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Workhouse History

In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a "spike", was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon reporting that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke".

The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388 (Statute of Cambridge 1388 (12 Rich. 2, ch. 7)), which attempted to address the labour shortages, and increase in labour prices/wages, following the Black Death in England (which killed about one-third of the population) by restricting the movement of labourers. This law prohibited any labourer from leaving the hundred, rape, wapentake, city, or borough where he was living, without a testimonial, showing reasonable cause for his departure, to be issued under the authority of the justices of the peace. Any labourer found wandering without such a testimonial, was to be put in the stocks until he found surety to return to the town from which he came. It is not clear to what extent these laws applied in the Palatine County of Cheshire, especially in view of the particular provisions of the "Minstrel Court". In the 1744 Vagrancy Act, (17 George II., c. 5.), the heirs and assigns of John Dutton, of Dutton, co. Chester, deceased, Esq., are stated to be "exempt from the pains and penalties of vagrancy".

The Poor Relief Act of 1576 went on to establish the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it. The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through age or infirmity, were unable to work. The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a "House of Correction" (the precursor of the workhouse), where the "persistent idler" was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the "impotent poor", the old and the infirm, although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as "outdoor relief" – money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish.

"Vagrants" were defined surprisingly broadly. The 1744 Vagrancy Act simply listed who could be prosecuted under the law. These included (among others):

  • Charity collectors for prisons, gaols, or hospitals;
  • All persons concerned with performing interludes, tragedies, comedies, operas, plays, farces or other entertainments for the stage, not being authorized by law;
  • Those pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or fortune telling;
  • All persons who run away and leave their wives and children;

The 1713 and 1744 Vagrancy Acts also divided vagrants into three broad classifications:

  • Idle and Disorderly Persons
  • Rogues and Vagabonds
  • Incorrigible Rogues

A different punishment was specified for each. For the Idle and Disorderly, essentially the settled but unruly poor, a period of hard labour for up to one month in a house of correction was specified. For Rogues and Vagabonds, all the bear wards and minstrels, strolling players and jugglers listed in the Act, a public whipping followed by incarceration in a house of correction was mandated. These vagrants were also subject to a further examination at the next meeting of sessions, at which time they might be imprisoned and set to hard labour for a further six months. At the completion of their sentence rogues and vagabonds were either removed to their place of settlement by a pass, or if male and above twelve years old, sent to the army or navy.

Mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, in three successive years from 1828, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. The New Poor Law of 1834 attempted to reverse the economic trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse (Chester's Incorporation status exempted it from many of the provisions of the 1834 Act.). As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals.

"The Spike"

As noted above "Spike" was one of the slang names for the workhouse (or more specifically its casual ward) along with "Bastille", "Grubber" etc. Theories abound as to the origin of the term including:

  • A short metal nail used in picking oakum.
  • A large metal spike fixed in the ground or a rock and used for stone breaking.
  • A small metal spike on which admission tickets (issued in some areas at local police stations) were placed after being handed over to the workhouse porter.
  • The "spiky" nature of the often infested beds.
  • Spikes fixed to the top of the vagrants' yard wall to deter escape attempts.
  • The pointed lightning conductors which adorned the roofs of workhouse buildings.
  • Spike Island, near Cork, where convict gangs used to work. The men subsequently experienced similar treatment in workhouses and so began to refer to them as 'spikes'.
  • The reference in Pickwick Papers (towards end of chapter XLI) to the Fleet Prison as 'Spike Park', a term said to have then been in common use among the inmates of the institution.
  • A derivation of "spiniken", another tramps' name for a workhouse, originally based on "spinning house".

What does not appear to be true is the view expressed by some that Workhouses commonly featured a spire (or "spike") so that tramps could find them without much bother.

