Discover: Workhouse records

Researchers often discover from documents such as census returns or death certificates that an ancestor spent time in a workhouse.

The minutes of the Boards of Guardians who oversaw the running of Essex workhouses after 1834 have been deposited at ERO, and these can give an idea of what life was like for inmates.  However, a picture – or in this case an Ordnance Survey map – can sometimes be far more effective.  This extract is taken from the 120 inch: 1 mile map series and shows the ground floor of the newly built Maldon workhouse (now St. Peter’s Hospital) with a typical layout of rooms.

Ordnance Survey map showing Maldon Union Workhouse, 1873

Ordnance Survey map showing Maldon Union Workhouse, 1873 (click for a larger version)

On admission to the workhouse, males and females were separated and this plan shows further segregation: for example, aged females, bedridden females, able bodied females and girls all had different day rooms.  When allowed outside for fresh air, they would all be in different airing yards or play grounds.  Plans of the workhouse (D/F 8/611B) show that this separation continues on other floors, with different dormitories and even different staircases.

If you would like to find out more about using workhouse records, join us for Discover: Workhouse Records (from 1834) on Thursday 26 June 2014, 2.30pm-4.30pm. This session will look at why and how workhouses came into existence, what life was like as an inmate and will consider surviving Essex workhouse records. Tickets are £10.00, please book in advance on 01245 244644.

Twentieth Century Oliver Twists

Ruth Costello, Archivist

The surviving records of St. Michael’s Hospital in Braintree and the committee which ran both it and the Julien Courtauld Hospital in Braintree have now been catalogued (A/H 19 and A/H 20 respectively).

OS Map of Braintree, 1920s

OS map of Braintree showing the union workhouse, 1920s

St.Michael’s Hospital was the former workhouse for the Braintree Poor Law Union and many of the records deposited relate to the period before and just after the creation of the National Health Service, when the Hospital still maintained people due to poverty rather than illness.

Many of the records have to be closed to researchers as they contain confidential information regarding patients, although staff may be able to release information to next of kin.

One exception is the minutes of St. Michael’s Staff Welfare Committee (A/H 19/1/1/3).  In December 1947, the Committee discussed complaints by male residents concerning insufficient food.  It was suggested that this was due to a lack of understanding by long term residents of the effects of rationing.  At an earlier meeting in October of that year, the Committee had discussed the possibility of using whale meat in stews and meat pudding and decided that it would be a valuable addition to the diet when people had acquired a taste for it.  To modern readers, this would suggest that the quantity of food wasn’t the only problem for residents…