Hampshire Cultural Trust

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The workhouse

Listen to or download this audio-tour which will guide you around the Red House Museum pointing out the harsh reality of life when the building was a Workhouse for the poor.

Download Here:  redhouse-podcast-final.mp3

Full Transrcipt

Welcome to the Red House Museum & Gardens. This tour will give you an insight into the life and times of the Museum as a workhouse in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Overseers Accounts of June 1763 tell us “The principal intention of the Parishioners in erecting a workhouse is to restrain and prevent Idleness and Vice, to encourage industry and good manners… the poor who shall inhabit the said House may be properly and constantly employed therein according to their respective strength and abilities.”

Before we start our tour, it is important to remember that the hated and feared Union workhouses date from the 1834 Poor Law reforms. Prior to this, the workhouses were rather basic but the individual was not punished for being poor.

Step outside and look at the building from the pavement.

The workhouse was opened in May 1764. Note its proximity to the Priory Church. This was no accident as the Churchwardens prior to 1834 owned the building and controlled its affairs. The only time the inmates were able to leave was on Sunday to attend the two compulsory church services and finally to a paupers’ burial in the churchyard if they died in the workhouse.

Notice how it is built with a mix of header and footer bricks, some stained with the local ironstone. The roof has clay tiles and a course of three stones, which was a traditional roof form in Christchurch.

The roof storey was part of the workhouse accommodation. Of the two doorways, only the far left one is original and has the remains of an old gas lamp above the door, dating from workhouse times.

The long first-floor window is not original: in workhouse days there was no window; this one was constructed to light the stairwell. The main entrance is a carriage archway, now glazed in, and post-dates the workhouse era, as does everything to the right of it.

Now come back inside into the reception.

If you could step back in time to 1745 you would now be standing in a thatched barn, where for nearly 20 years the parish poor would come for relief. When the new workhouse was built, this barn eventually became the hospital.

Now pass into the next room, the café area.

In 1856 this area was Ward 6, a day room housing about 8 able-bodied men who were often hired out to the parish for such work as road repairing. Any monies earned went to the parish and not to the inmates.

But most of the time these men would have had plenty of work here – gardening, making and repairing clothes, fetching water from the well or the river, and brewing very weak beer which was safer to drink than the water.

Notice the stone flagged floors. Each ward had a fireplace. Turf was commonly used for heating and cooking.  

Pass through the narrow corridor through to The By-Gone gallery.

As you passed through the corridor did you notice that the ceiling beams are closely spaced? This is because there was a staircase there, so that the paupers could get to their sleeping wards in the rooms above.

The floor in here suddenly changes to wooden planks. This was Ward 5 for the infirm men and in the 1870s the floor was resurfaced to make it warmer for the men. The room was very crowded holding up to 20 infirm men. The fireplace belongs to the pre-Union workhouse period when this room was originally a kitchen. Stand in front of the fireplace and notice the heavy deposits of soot.

Food at the workhouse was simple fare. Breakfast was broth, or the infamous gruel, made from oats and water. Dinner was meat with vegetables, or suet. Supper was always bread and cheese.  

Now walk through into the next gallery.

This was the Dining Room. Breakfast was at 9am, but inmates would have been working since 7am in the winter and 6am in the summer. Dinner was at 1pm, followed with supper at 7pm.

The Master and his wife, the Mistress, sat at the head of the table which would have occupied most of the room. A boy said grace both before and after each meal.

Workhouse rules tell us that if an inmate was late for a meal he or she would miss it completely.

Turn towards the 1930s Romney Green gallery.

This extension to the Workhouse was built in 1835 when Christchurch Parish joined the parishes of Holdenhurst and Sopley to form the Christchurch Union Workhouse. It was bedroom accommodation and at one time contained thirty-six people.

Now stop in the passage before the stairwell.

This door would be manned by an inmate. Newly arrived inmates were separated into classes, based on their age, sex and health.

Although the staircase ahead is not original, it is where the original was and led to the Master or Mistresses bedrooms above. Ahead of you is the staff room which housed the Master and his family. In 1835 it became the boardroom where the Guardians met to discuss the management of the Workhouse.

