Colchester Poor Law Union,Essex

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History[edit | edit source]

Except between 1698 and 1745, the parish's main responsibility from the Tudor period was poor relief, supervised by the borough justices. In 1678 the justices ordered parish officials to badge the poor, and the poor were being badged in St. Mary's parish in 1690. In 1783 the ratepayers of St. Peter's parish agreed to badge the poor, except the blind or lame or those over 70 years of age. Overseers gave relief in regular or casual cash doles, or sometimes loans, supplemented by grants of clothing, shoes, bedlinen, cloth, fuel, soap, and, occasionally, tools for work. Rents, rates, or fees for burial or nursing care might be paid. Widows, children, the sick, and the aged were always amongst recipients of poor relief, but, especially in times of high unemployment, able-bodied men were also relieved. An incomplete survey of St. Botolph's parish poor in 1794 included many weavers; only a few of the families receiving relief had more than four children.

Medical care was provided on a casual basis in the 18th century, but by the early 19th century many parishes had a salaried medical officer. Smallpox inoculation at parish expense was provided occasionally in the late 18th century in one or more inoculating houses: in 1776 a man was nursed at an inoculating house at the expense of St. Leonard's parish; in 1779 St. Nicholas's parish paid for the treatment of a parishioner in the inoculating house. There were no local facilities for the treatment of mental handicap and illness until the 1850s. Occasionally parishes sent lunatics to the Bethlehem hospital (Lond.) and paid for their maintenance there. St. Botolph's had a standing arrangement in the early 19th century to send insane paupers to Holly House lunatic asylum, Hoxton (Mdx.). The pantry in St. James's workhouse was altered in 1826 to provide a lock-up for a deranged and very dangerous woman. In 1830-2 St. Runwald's boarded out two harmless idiots at a house in Maidenburgh Street, but presumably such paupers often remained with their own families.

Besides the overseers' difficulties in distinguishing between the workshy and those eager to support themselves, there were the perennial problems of unemployment and low wages. The parishes' intention was to provide work within workhouses, but lack of workhouse accommodation often forced them to find work outside. All Saints' bought a bay loom in 1690 and bay work was given to the poor. In the 1740s St. Runwald's provided spinning wheels for some female paupers; in 1779 St. Nicholas's lent a man some weaving equipment from the workhouse; and in 1801-2 St. Leonard's lent parish spinning wheels to poor people. Unemployed men were sometimes given paid labouring work: in 1826-7, in a decade when jobs were particularly scarce, St. Botolph's parish employed men on the roads and at the parish gravel pit. Overseers of several parishes successfully offered the improvement commissioners tenders for sweeping streets, to occupy occasionally unemployed men.

Children were expected to work as soon as they were old enough. In 1771 children of applicants in St. Leonard's were to spin all day, with just a half hour break for breakfast and an hour for dinner, otherwise relief would be witheld. Similarly in 1827 St. Botolph's denied relief to parents refusing to send their children to work in the town's silk mills, the millowners having requested children, presumably as cheap labour. In St. Mary's-at-the-Walls, however, many parents were encouraged by the town gentry not to allow their children to work at the local silk factory for fear of corrupting their morals. Younger children were sometimes boarded out by a parish, and older ones apprenticed. Before 1800 boys were apprenticed mainly to fishermen, oyster dredgers, and mariners, near Colchester or further away at Southwark, Deptford, South Shields, or Sunderland, and to weavers, mainly in Colchester. After 1800 no children were placed with weavers, but a few boys still followed nautical trades and nearly a third were apprenticed to cordwainers.

Sometimes lodgings were found for paupers, or houses rented for their use. The large number of unendowed almshouses in the various parishes were presumably used to house paupers. Ten of the 12 town parishes had their own small workhouses in the 18th century and the early 19th. Some parishes converted existing almshouses into workhouses, but many of those may have been used as pauper housing rather than as places where paupers were set to work. The former St. Catherine's hospital in Crouch Street, which had been used as a borough workhouse in the later 16th century, was used as a parish workhouse for St. Mary's-at-the-Walls in the later 18th century. Almshouses on the north side of Bucklersbury Lane became St. Nicholas's workhouse by 1748. In 1834 St. Mary's workhouse held 8 inmates on average. A workhouse in St. Martin's from 1770 to 1788 was probably in Hospital Yard, Angel Lane, where a pest house was said to have stood.