The Chester Workhouse

Poverty and vagrancy were intractable problems in Chester throughout the period prior to the Civil War of 1642. Beggars came to Chester from Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland, and poorer parts of the North West, drawn by the prospect of alms, pickings, or casual work. In 1539-40 Chester was one of the first places to regulate them in response to national legislation distinguishing between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. A census of the indigent was taken, beggars were listed and licensed to beg in only one designated ward, and other workless men were required to present themselves for hire. Chester first established a "workhouse", although not by that name, in around 1575 when a building just outside the Northgate "near the quarry in the Gorse Stacks" was converted for this purpose. The city records for 1575 mention the "House of Correction":

In a watercolour by Moses Giffiths (1747-1819), the "House of Correction" is placed on the northern bank of the canal.
  • "This year there was a collection made in the city and of some worshipful in the county for a stock to set the poor on work and a house of correction built under the city wall near unto the Northgate which house was removed out of the corn market and was first placed there by Mr Webster for the butchers of the city."

The "House of Correction" was furnished with equipment and raw materials for clothmaking, on which the able-bodied poor could be set to work. The house opened under the supervision of three aldermen and the management of two masters. The Weavers' guild opposed the scheme in vain. In 1577 the master was required to employ 20 poor people and take up to five others named by the magistrates as in need of correction, the numbers later being doubled. After 1600 difficulties repeatedly arose about the master's terms and the sale of the cloth produced, despite competition for the mastership and a review of arrangements in 1625. In 1638 two new masters, both clothworkers, were appointed to replenish the stock and employ at least 100 people.

In October 1691, the churchwardens of St Olave's parish requested the lease of land on which to build 'conveniencys' in order to set the poor to work. Following the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, several parish workhouses were set up in Chester. St Johns opened one in 1724, and there was one in Handbridge by 1730. Another existed in St Oswald's parish and, in 1751, Chester Cathedral opened its own poor-house. In 1757, a House of Industry for use by all the city's poor was opened on Kitchen Street at the north-west corner of the Roodee. In 1762, Chester formed an incorporation of parishes (Holy Trinity, St Bridget, St Johns, St Martin, St Mary on the Hill, St Michael, St Olave, St Oswald, and St Peter) under a local Act of Parliament which gave it greater freedom in the management of the city's poor relief. The incorporation was governed by the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, and seventy-four other guardians. The Act also gave control of the Roodee workhouse for a period of 99 years.

The site of the workhouse by the Roodee. The Roodee Workhouse building was demolished in the early 1900s.

In a survey of 1797, comditions at the Chester Workhouse were described by Frederick Morton Eden as follows:

  • " some respects, incorporated by an Act of Parliament (2 Geo. III. c. 45, 1761), each parish supports its own Poor. There is a general Poor-house in Chester, to which every parish can send its own Poor, on payment of a sum each year. The original intention was to have a house of industry, a plan which has at different times been carried into execution, continued for a few years, and then dropped. For the last 2 or 3 years very little work has been done. The Poor-house is situated near the river, the lodging and other rooms large and well aired; 15 or 16 beds in a room, made of chaff or straw, and much infested with bugs. No small apartments for married people. The Poor in the house at present are chiefly aged persons and children. Old women spin flax and pick oakum. Children at 10 years of age are sent as apprentices to Manchester and other places. About 11 deaths annually in the house. The assessments vary much in different parishes. The rates are about 2s. in the pound. Voluntary contributions in 1794 for poor relief came to £491 17s. 1d., of which £156 11s. 8d. remained in hand in November, 1795. 8,000 persons, nearly half the population, applied in the winter of 1794-5 for relief. The weekly bill of fare is as follows: Breakfast—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Broth and bread; other days— Milk gruel and bread. Dinner—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Beef, potatoes, etc.; Monday, Wednesday—Butter, milk and potatoes; Friday—Beef, soup and potatoes; Saturday—Oatmeal hasty pudding. Supper—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Bread and butter ; other days—Milk, gruel and bread. One lb. of bread allowed each day to grown persons, 6oz. beef on meat days, and 1 pint of beer; children in proportion. Butter milk served on potato and hasty pudding days. The people of Chester find great disadvantages from the parishes not having been completely united. Removals and expensive appeals are continually taking place between the parishes. The great number of annual guardians is very inconvenient. The Poor have generally a dislike to come into the workhouse."

