the Road” were viewed with suspicion as though they must have underlying criminal tendencies, notwithstanding that many of them were well mannered men who had loyally served their country in the wars and were victims of war injuries, family break up or economic depression.

Many people who lived in the 1930s will recall the tramps, who would knock on doors to beg boiling water to make tea in a billy-can. It was suspected that some left secret signs on gates advising other tramps on the reception they were likely to receive.

Those that turned up at the Workhouse were treated differently from the longer-term residents and received basic accommodation in casual wards, for two nights only unless they could offer useful trades. They had to take a bath and their clothes were cleared of lice and other unwanted pests in a steam disinfector.

Food consisted of a mug of hot tea, and if they were lucky a hot meal of sorts, otherwise they received little more than bread and water with perhaps a little weak gruel for breakfast. Their belongings were removed, and they were expected to pay for their lodging if they had any money.

It was suspected that tramps often hid their meagre belongings in a hedgerow where they could retrieve them on exit. Most tramps were glad to get back on the open road, where they would sleep rough in woods or under hedgerows or any shelter they could find.

The Workhouse was colloquially known by tramps as ‘The Spike’. The Newmarket Workhouse had a reputation for being one of the easier overnight stays, but this was only in relative terms. The strong belief existed among the authorities that it would be quite wrong to make conditions for the vagrants easy in any way as this would simply encourage dependency and a life of indolence.


Through this portal went the down and outs, to receive scant comfort or sympathy inside.


Referrals to the Institution were usually made by the Police, Doctors, Ministers of the Church etc and approved by the local Relieving Officer. For the Newmarket Union during the 1920s and 30s this was Mr W B ‘Bert’ Hatley from Woodditton, who toured the area in a small car.

Life Inside the Workhouse.

Once inside the Workhouse life was more akin to prison. The main gate to Exning Road was guarded and entry and exit strictly controlled. Iron railings with spikes surrounded the perimeter of the area allowed to inmates (clearly seen in the 1927 painting by James Wanless shown above).

Inmates were generally dehumanized, having to wear the coarse uniform and to conform to strict discipline. Although the able were expected to work, for others the days passed drearily. Dick Heasman relates that The Poor Law Board had advised that to avoid idleness inmates should be required to separate white and black oats, which on completion were intermixed. This particularly pointless occupation seems to have been rejected by the Newmarket Master.

In 1840 all inmates were vaccinated against smallpox, following government advice.

The Infirmary


The Act of 1867 recognised the need to improve the basic sick care provided in Workhouses.

Two Infirmary blocks for male and female patients were built on land owned by the Board of Governors and were opened in 1890. These could accommodate about 300 – infirm and sick, children who had nowhere to live.

The eight infirm or sick wards received patients, mainly geriatrics, who could not afford medical care or were not suitable cases for Addenbrookes Hospital.

A census carried out in 1891 listed Agricultural Worker as the main occupation of inmates, coming from local villages, but it is not clear whether they were all sick or in the general wards.

The Infirmary was attended regularly, or in emergency, by local doctors
Some funerals were arranged privately by relatives. Others were arranged by the Institution in public ground at Newmarket Cemetery. A hearse was ordered, and four inmates acted as bearers, they were issued with dark suits, black ties and bowler hats kept especially for the purpose.

The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited the Infirmary on several occasions and made gifts in support. The picture right, from Peter Higginbotham’s book, depicts the King talking compassionately to a young patient dying from consumption.

From Dick Heasman's book

From Dick Heasman’s book

Copyright extracts from “The History of Newmarket Volume II” edited by Sandra Easom and published by Newmarket Local History Society:

In 1834, The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed to help the situation. About half the population of Suffolk was receiving some form of support at this time. Part of this was caused by the industrialisation of the northern wool industry. This meant that the wives and children of agricultural workers were no longer needed to comb wool and spin yarn for the Norwich Worsted industry.

The 1834 Act divided Suffolk into 18 Poor Law Unions. Each of these had a large, central Workhouse – a place where the poor and needy were housed and fed and required to work for their keep.

However, there was nothing to attract people to live in a workhouse. Food and accommodation were very basic and workhouses were split up into areas which accommodated men or women or juveniles, so families were not permitted to stay together.

Newmarket Workhouse was unusual in the respect that it had a few cottages set aside for couples over 65 years of age. Children stayed constantly with their mothers until they were 2 years old. Newmarket Union was responsible for the Newmarket area.

