From the Thorley Archives

Thorley and the Workhouse

Eric Warman was placed in the care of the Union Workhouse in 1915. After their parents had died at Albury, Eric and his two older brothers were admitted as paupers, as no other relations could take them in. Eric, aged three, to his disgust, was placed in with the babies, whilst his brothers were put in the children's section. Fortunately they didn't remain there long as they were fostered by Mrs Sarah Clark who took them in to live with her in her cottage beside the Green Man pub at the northern end of Thorley Lane. Other orphan children were not so lucky as it was common practice to send older workhouse children to Canada at this time.

The Bishop's Stortford Union Workhouse came into being in 1837 when, under the 1834 Poor Law Acts, parishes were required to combine to operate purpose-built workhouses. Under previous arrangements individual parishes were responsible for employing and maintaining the poor of their own parish. In 1835 a Board of Guardians met in the George Hotel, North Street, Bishop's Stortford and purchased four acres in Haymeads Lane. By 1900 the area that was used for accommodation, workshops, gardens and infirmaries amounted to over seventeen acres. The Bishop's Stortford Union comprised ten Hertfordshire parishes and ten from neighbouring Essex.

Each parish had an Overseer of the Poor elected at an annual parish church vestry meeting which also set the poor rate for the year. In 1841 the Thorley Parish rate was 9d in the pound of rateable property value, rising in 1848 to 1/- (5p). Previously Thorley Parish accommodated its poor in four cottages at Thorley Houses near to the old Green Man pub on the Much Hadham road. Hertfordshire Record Office has the deed of transfer of these four cottages to the Union Guardians, dated 3rd December 1841, for the sum of 30.

Mrs Warman lived in Pump Cottages, Thorley Street, before moving to Rose Cottage, Haymeads Lane, in the 1930s. Now in her 90s, she has vivid memories of the Union Workhouse across the road. Tramps seeking board and lodging for the night would wait opposite her house for the doors to open. She recalls that up to twenty tramps a night would line up and if they had too much money to be admitted they would put it in their shoes and, with other belongings, hide it in the hedges along Haymeads Lane. After a night's board and lodging they were sent on their way next day with a bit of cheese and a hunk of stale bread. This was often thrown into the Warman's hedges where it encouraged the rats! The next stop walking east was the Braintree Union workhouse. Mrs Warman, as a child, had to visit the workhouse on an errand. Her abiding memories are of imposing heavy entrance doors, a large hall with tables and benches and lots of directive notices on the walls.

Work for the men involved looking after the gardens and pigs, breaking stones for the mending of roads or working on local farms. Women were required to do domestic chores in the kitchen and laundry and to act as nurses in the infirmary. Men and women were given separate living and recreation areas and were subject to a patronising regime in the charge of a workhouse master. Entry to the workhouse, whilst voluntary, was seen as the last desperate choice to avoid starvation. Workhouses also catered for the chronically sick and the mentally ill. Guardians of the union attempted to find apprenticeships for boys and domestic service for girls on reaching the age of work at thirteen. Paupers were allowed to leave the institution if they could find employment and accommodation but if a working man left he had to take his whole family with him.

In later years, those children who weren't educated at the workhouse attended either Hockerill Teacher Training college Practising School for Girls or Hockerill Church of England School for Boys, near Crown Terrace. These two schools were later combined in the 1960s to form what is now All Saints Primary School in Parsonage Lane. The stigma of being dressed in a workhouse school uniform lasted beyond the closure of the workhouse in the 1930s. A recently deceased grandmother forbade her daughter to dress her own daughter in a large blue-checked gingham dress with white stockings as it reminded her of her workhouse days.

The daily routine for children in the Bishop's Stortford Union Workhouse
6.00
6.20
6.30
7.15 - 8.00
8.00 - 11.00

11.00 - 12.00
12.00
12.30 - 2.00
2.00 - 4.00
4.00 - 5.00
5.00 - 6.00
6.00
Rise, wash and dress
Roll call, inspection
Prayers, breakfast
Recreation in the yards
Boys - gardening, carpentry, shoe making, white washing etc.
Girls - make beds, scrub floors, work in laundry or kitchen
Reading from the bible, hymn singing
Lunch
Recreation in the yards
Reading in lesson books, writing, arithmetic etc.
Religious instruction
Singing
Supper. After supper - prayers, hymns and bed


An analysis of the entries in the Thorley Burial Register (1813 - 1925) shows that 10% of those buried in St James the Great churchyard during this period had their previous address listed as the Bishop's Stortford Union Poorhouse, Union Workhouse, Union Infirmary, Haymeads Infirmary and then Haymeads Hospital. This change of name reflects its change in status as the institution became more of a place for the sick and infirm and less a refuge for the homeless. After 1900 Rye Street hospital took in more of the medically sick, whilst Haymeads Infirmary became the place where the elderly were catered for. This is born out by the Thorley burial records where the average age at death after 1900 was recorded as 66 years whereas before 1900 it was 47 years.

The Haymeads Hospital site is presently being redeveloped for housing with a smaller modern hospital. Being listed buildings, the three storey wings of the workhouse are being converted into flats and apartments.

Bill Hardy
June2005

From the Archives