Some or all of the other parish workhouses were also converted buildings. Three houses near East bridge in East Street became St. James's workhouse in 1755; there were 14 inmates in 1834. All Saints' equipped a six-roomed house as a workhouse c. 1753; the outbuildings were being let by 1774 and the house was being used for pauper housing by 1799; in 1801 the vestry planned to create another workhouse and by 1822 one was in use. St. Botolph's had a workhouse in 1782 which may have been the one in Moor Lane (Priory Street) mentioned in 1825. Between 1829 and 1831 there were 17-27 inmates. St. Giles's had a workhouse in 1775 which admitted paupers from St. Leonard's also, and which may have been the large workhouse in Stanwell Street recorded in 1833. St. Leonard's had its own workhouse by 1768, which may have been the one recorded in 1834 on the south side of Hythe Street opposite Knaves Acre. Holy Trinity had a workhouse by 1749 and a poorhouse, perhaps the same house, on the north side of Eld Lane in 1818. St. Peter's had a workhouse in 1779, probably the one in North Street mentioned in the 1830s; in 1820 there were 31 inmates. St. Mary Magdalen's parish had four houses on the north side and two on the south side of Magdalen Street, all sold in 1837, described as a workhouse but which probably functioned rather as pauper housing. St. Runwald's had no workhouse of its own, but apparently used those in neighbouring parishes.

The workhouse masters usually received an annual salary and a weekly allowance per inmate, which in St. Botolph's was reduced from 3s. 9d. in 1829 to 3s. in 1832. St. James's reduced the workhouse master's allowance from 3s. 6d. in 1821 to 3s. 3d. in 1832. Sometimes masters were also allowed proceeds from work done by inmates, or free coal or other extras; by the early 19th century their terms of service were sometimes set out in writing. Spinning, weaving, and carding were the main forms of work until the beginning of the 19th century. Thereafter, apart from the training of girls for household service, inmates seemed to do little more than make, repair, and launder their own clothes and help with the running of their own workhouse and garden. In 1821 the inmates of St. James's poorhouse were allowed a diet of wholesome food with 'a comfortable and hot dinner' of meat and vegetables three times a week. The parishes were well aware of the expense and inefficiency of running so many small workhouses separately, and in 1818 discussed combining their resources to convert part of the garrison hospital to a shared house of industry, but it was not until after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that a union of parishes was again effected.

In spite of significant differences between parishes in size of population and proportion of poor inhabitants, trends in poor relief expenditure were similar. In general, the cost of parish poor relief rose gradually in the 17th century, possibly in line with the gradual rise in population. In 1602 the total amount raised by poor rates ranged from c. £40 in St. Giles's to less than £3 in St. Mary Magdalen's, a very small and poor parish. In 1665-6 Colchester suffered so badly from plague that parish poor rates had to be supplemented. In St. Leonard's, where the cost of poor relief had ranged from £50 to £100 a year between 1653 and 1664, almost £158, c. £100 of it given by the borough, was spent during the first quarter alone of 1666. In 1629 All Saints' parish subsidized the poor of St. Botolph's, and in the 17th century St. Mary Magdalen's received poor relief contributions from Berechurch.

In 1776 net expenditure ranged from £41 in St. Mary Magdalen's to £423 in St. Peter's, and over the period 1783-5 averaged from £76 in St. Mary Magdalen's to £552 in St. Peter's. The rate of increase in expenditure accelerated in the last decade and high costs continued in the opening years of the 19th century, as the Napoleonic Wars destroyed the remnants of the local cloth industry. Between 1800 and 1805 the All Saints' overseers complained of the great distress caused by the high price of food; relief to dependants of militia men was a further wartime expense. Average expenditure per head in the town and outlying parishes rose from 12s. 5d. in 1803 to 16s. 10d. in 1813, and in 1814-15 annual expenditure amounted to £8,560, ranging from £75 in St. Mary Magdalen's to £1,019 in St. Botolph's.

After the end of the wars in 1815 average expenditure per head declined slightly to 16s. 3d. in 1821, and it fell further to 13s. 9d. a head in 1831. In the decade before the 1834 Act some parishes were making efforts to reduce spending, believed by many ratepayers excessive, partly because of the inefficiency and inequity involved in providing relief separately in the 12 parishes of the town.

