Westbury had its own workhouse, located in what was known as Gooseland and now known as Eden Vale. The building, much altered from its 1769 origins, still stands. It now houses a range of attractive retirement flats – a far cry from its original purpose.
Workhouses, as we know them, came into being in the 1830s following the Poor Law Amendment Act.
There had been poorhouses before this, as well as support for the poor through the church and community, but this legislation standardised the way in which the poor and destitute were treated. Those seeking help were now to be admitted to the workhouse where they were clothed and fed, subjected to a host of strict rules, separated from their family, and forced to work for several hours each day. No one had to enter the workhouse but there was no alternative particularly if you were destitute, alone, elderly, disabled, orphaned, an unmarried mother-to-be or an abandoned wife. And once admitted, it was impossible to leave without permission. The workhouses gained a terrible reputation and their harsh and cruel methods were frequently featured in songs, plays and books…who can forget poor Oliver asking for more?
The Westbury and Whorwellsdown Poor Law Union was just one of a network of almost 20 across Wiltshire. The towns and villages covered by each union was based closely on the medieval hundreds – hence the name Whorwellsdown.
The building in Eden Vale had originally been a small poorhouse, but extensive
alterations and enlargements in the 1830s transformed it into a three-storey H shaped building with a supervisory hub at its centre. There were courts, cellars and vaults, outhouses, piggeries and dairies plus lots of surrounding land.
A board of elected Guardians was responsible for overseeing the workhouse which was funded by local householders via a tax based on a valuation of their property. Day to day running was by the workhouse master, assisted by the matron – usually his wife. There was also a porter, a schoolmaster and schoolmistress, a nurse and a doctor and chaplain on call.
On admission to the workhouse, inmates would have their own clothes taken away, washed, disinfected and put into store along with any other possessions they had and only returned to them when they left the workhouse. They had to undergo a medical examination, take a bath, and be issued with a workhouse uniform.
Families were split up and housed in different parts of the workhouse – husbands and wives were separated, and children over seven were parted from their parents and able to see their parent only on Sundays.
Food in the workhouse was bland, with content, recipes and quantities strictly laid down. Broth, gruel or suet puddings, cheese, bread and potatoes formed much of the staple diet. For example, an able-bodied man in the Westbury workhouse would breakfast on seven ounces of bread and one pint of porridge. Dinner would consist of three ounces of cooked meat and 16 ounces of potatoes. Supper was seven ounces of bread, one and half ounces of cheese and a pint of tea. The same diet was served in reduced quantities to women and children, the old and the disabled.
The Westbury workhouse could house 300, and its occupancy rate varied considerably over the years, reflecting the economy of the community it served. In 1850 for example, it was filled to capacity following the closure of the local mills, but by 1891 there were just 61 and those who remained were increasingly the old, the sick, the handicapped, children and unmarried mothers. By 1901, the average age of inmates at the Westbury workhouse was 73 years.
The workhouse regime eventually gave way to increased provision of out-relief where people could be supported in their own community. Changes to welfare, such as the introduction of the old age pension, hastened the decline of the workhouse system and in 1930 the Local Government Act took effect which abolished boards of guardians and transferred responsibilities to local councils.
The Westbury workhouse was advertised for sale by auction at the Lopes Arms on 28 March 1934 and was bought by builders Holdoways. By 1936 all outbuildings and the entire rear range of the building had been demolished. Other changes include the lowering of the exterior walls and chimneys. The building became a store and offices for Kevin’s Menswear, before finally being converted into flats and apartments for older people by Silverwell Developments in 2001.Historic building evaluation reports produced prior to this conversion say there was nothing remaining of the original eighteenth-century parts of the building.
Some workhouse buildings still exist today in Wiltshire – albeit in a different form. Once changes to welfare came about and the workhouses became extinct many found a new lease of life as hospitals, homes or public buildings. Some you may recognise. At Semington for instance the workhouse was eventually turned into a hospital and then into apartments and homes. In Warminster the building became Sambourne hospital and then housing. At Bradford on Avon the workhouse was situated at nearby Avoncliffe – you can still spot this extraordinary building from the train window – the workhouse was transformed into homes.
For more detailed information on Westbury’s workhouse, buy Sally Hendry’s book The Westbury Workhouse and find out the true story of life behind the doors of Westbury’s feared institution. Available through our shop