Great Yarmouth Workhouse

September 2017

Listen to an authoritative talk by someone like our member Janet Edwards and you cannot help but learn a lot. This is not a proper history, just what stood out for me and from my point of view.

If good ole Henry VIII had kept his hands off the monasteries there may have been no workhouse in Great Yarmouth. The area was amazingly well provided with religious houses where Christian monks gave shelter, food, water and clothing to the poor. When they went, so did the care.

There followed 250 years of chaotic legislation, seemingly designed to keep the poor in their place – which included being whipped through the streets, as happened to the so-called “idle poor” – people whom the Justices of the Peace decided could work, but wouldn’t. Then from 1603 Parish-based “poor rates” were charged on property owners to pay for the care of the poor. This was resisted, especially when some of the poor began to work the system by moving to the parishes that were paying out the best money.

“Houses of Industry”, soon to be called workhouses, were created to bring the situation under control. Yarmouth’s came in 1654, set up in a 500 year old hospital building. Work was provided: net making for the men, spinning for the women – presumably to help pay the costs.

It seemed not too bad at the start. Single people were put in the main building whilst there were 78 rent free “poor houses” for whole families. Children had 3 hours education each day. They were not prisons – give three hours’ notice, collect the clothes that you arrived in, and you were away.

The original building was unfit so, in 1839, the workhouse moved into a new build on Northgate Street. By that time it was thought that conditions were too soft and the costs too high. Husbands and wives were thus separated as were older children. Rations were reduced to a little over half that provided in prisons, and meals were eaten in total silence. Half the inmates were old and infirm but there was no overnight care, and there were no playthings for children. There were no bathrooms and no hot water. A simple theory – if the workhouse was worse than staying in a poverty-stricken home then the poor would stay at home.

Of course this could not last. There were riots in some workhouses and nearby Rollesby workhouse was burnt down. Great Yarmouth Workhouse continued into the 1930s in more humane mode. Now, after wartime disturbances, much of the building is incorporated into Northgate Hospital. Something else I didn’t know, and something of a happy ending.

Noel Mitchell



The Chairman presented a review of well-attended cool-season talks and of a summer of sunshine laden trips.  Membership approaches 90, thanks in part to the welcome members give to visitors, who join our group with alacrity.    

Particular reference was made to Martham’s first Blue Plaque, unveiled on the wall of the old rectory by the Bishop of Norwich. Our first tangible mark upon the history of Martham.

The Treasurer presented a healthy Financial Statement and stated that the annual fee will remain at only £10.00 and that member entrance to all talks will continue to be free.

Our President summarised the 2018 Programme which will shortly be published. Notable is the visit by Neil Storey in November – The First World War Armistice and its impact on Norfolk. A long-promised and well-timed visit.



(Above: Janet Edwards)
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