Some parishes, as St. Botolph's in 1826-8, paid higher allowances than others to the mentally handicapped and aged. At the same period St. James's officers were apparently hardening their attitude towards paupers: from 1824 relief was withheld from paupers who kept dogs, in 1829 there was a plan to provide bread and flour instead of money, and from 1831 rents were no longer paid. By 1829 applications for relief in St. James's had dwindled to none. In St. Runwald's on the other hand between 1829 and 1834 twenty persons on average received regular payments. The use of indoor as opposed to outdoor relief before 1834 probably depended on relative costs and on the availability of workhouse accommodation within a parish. All 12 town parishes and the 4 outlying parishes became part of Colchester poor law union in 1835. [1]
In a parliamentary report of 1776, Colchester was listed as having a workhouse with accommodation for 50 inmates.

Colchester Poor Law Union formally came into being on 19th October 1836.
The new Colchester Union workhouse was built in 1836-37 to designs by John Brown. Brown was responsible for a number of workhouses in Norfolk including  Blofield Poor Law UnionDocking Poor Law Union, Norfolk and  Henstead Poor Law Union.

Later additions included a laundry (1896), casual wards (1898) and a porter's lodge.
The workhouse later became Colchester Public Assistance Institution, then St Mary's Hospital which closed down in 1993. After a period of standing derelict, the site has now been redeveloped for residential use.

Constituent Parishes
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Berechurch, Essex
Colchester All Saints, Essex

Colchester Holy Trinity, Essex
Colchester St Botolph, Essex
Colchester St Giles, Essex
Colchester St James, Essex
Colchester St Leonard, Essex
Colchester St Martin, Essex
Colchester St Mary Magdalen, Essex
Colchester St Mary at the Walls, Essex
Colchester St Nicholas, Essex
Colchester St Peter, Essex
Colchester St Runwald, Essex
Greenstead-juxta-Colchester, Essex
Lexden, Essex
Myland St Michael, Essex

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Essex Record Office, Wharf Road Chelmsford CM2 6YT. Relatively few personal records survive. Holdings include: Guardians' minute books (1835-1930); Deaths of lunatics (1915-2)

Essex Record Office Reference G/Co Title [COLCHESTER UNION]
The POOR LAW Amendment Act of 1834 removed responsibility for the POOR from parishes (see D/P.../11-18) and transferred administration to Boards of Guardians of the POOR. The Guardians administered groups of parishes or POOR LAW UNIONs. Each UNION had its own workhouse. In 1872 the Public Health Act created urban and rural sanitary authorities, with the Guardians constituted as the rural sanitary authority for those parts of each UNION not in an urban sanitary authority. The Local Government Act of 1894 replaced rural sanitary authorities with rural district councils (see D/R). The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished the Boards of Guardians and transferred their powers to the Public Assistance Committees of County Councils (for minutes of Essex County Council Public Assistance Committee 1929-1948 see C/MPa 1-22).
Many of the workhouse infirmaries continued as hospitals after 1930, continuing after the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948. The records of St. Mary's Hospital, COLCHESTER (A/HN 4) formerly the COLCHESTER UNION infirmary are also available.
For other records illustrating the work of the Guardians see D/P.../18.
For orders, directions and declarations of POOR LAW Commissioners responsible for grouping parishes into UNIONs, 1835-1837, see Q/RSw 2-5.
For catalogue of correspondence between POOR LAW UNIONs and POOR LAW Commission (later POOR LAW Board and Local Government Board) 1834-1900 see List and Index Society vol. 56.
G. Cuttle The Legacy of the Rural Guardians (Heffer, 1934 E.R.O. Library 362 50942) provides a good account of the work of the Guardians in six mid-Essex UNIONs, together with the newscuttings he collected and used in writing the book (T/P 181).
For analysis of ledgers see Journal of the Society of Archivists II, pp. 367-369.
COLCHESTER UNION consisted of the parishes which constituted the Borough - All Saints, Holy Trinity, St. Botolph, St. Giles, St. James, St. Leonard, St. Martin, St. Mary-at-the-Walls, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Nicholas, St. Peter, St. Runwald and the Liberties of Berechurch (or West Donyland), Greenstead-juxta-COLCHESTER, Lexden and Mile End.

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For more information on the history of the workhouse, see Peter Higginbotham's web site: and Workhouses website

References[edit | edit source]

  1. From: 'Parish government and poor relief', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9: The Borough of Colchester (1994), pp. 279-284. British History Date accessed: 08 February 2011.