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Newton Abbot’s Workhouse (S Devon Branch)

Thu. 18 November 2021 at 2:15 pm

A talk “Cries from the Workhouse Steps” about Newton Abbot’s Workhouse, to be given by John Ellis.

The Union workhouse opened in 1839. By the 1890s it housed several hundred people and the conditions caused a national scandal.

Report on the talk

“Cries from the Workhouse Steps” was a talk recently given to the Branch by local historian, John Ellis.

Before the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, parishes had to provide for those in poverty, and they were not very generous nor sympathetic to those in need. The two parishes in Newton Abbot at the time – Newton Bushel and Wolborough – both had a workhouse but both were eventually sold and the Newton Abbot Poor Law Union, comprising of 38 parishes, was formed in 1836 and was the second largest west of Bristol. Workhouses separated husbands from wives and parents from their children. They even had separate exercise yards for men, women, boys and girls so that families could not even see each other. They really were the last resort.

Building the workhouse actually saved money for the parishes. The one in Newton Abbot, in East Street, was designed and project managed by William Bonython Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott and built by W. & H. Hoopers of Exeter. The estimated cost was £4,673 but the actual cost was £11,010 as the Guardians kept adding bits and pieces to what they wanted. Consequently a Clerk of Works had to be employed to restrain the Guardians and keep the bills down!

Guardians were elected to run the workhouse. They were representatives of the parishes and the number from each parish was dependent on how much the parish had raised in the Poor Law rate. As the Guardians were mainly from rural areas, they tended to be conservative with regards to the poor. In 1901 the Newton Abbot workhouse had 79 Guardians!

Originally the Newton Abbot workhouse was built to accommodate 350 paupers, but it was reported in February 1898 – a very cold week – that 380 people were there. The workhouse was expanded in 1894 to include a playground for boys and in 1897 a new infirmary was added. In 1901 a new boardroom was built together with new wards and in 1911 a nurses’ home was built on the site.

Guardians J. Burridge and Myles Formby did try to modernise the workhouse organisation but with little success. However, from February 1894 they did succeed in getting the children to attend the local school, rather than the workhouse one.

In April 1894 there was a Local Government Board enquiry into the running of the workhouse. The matron was forced to resign and died two months later of bronchitis and heart disease. The Guardians and officers were deemed to have failed in their duties and the master, medical officer and schoolmaster all had to resign. The workhouse was found to be dirty with insufficient washing facilities and infested with bugs. The residents, often the elderly and sick, harboured nits and other unwelcome visitors.

In 1914 the name “workhouse” was replaced with the term “Institution” and in 1915 some of the wards were used for wounded soldiers from the war. In 1918 forty German prisoners of war were housed there while they worked on local farms.

In 1948 the National Health Service was formed and the new welfare state took over responsibility for the poor in society – and the old workhouse/institution in Newton Abbot became the NHS Hospital.

Christine Reader
December 2021


Thu. 18 November 2021
2:15 pm
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South Devon Branch
Annie Maltby: 07771 277761


Newton’s Place
43 Wolborough St
Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 1JQ