Walk up the stairs to the next floor.

The room at the head of the stairs was reserved for the Master and Mistress. From this room the Master could keep an eye on inmates in the gardens. The Workhouse Master was recruited by placing advertisements in regional newspapers. The position of Master was not a prestigious one.

Now walk through into the Archaeology Galleries.

In the 1856 survey this was Ward 12 housing infirm women and children. It would have been lit by candles with very little space between their straw beds

Walk through to the next gallery.

This was Ward 20 which accommodated infirm men. Note the huge fireplace which would have warmed this room and the previous ward.

Pass through to the next gallery.

Remember the staircase did not exist in the workhouse era. This area and the next gallery formed Ward 19 and was the sleeping quarters for able-bodied men.

Now return to the first stairwell and go up to the second floor.

The room on the left was again part of the accommodation for the Master and his family.

Go into the Sue Wickham Room.

You are in Ward 11 which was more night-time accommodation for infirm men. Notice the superb run of beams and see how they are doubled up. A closer examination reveals that the innermost beams are older. These are the original 1764 beams, and the outer ones date from 1835. What the Guardians did was to rebuild the roof onto these outer beams, to make the room wide enough to use as accommodation. The resulting floor space was sufficient to accommodate 14 men in two rows of beds as far as the fireplace in the middle. Pass either side of the massive central fireplace. Note the remnants of the dividing wall on the right.

You are in Ward 10, by the 1856 survey. This is where the boys slept: about 16 of them, so it might have been a bunk arrangement.

Go through the door onto the next stairwell.

This post-workhouse stairwell, and the room beyond it, was Ward 9, which housed able-bodied women and children. Some women might have had illegitimate children and it was not uncommon for babies to be born in the Workhouse.

The women were often the most explosive element in the workhouse. There are numerous references to fights breaking out, windows smashed, and punches thrown. The Master would summon the magistrates and the culprit would face prison at Winchester.

Now go back down the stairs to the reception area and then outside to the courtyard.

This entire area has altered greatly since the workhouse days converted from stables built after the building was purchased by Rev. Bush, the Vicar of Christchurch in 1886. The original use of the ground was undoubtedly for growing food.

Now pass through the garden wall arch into the Herb Garden.

By the Union period this area was divided as yards for boys and men to exercise. When the building became a museum in 1951, this garden was relaid as a herb garden.

Look closely at the windows of the Museum and you will see they have been altered over the years. The projecting first floor window is not original, although there was an ordinary window there.

Cross this space to the far right corner and walk round into the South Garden.

On your left is what remains of an extension to the workhouse. You will see at the extreme end a small building at the end of a parapet wall: this was constructed in 1845 as a day room for the boys.

Step up into the pergola area.

You are now standing on the site of two more rooms: the greater part was the schoolroom and, to the left, another night ward, Ward 13, for able-bodied women and children.

Although education was not compulsory until 1870, workhouse children benefited from three hours’ teaching each weekday. If you look up at the parapet wall you can see traces of windows, belonging to the second storey. Four more wards were above the schoolroom including sleeping accommodation for the schoolmistress and more sleeping accommodation for able-bodied women and girls.

Walk further into the garden and stand near the gates.

Look at the end elevation of the workhouse: you should see the outline of a door which led to the cottages which the Workhouse Committee purchased for extra accommodation. The cottage by the gates was used as a kitchen. In the area by the well there was another long rear extension to the workhouse, incorporating the laundry.

Now walk on the path near the rose garden.

Here along the rose garden a row of thatched, cob wall cottages once stood. These cottages contained women’s wards and a nursery. They were all pulled down, along with the schoolroom, laundry and the barn when the property was purchased by Rev. Bush.

In 1881, the Workhouse Guardians built a new Workhouse for the poor at Fairmile, which later became Christchurch Hospital.

This completes our tour.

More information on this fascinating history of the Red House Museum can be found in the book ‘The Christchurch and Bournemouth Union Workhouse’ by Sue Newman, which can be found in the Museum shop.

You may now leave the workhouse, secure in the knowledge that you will not be hauled up before the Master for absconding without permission.