It was decided that there was a need for a central workhouse in Newmarket in the early 1830’s. The building was completed in early 1837. It was built by Messrs Steggles of Newmarket using the pale, yellowish-coloured Burwell brick seen in many local buildings. It could accommodate 380 inmates.

Originally, the workhouse was located out of town, Bakers Row then being the ‘outpost’ of the houses. For some 38 years, the workhouse was the only building between Newmarket and Exning. Then the houses of Gwynne Terrace were added in 1875. These were followed by Stamford Terrace (1882), Cherry Cottages (1882), Prospect Terrace (1891), Victoria Villa (1897), and St Phillip’s Terrace (1898). Field Terrace Road and King Edward Road were built at the beginning of the 20th century.

Public opinion swung against the relief of the poor in the early 19th century. Workhouses provided a means for keeping able-bodied people in work and as a temporary, separate lodging for tramps.

The 1834 Act had given the means to do this economically and efficiently, which was what public opinion demanded. However, in the 1840’s, the number of people receiving Out Relief, or charitable help outside of the workhouse system, outnumbered those within it by 7 to 1. Only 10-20% of paupers set foot in a workhouse.

Workhouses were purpose-built or adapted from existing buildings. People dreaded having to go into them and the depth of feeling against them is reflected in a poignant poem written by James Withers Reynolds from Fordham in 1846. He and his family were inmates of Newmarket Union. His sister lived in Cambridge.

“Since I cannot, dear sister, with you hold communion.
I’ll give you a sketch of our life in the Union.
But how to begin, I don’t know, I declare;
Let me see: well, the first is our grand bill of fare.
We’ve skilly* for breakfast, at night bread and cheese,
And we eat it and then go to bed if we please.
Two days in the week we’ve pudding for dinner,
And two we have broth, so like water, but thinner,
Two, meat and potatoes, of this none to spare;
One day bread and cheese and this is our fare.
And now then, my clothes I will try to portray;
They’re made of coarse cloth and the colour is grey.
My jacket and waistcoat don’t fit me at all,
My shirt is too short or else I am too tall;
My shoes are not pairs, though of course I have two,
They are down at the heel and my stockings are blue.
But what shall I say of the things they call breeches?
Why mine are so large they’d have fitted John Fitches.
John Fitches, you say, well pray who was he?
Why one of the fattest men I ever did see.
Neither breeches, nor trousers, but something between
And though they’re so large, you’ll remember I beg,
That they’re low on the waist and high on the leg.
And no braces allowed me, oh dear, oh dear!
We are each other’s glass so I know I look queer.
A sort of Scotch bonnet we wear on our heads,
And I sleep in a room where there are just fourteen beds.
Some are sleeping, some are snoring, some talking, some playing,
Some fighting, some swearing, but very few praying.
Here are nine at a time who work on the mill,
We take it by turns so it never stands still
A half hour each gang, so ‘tis not very hard,
And when we are off we can walk in the yard.
We have nurseries here, where the children are crying,
And hospitals too for the sick and the dying.
But I must not forget to record in my verse,
All who die here are honoured to ride in a hearse.
I sometimes look up at a bit of blue sky
High over my head, with a tear in my eye,
Surrounded by walls that are too high to climb,
Confined as a felon without any crime.
Not a field, nor a house, nor a hedge I can see
Not a plant, nor a flower, not a bush, nor a tree,
Except a geranium or two appear
At the Governor’s window, to smile, even here.
But I find I am got too pathetic by half,
And my object was only to cause you to laugh.
So my love to yourself, your husband and daughter,
I’ll drink to your health in a tin of cold water;
Of course we’ve no wine nor porter nor beer,
So you see that we all are teetotallers here.”
*skilly” – a thin soup or gruel

Strict discipline was maintained, those able to work were given arduous duties such as stone breaking and bone crushing and men and women, parents and children were segregated. Until 1860 medical facilities were very basic but by 1880 trained nurses were appointed.

The Workhouse diet, as we see from the poem, was very basic. The Poor Law Commission had given strict dietary guidance. Reference was to be made to the diets of the labourers in the local district and the diet supplied at the workhouse was not to be better than, or even as good as, that of the employed labourers.

New arrivals at the workhouse were made to bath and to change into the workhouse ‘uniform’, well-described in the previous poem. The system was geared to take away people’s individuality.

Most workhouses tried to be as self-supporting as possible, and Newmarket was no exception. Inmates did not receive payment for their work, which was manual and tedious. Apart from food and a roof over their heads, their only recompense was 1 ounce of tobacco each week, which they called ‘shag’ or ‘twist’.

