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.
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.
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.
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
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.