The common image of a Workhouse is a large, dirty, over-crowded place, inhabited by some fairly unscrupulous individuals as well as rats, cockroaches and fleas, where food is scarce, the rules are strict, and life is tenuous.
"Oliver Asking for More" by George Cruickshank from British Library © Unknown
These impressions are largely due to the books of Charles Dickens, and while those places did exist in cities such as Manchester and London, the vast majority of Poor Houses or Workhouses in England were small affairs run by the Parish. Their origins go a fair way back, and if you're interested I've attempted my own layman's version of the broader history at the end of this post, but for Stanwell Moor they started when the then majority land owner, Sir John Gibbons donated a poor house to the Parish. At first glance that may appear a fairly humanitarian gesture, but in reality it was by way of compensation for Sir John's enclosure of some open-field land in the years running up to Stanwell's Enclosure Act (1789).
The donation was reportedly in 1771 and the building was located at what was then the south-east corner of Hithermoor Farm.
It's not clear when the Workhouse first came into operation, but it's reasonable to assume the Parish Overseers Accounts were created to capture the associated effort, and that being the case, with the earliest records in the archive going back to 1785, there's enough evidence to confirm the Workhouse was in the village and ran from that year till soon after 1841, when the Staines Union Workhouse was opened on the site of Ashford Hospital.
OS 1866 Map showing location of Workhouse on Stanwell Moor © Ordnance Survey
Although this Ordnance Survey extract is from 1866, 25 years after the Workhouse was closed, it pinpoints the buildings accurately: the small dot to the right is the Lodge where those running the Workhouse would have lived, and the large dot to the left is the Workhouse itself.
The Parish Council of St Mary's, Stanwell was responsible for managing the Workhouse on Stanwell Moor, and to fund its activity the law permitted the Parish to demand Poor Rates - the origins of today's Council Tax - from property owners and landowners, or those working their land. The administration of relief for the poor, including setting and collecting the rates, distributing the poor relief and supervising the Workhouse, was delegated by the Parish to two individuals known as Overseers. These were typically church wardens or landowners themselves, and carried out their duties, for which they were reimbursed, alongside their normal employment.
Overseers Rate & Account Book 1797-1827 (DRO/022/E/02/001) © St Mary's, Stanwell
via London Metropolitan Archives
The Parish records include accounts for the period when St Mary's was responsible for the Workhouse in Stanwell Moor. The Overseers book that covers 1797 includes a detailed list of the rates, which were at one shilling to the pound: 5% of the assessed value of the land, and the total amount assessed for 1797 came to just over £334.
There were other Parishes and therefore other Workhouses in the area, including Staines for example, but residents of the Workhouse at Stanwell Moor could have been from anywhere in the Parish of St Mary's, which in 1797 comprised parts of Colnbrook, Poyle, Horton, Stanwell (including the Moor) and West Bedfont. It also included an area called Hammonds that looks to have been a fairly extensive piece of farmland running up to the Crooked Billet (pre-reservoir) and bordering Ashford, Staines and Laleham.
Extract from Overseers Rate & Account Book showing Poor Rates for John Merrick, 1797 (DRO/022/E/02/001) © St Mary's, Stanwell
via London Metropolitan Archives
This is an extract from the Overseers book from 1797. I've deliberately picked an identifiable location in Stanwell Moor, the ever-present Anchor Pub! At this stage in its life the pub was in the hands of one of the Merricks, a family that farmed the land in and around the village for well over 100 years.
John Merrick's Poor rates totalled just under £10 and appear to be made up of assorted leaseholds, copyholds, allotments, land and farms belonging to others - 13 in total - rather than his own land. The two entries below Merrick's name in the left hand column are likely to be adjustments noted by the Overseer ("Sixpence over Charged" and "1''3 over Charged") against specific line items.
There were two other members of the Merrick family running large farms on the Moor in the same year, none of which they owned, with a combined Poor rate of over £40. There were 42 individuals living in Stanwell Moor in 1797 paying Poor rates, and the total for the village was just over £89, so 3 members of the same family were paying close to half of the total, which suggests the Merricks benefited more than most from the Stanwell Enclosure Act less than 10 years earlier.
If you scan the Burials in the Parish of St Mary's, Stanwell, there's an Edward Bond "from the Workhouse" buried in January 1799, and several "Stanwell Poor House" residents being buried in 1813 and later.
The mother of Chartist, John Bedford Leno, Phoebe Bedford was born in Stanwell Moor, and from John's autobiography, in 1834 at the age of just 8 years old, he was sent to live with his uncle and aunt who ran the Workhouse on Stanwell Moor. Their names were Thomas and Harriet Sutton and they appear in the 1841 Census along with George Leno (11), John's younger brother, so maybe a stay with them was considered a rite of passage!