Newmarket was unusual in this respect; most workhouses supplied no treats. However, relatives were allowed to give inmates items for comfort.

We see from the poem that some inmates worked on a mill. Others sawed logs and chopped wood, both to feed the workhouse stoves and to sell locally. This helped with the establishment’s running costs. Some inmates worked in the greenhouse and gardens.

One Head Gardener, a Mr. Harvey, set iron man traps to frighten inmates and other potential thieves away from the crops. Children were in dread of this fearsome looking character. Other employment included a stone-breaking yard (stone for roads) and a laundry. Many inmates were tradesmen, and they were set to work on maintenance jobs.

A treat for the resident children was to walk into town on Saturday to go to the Victoria Cinema in the Victoria Hotel (it later became the Carlton Hotel), where they were given free admission. The sick were segregated in separate sick wards within the workhouse. In 1867, Parliament passed the Metropolitan Poor Act and allowed the provision of separate facilities for the sick, insane and infirm. The Workhouse and its administration was overseen by the Guardians of the Newmarket Union.

Changes occurred in the attitudes in society and the advent of more schools, hospitals and asylums, together with old-age pensions and, later, health and employment insurance meant that by the 1920s few able-bodied people remained in the workhouse. Those who did were unmarried mothers and the most helpless members of society. Although the Workhouse name changed to Institution in the 1930s, for many the old title and the stigma remained.

Thus, it can be seen that the subject of the treatment of the poor and needy in the past is a complicated one. Also, our approaches and thinking today are very different. We live in a society where many of us are used to having surplus and some provision for the future, such as pensions. Today, it is usual to give some of that surplus to help those in need. We do not have a daily struggle for survival in most cases.

It is hard to put ourselves into the place of people who lived in different times and, perhaps, in difficult circumstances and to understand their thinking. This should be kept in mind as we look at local, past solutions to poverty.

The Institution Chapel


The former Workhouse chapel, now St Philip W St Etheldreda Church.

In 1895 a new Church (The Workhouse Chapel) was built in the Institution grounds close to the main entrance and dedicated to St Etheldreda. It was funded by voluntary contributions from local people and had seating for 250 worshippers.

Godliness was encouraged among the inmates but for some the inability to walk from the wards and general apathy towards religion meant that it was underused. In 1974 its use was changed to a squash court for the benefit of hospital staff, but it was found that outsiders were the main beneficiaries.

The nearby St Philip’s Church was in a poor state and due for demolition so it was decided that its parishioners should join with the hospital staff and on 1st May 1988 the restored Church was re-dedicated to St. Philip W St Etheldreda. covering the two communities.

World War II and Beyond

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the old Newmarket Workhouse/Institution was turned into the White Lodge Emergency Medical Services Hospital (EMS), to deal with casualties. It was re-designated Newmarket General Hospital in 1951 but for many the name White Lodge lingered on.

In the late 1990’s a new Community Hospital was built in the grounds and the old buildings were turned into private housing.

Mr Dick Heasman (1917 – 1987)

Dick Heasman was the second son of Ernest Heasman and Ada Livock. Ernest was Master of the Newmarket Workhouse and Institution from 1911 to 1942. Ada worked with her husband as Matron from 1912 to 1942. During his long term as Master, Ernest made many improvements to conditions, within the limitations of availability of funds, government advice and the prevailing attitude towards Workhouses/Institutions.

These included the installation of electric lighting, new floors and ceilings, curtains for the windows, partial central heating through pipes supplied by steam raising boilers and upgrading of the laundry,

The Master and his family lived on the site, so Dick grew up in the environment of the Workhouse and Institution. From 1934 he worked under his father until army service during the war when he became a Major in the Royal Corps of Signals, serving with the Chindits in Burma. He then went on to work in Newmarket General Hospital and became Secretary in 1967, a position held until retirement in 1977.

His book “160 Years of Service to the Community. “A History of Newmarket General Hospital”, contains much detailed history of life in the Workhouse and Institution based on his personal observation. It has been a great source of information while researching this website article. Unfortunately, there are few copies of the book about these days, but Newmarket Local History Society has one in the archives.

References and Acknowledgements

  • Dick Heasman’s book, referred to above.
  • The Newmarket Local History Society’s extensive archives and in particular the two volume ‘History of Newmarket’
  • Notes left by Eric Dunning, former Chairman of NLHS, who gave talks on the subject.
  • Published accounts by Workhouse historian Peter Higginbotham.
  • Rodney Vincent (NLHS webmaster) 2013