Alnwick and District Local History Society

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PORRIDGE TO CAPPUCCINO: Jane Bowen came to the Alnwick and District Local History Society for its March meeting to talk about the development and demise of the Belford workhouse.

Jane became involved in the project to look into the history of the workhouse after it was demolished to make way for the Bell View Resource Centre and Day Care facilities. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which set up the workhouse system led to great control from London, yielding 25 large volumes of correspondence held at Berwick and 12 at Kew to provide fascinating information.

The Act divided the country into Unions, merging parishes to form larger groupings to administer the workhouses which were to be set up. These were large, holding 500 to 1,000 people, and conditions were deliberately harsh, with poor food, to discourage people from using them.

Belford Union was different from the outset. The London Commissioner was persuaded that a Union with either Alnwick or with Glendale would not work, and hence Belford Union was much smaller than recommended. This created problems from the outset. The Commissioners objected to leased land, and thought the plans inadequate. The Belford Board of Guardians put forward a very cheap proposal for only 25 residents, which did not include a hospital wing.

After much correspondence, agreement was reached for a workhouse for 30 people.

London insisted, however, that there should be good foundations to the building to allow for the inclusion of a second storey.

When the first building was demolished in the 1890s, as it was damp and rat-infested, it was found that the building had no foundations at all.

The Board of Guardians were very keen to keep costs down in other ways as well. They offered the first master and matron, a man and wife couple, only £12pa instead of the recommended £20. They justified this as the man had a pension. The appointment was a disaster, and two months after, the couple were charged with ill-treatment. The chairman of the board took a personal hand in their replacement, and the new master was a competent manager, who stayed for four years.

The UK was suffering increasing economic problems at this time, and there was a rising vagrancy problem, which meant that there was a need for expansion. Two run-down cottages were used for housing vagrants, and later a vagrant’s lodge including a porter’s lodge was built. In 1868, after a number of deaths, London insisted that there should be an isolation ward. The board again delayed taking action for nine months, but eventually changes were made. In the 1890s, the old building was replaced. It was hoped that gas and water could be included, but rules designed to prevent corruption made this impossible. The issue was continually raised with London, but it was not until 1924 that water and gas were finally put in.

Inmates of the workhouse were all expected to work. The men chopped wood, picked oakum and grew vegetables. Women cleaned, nursed, knitted and made garments, while the very feeble also picked oakum. Their diet was stodgy and monotonous, though this improved after 1900. Other improvements also took place, and in the final years, the punitive element disappeared. 1929, when county councils were introduced, saw the end of the workhouse.

Jane was warmly thanked for her enjoyable presentation, which included a number of interesting photographs and entertaining stories.

The next meeting of the Society will be held on Tuesday, April 26, when Dr Angus Armstrong will be talking about George Fenwick of Brinkburn.