John Bedford Leno's autobiography gives a brief but rare insight into the Workhouse at that time. His uncle's occupation in 1841 was "Cow Keeper" and John tells us that he "earned his keep" by cow-minding.
John describes the Workhouse inmates as "a queer lot", and remembers that the spoons, knives and plates were "chained to the tables".
In this inventory document that lists the possessions of two inmates, you get an idea of just how little these people had to their names.
Inventory from Stanwell Moor Workhouse (DRO/022/E/01/035) © St Mary's, Stanwell
via London Metropolitan Archives
The original spelling and grammar is not great, but here's an attempt to decipher "Iza Knowles goods":
one feather bed, one bed Stead, one Rug, two
blankets, two pair of Sheets, 3 Iron pots,
one small brass kettle, one frying pan, one
pair of pot hooks, one stove and Shovel tongs
and poker, one salt box, two iron candlesticks,
one pewter quart pot, two pails, one Strong
washing block and soap, one chest, one old Cupboard,
two Earthenware, one Gridiron
In 1836 the management of Stanwell Moor's Workhouse was transferred to the newly formed Staines Poor Law Union, the Overseer role became redundant, and the Parish was assigned two of the (21) elected Board of Guardians. In due course the Staines Union shut down the smaller Workhouses and in about 1841 the inmates were rehoused in a single facility on the London Road on the site of what became Ashford Hospital. In 1851 the Census shows the Staines Union Workhouse in full flow with 216 inmates.
It's worth reflecting that Dickens wrote "Oliver Twist" between 1837 and 1839, and "A Christmas Carol" in 1843.
While the Workhouse in the village may have been closed, the buildings were not demolished, and in 1871 there are six families resident in individual dwellings, each listed as "Cottage late Workhouse". That link with the past continues in the 1911 Census all the way to the Electoral Register of 1933, when one family was living in the Workhouse Lodge, and another six families were in cottages that had been the Old Workhouse.
OS 1912 Map showing Old Workhouse buildings on Stanwell Moor © Ordnance Survey
This extract from the 1912 Ordnance Survey map shows the lodge and the six individual cottages still in place.
One family, the Greenaways, were living in the Old Workhouse from 1881 until they were rehoused into Southern Cottages in 1934.
The same rehousing program - likely driven by the Housing Acts of 1919 and 1930 that required Councils to improve housing stock and demolish older properties - eventually moved all occupants of the old Workhouse buildings, and they were finally demolished to make way for another development, Cheltenham Villas, which are still on the same piece of land that was "gifted" by Sir John Gibbons over 250 years ago.
The following links may be of interest:
A (very) brief history of the Poor Laws...
There have always been links between the Church and the poorest in society. This broadly stems from the Bible where it's made clear to the wealthy that they must help the poor, and take care that their riches don't lead them into evil. To that end, wealthy individuals would donate money or services to support the poor in their neighbourhood, and often via the Church, whether to delegate the administration or to ensure the local Priest was aware! Such donations are called alms, and via that funding so-called Almshouses were established in England - from around the 10th century - providing a place of residence for poor, old and distressed people from the Parish.
Many of the medieval Alsmhouses in England were established to benefit the soul of the founder, and to that aim they usually incorporated a Chapel where the almsmen and women were obliged to pray for him. At that time the main religion of England was Roman Catholic.
Fast forward to the 16th century when that link with the Catholic church became problematic during England's Reformation. Henry VIII, having been refused an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon by the Pope, declared himself the final authority of matters relating to the English church. That allowed him to remarry in his quest for a male heir, but also break the link with Rome, and that in turn lead to anywhere with links to the Catholic church being dissolved. While Abbeys and Monasteries were first in line, in due course Almshouses with Chapels, the majority, were also shut.
Regardless of the politics around their dissolution, the need to support the poor remained, and eventually the Act for the Relief of the Poor (1597) and the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) became the legal route to establish civil Almshouses.
There was a view that inhabitants of the Almshouses should be put to work in some way, with the aim of becoming self-supporting, and over the next two centuries various Acts were implemented by Parliament towards that goal. This approach caused the name change to Workhouses, regardless of who funded them, but at all times they remained Poor Houses...and that was the problem: the people that required relief, the young, the elderly, the sick or disabled, were rarely well-placed to undertake work of any kind.
A further Act of Parliament in 1723 was passed that allowed Parishes to buy, rent, build or collaborate with each other to run Workhouses. The Act also enabled Parishes to insist that poor people wanting to receive Parish poor relief had to enter the Workhouse to do so, and to gain entry they had to pass a test. The thinking was that the test would deter people from applying to enter and ensure only the truly desperate would do so, preventing false claims on the poor rates.
Poor rates were the method of funding the Parish poor relief, taken from those who profited from the land, whether through farming, or property & land ownership, and were administered by Overseers appointed by the Vicar.