Hemingway in 1831 wrote of the Chester Workhouse at the Roodee in glowing terms:

  • "There are few places in the kingdom where the comforts of the poor are so efficiently provided for, as in this institution. The board of guardians meet every Thursday, when each individual case of the out-poor is brought before them; and when each inmate of the house is at liberty to state his complaint, if he have any to prefer. The internal management is truly excellent, and exhibits an example that may be advantageously followed by any work-house in the nation. The food of the inmates is good and nutritious; their treatment, gentle and humane, while an appearance of cleanliness and an air of comparative comfort are prominently discoverable throughout the whole of the little community. For 20 years, Mr. Jarvis has had the superintendence and management of the house affairs, and it is to his humanity and unceasing attentions, with those of Mrs. Jarvis, who is matron of the house, that is to be attributed this excellent state of its internal government."

Hemingway also writes of the 1787 visit of the prison reformer John Howard to Northgate Gaol and the "House of Correction". In a watercolour by Moses Giffiths (1747-1819), the "House of Correction" is placed on the northern bank of the canal and must have been a damp and gloomy place. It included workrooms on two storeys. In its courtyard a narrow space in the face of the quarry was used in the 17th century to confine refractory youths, and during the Interregnum, Quakers, for a few hours in a tortured position where they could neither stand, sit, kneel, or lie. It was known, euphemistically, as "Little Ease". In the 1770s a workshop and two 'dungeons' were added. It was closed in 1808 and was briefly a school which was sold in 1817 to Joseph Fletcher, who converted the buildings into dwellings. Nothing remains today and the site is occupied by an electricity sub-station.

The Hoole Workhouse

Map showing the location of the Chester Union Workhouse. All that remains today is St James Church.

In 1873, a new Chester Union workhouse was erected at Hoole at a cost of about £30,000. The design for the buildings was opened to competition and the winning plans were submitted by W Perkin and Sons. The new workhouse had a large T-shaped main building facing to the east, with a separate infirmary to its west and a school to the south. After the opening of the new workhouse, the old Roodee workhouse site was used as a confectinary works by the Cheshire Preserving Company. The Roodee Workhouse building was demolished in the early 1900s.

In 1894-5, the British Medical Journal, as part of a campaign to improve the nursing and medical facilities in workhouse infirmaries, conducted site visits to around fifty workhouses in England and Wales. Extracts from their report on the Chester union workhouse read as follows:

  • "The workhouse is about a mile outside the city, the infirmary buildings standing behind the main block; these are in three parallel blocks connected by wide bridges. The latter form a pleasant airing ground for the patients, and comfortable benches are placed on them. One block is set apart for the imbeciles and harmless lunatics; one block accommodates the medical cases, the infirm patients, and the lying-in wards; and the third block has the surgical cases, some infirm patients, and the children. The male and female inmates are thus in each block, and a trained nurse is in charge of each block. The infirmary is returned as accommodating 247 patients, but this includes the imbecile block; the average is about 80 in each block, more or less. The blocks are entirely apart, there being no means of communication except by the bridges aforementioned. The system of nursing is a mixture of the trained nurse with pauper help; both the nurses whom we saw had received hospital training, but they could not attend upon 80 or more patients; hence the pauper inmate is requisitioned to supplement them, and the style of the work bore out that system. At night there is one trained nurse for the two sick blocks, and in each block there is a male and female attendant besides; these latter are paupers. We lay stress on these points, bearing in mind that just recently an inquest was held on a pauper who died under circumstances that aroused suspicion that his death had been caused by the rough treatment which he had received at the hands of his ward attendant. The wards are small, the largest containing eleven beds; the others have six and four beds in them severally; this arrangement applies to both blocks. The wards are comfortable and homelike in appearance, the bedsteads of the full width, and the bedding is long straw, well filled, except where the nature of the case requires a water mattress, which the matron informed us was then supplied. The patients are classified as medical and surgical, the dirty cases being distributed among the other patients. The lock and itch patients are in a small separate block containing six beds for males and the same for the females. The master is responsible for the male patients, whilst the matron visits the female side of this isolation block. There is a labour ward having two beds; it struck us that the bed used as the labour bed was inconveniently small for its work. The women are convalesced in the larger ward. In the children's ward, which is on the ground floor, we found nice modern cots, and wool mattresses; these are a gift from a guardian who takes interest in the little ones. The ward looked cheerful and comfortable; it holds eleven cots, and has its separate bathroom and offices. There were very few children in at the time of our visit, and no severe case. A pauper is in charge of this ward. The sanitary appliances are not up to date; the baths are movable, and stand on the landings, where they are used behind screens. Hot and cold water is laid on for ward use, but the bath water is heated by geysers, which the matron informed us were quite efficient. The closets are also on the landings, a step or two down, and at a little distance from the wards, so that commodes are in use at night. There seemed to be a sufficient supply of water. The bath for the children's ward is a fixed one. Gulleys are provided for the emptying of the large baths. There is only one day room, and that is on the men's side; the men are allowed to smoke in the wards, or on the bridges. The airing courts are of the usual back-yard style, but the bridges have to a certain extent superseded them."

