Eastbourne’s Old Workhouse.

by Harry Pope

Eastbourne, like a lot of towns, had a workhouse.

I have recently re-read the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, and the depiction is I suspect very close to the contemporary reality. If you stayed there, it was only to be on a temporary basis, no comforts, just the basic to prevent starvation. Or not.

Eastbourne had a workhouse, and there is an online census of 1881. This includes everyone who lived there, with their occupations. One person is listed as ‘idiot.’ Mind you, there are three imbeciles, and five lunatics, among the 148 residents. It was of necessity a place where you didn’t want to stay too long.

My grandmother was born in 1891, and she visited the Clapham workhouse as a child in about 1900. She had to go there a few times to visit family who were staying there, and referred to it as a horrid place. It wasn’t full of people singing ‘food glorious food’ with chubby faces, children satisfied with their lovely room, and adults desperate to stay as long as possible. It was for the destitute, nowhere else to go, at the very bottom of society, made as unpleasant as possible by employees of the workhouse board who had parsimonious budgets and even tighter belts. Even sleeping rough was potentially more desirable.

The Master of Eastbourne’s Workhouse, William Platt, was a 45-year-old Yorkshireman.  His 33-year-old wife Elizabeth was Matron. They had five staff, one school mistress, a porter and porteress, and two female nurses. They had 148 residents to supervise. It was situated close to the seafront in a permanent large building, conveniently away from society but sufficiently close for residents to find.

There is a section for ‘handicap’. Three are classified as imbecile, all females of differing ages, five women lunatics, and 23-year-old Edward Reed is an idiot. Alfred Williams is shown to be aged six, as a scholar. Must have been a child genius. There are seven members of the Harvey family, George a 43-year-old painter, 30-year-old Elizabeth a domestic cook, the rest children, so the family must have found themselves in straightened circumstances.

The buildings usually conformed to a type. There would be a single entrance, guarded by the porter/porteress, inside the front door was the area for the vagrants and tramps, adjacent to the assessing area for new admissions. Adults would be classified as paupers, a derogatory term still used as an insult. They were deemed incapable of looking after themselves, let alone their family, so the wards were designated separately, only children under two allowed to stay with their mothers. However, adults over 14 were expected to work inside the workhouse, as well as leave for the day to find paid employment, which had to be turned over to pay for their keep.

The big advantage that workhouse residents had over Victorian citizens was the fact that not only did they have health care, but also free education. This was despite the fact that conditions were kept so stark to make them desperate to leave as soon as possible. This just didn’t happen, residents could easily become institutionalised. The vagrant’s casual ward admitted at the discretion of the porter, who had to decide if they were disease ridden trouble makers, or okay for the night. It would be one large room, bedding probably straw that hadn’t been changed for a while, and a communal pail in the middle of the room. Those deemed unsuitable were turned away, becoming vagrants with no address, very likely coming before the magistrates very soon and sentenced to two weeks hard labour.

If inmates wanted to leave, then they had to give a minimum of three hours notice. They were required to take their children with them, otherwise the youngsters would be abandoned and left behind. One of the most famous residents of the workhouse was the star of the silent screen Charlie Chaplin, who lived in Lambeth workhouse with his brother and mother. The experience was to last with him throughout  his long life. Diet was strictly regulated, menus alternating on a weekly basis. Residents usually ate more food than those outside, but if the establishment was a smaller one, men and woman were segregated at mealtimes, so they were staggered so no contact was made.

Spiritual needs were met twice a day at mealtimes. Prayers were read before breakfast and after supper by a visiting clergyman, almost always Church of England. If an inmate wanted to worship elsewhere on a Sunday, they were released just for this purpose, as long as the officiating minister provided written confirmation. Catholicism was an anathema to the workhouse authorities, priests in many areas not allowed entrance, let alone allowed to take Mass. Those of this faith found the persecution particularly problematic.

There was a punishment book. Those offending had diets restricted, persistent offenders for crimes such as swearing, or spitting, could be taken before courts and jailed. Boys under 14 could be beaten. Workhouse guardians would examine the punishment book every time they visited, admonishing the staff if they had failed to cure someone frequently entered. Life was hard inside these establishments, if you wanted to stay, then you had to conform.

Eastbourne’s workhouse was in existence for over fifty years, and after closing became St. Marys Hospital, used as a convalescence hospital during WWl. This closed after WW2, was demolished, and is now a housing development, with the original 1857 chapel still there, now used as a wedding venue.

Many years ago when looking through old documents I found my birth certificate. It shows 80 Dorking Road, Epsom, Surrey. My late father reckoned that the postal address of hospitals as opposed to the establishment name was because of the stigma attached to the title workhouse. If you were born there, then your birth certificate showed the postal address.



  • Harry Pope

    Harry Pope realised he could write when he first went to school, and hasn’t stopped since. He returned the next day after parental prompting, because he realised he could talk as well, just as well because he is now in retirement a cruise ship lecturer with P&O and Saga, talking about the greatest comedians the UK has ever known. He is not a lecturer, nor a stand-up comedian, but an entertainer. His wife Pam goes as well, as there are so many groupies onboard.

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