In 1900, the Chester Union erected a central children's home on the Wrexham Road together with smaller cottage homes at Upton Heath (Long Lane), Saughall (Hermitage Road), and Dodleston (Main Road). All the buildings still exist as of 2018. Introduced in the late 1860s, and modelled on similar schemes in France, Germany and Switzerland, cottage homes were often set in rural locations away from the often poor conditions and malign influences of the union workhouse. Groups or "families" of pauper children lived in 'villages' of purpose-built houses often set along a street or around a green. Each house would have a house 'parent' looking after twenty or thirty children.

Chester Union workhouse became Chester War Hospital in 1917. On 27th August its inmates were displaced and ‘imbeciles’ were sent to the Asylum in Upton. In 1919, at the end of the War, the Local Government Board was succeeded by a Ministry of Health. At Hoole, the Workhouse building and the Hospital Infirmary continued until the passing of the Local Government Act in 1929. Under the 1929 Act, Poor Law Unions were abolished, and the Public Assistance Committee of Chester Corporation assumed responsibility for poor relief. On 1 April 1930, the Corporation took over the premises in Hoole Lane, and under the new administration, a clear distinction was made between the workhouse buildings and the hospital, which were administered separately, and referred to as St.James' House and St.James' Hospital. During the 1930's, the hospital gradually came to be known as the City Hospital, and plans were made to appropriate it for the general use of the public under the Public Health Acts, 1875 and 1925. This took place on 1 January 1937, when the hospital's administration was transferred from the Public Assistance Committee to the Public Health Committee of Chester Corporation. Following the National Health Service Act, 1946, control of the City Hospital was transferred to the Hospital Management Committee of the Regional Hospital Board, on 5 July 1948. By this time, the City Hospital comprised the whole of the former work-house buildings, the inmates of St.James' House having been transferred to Sealand House, formerly the Isolation Hospital. During the 1950's, the City Hospital's services expanded considerably. A paediatric unit, a department for diseases of the chest, and a modern chest clinic were established, in addition to a pathological laboratory, and an X-ray department. Following the opening of the new general wing at the West Cheshire Hospital in January 1983, the City Hospital ceased to be a general hospital, and specialised in geriatric cases.

The hospital closed in 1991 when it was demolished. The pillars which supported the gates to the entrance drive to the Workhouse remain today, as does the Chapel of St. James the Less.

Sources and links

Related Pages


  • The Workhouse;
  • Hoole Local History Society on the workhouse;
  • Burne, R.V.H. (1965) The Treatment of the Poor in the Eighteenth Century in Chester (Journal of the Chester and North Wales Architectural and Historic Society, lii, 44-48.)
  • Handley, M (2007) Poor Law Administration in the Chester Local Act Incorporation, 1834-71 (in Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol.156).
  • Hemingway, J. (1831) History of the City of Chester
  • Lewis, C Building Cheshire's First Workhouse (in Cheshire History, vol 38, 1998-9)
  • Hoole Hospital on Chester Virtual Stroll;