Old Poor Law
The concept of parochial poor relief dates back to the late 14th century. Over the next four centuries several Acts of Parliament were passed, which sought to address the issue of providing work for the able-bodied poor and basic care for poor people who were elderly, sick, disabled or orphaned and unable to work. Poor relief, which was funded by a tax on local property owners, was dispensed mostly as “out relief” in the form of food, clothing, fuel, rent payments or money to people in need living in their own homes. In a few places workhouses were founded by local Acts of Parliament from the late 17th century onwards.
The 1782 Relief of the Poor Act, which was also known as Gilbert’s Act after its proposer Thomas Gilbert, allowed neighbouring parishes to work together in unions to construct joint workhouses. These workhouses were only supposed to house the elderly, sick, disabled and orphaned. The able-bodied poor were to be found employment near their own homes. In many cases the workhouses were ordinary local houses rented for the purpose. The unions were overseen by Boards of Guardians. One Guardian was elected from each parish. Their work was overseen by a Visitor, who was appointed by local magistrates. Around 100 unions were formed as a result of Gilbert’s Act but none were in Somerset.
New Poor Law
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was designed to reduce public spending on poverty. Under the terms of the act England and Wales were divided into unions of parishes. Poor relief, which was funded by local taxation, was administered in each union by an elected Board of Guardians. Each union was required to build a workhouse to house the people in its area who were in need of help. In some places the unions took over existing workhouses, while in others new ones were constructed, although some places were slow to build them.
Families were split up on entering workhouses, as men, women and children were housed separately. Inmates were given a uniform to wear and received basic food rations. Sleeping accommodation was usually in large dormitories. Children were given some education. However conditions in the workhouses were supposed to be harsher than those for the poor outside their walls, in order to discourage people from entering them and thereby saving the parishes money. Parish relief was no longer supposed to be given to the poor living in their own homes. Many workhouses were overcrowded and insanitary, with the result that infectious diseases spread easily among the inmates. Able bodied inmates were made to work hard, often doing unpleasant and monotonous jobs such as picking oakum or breaking stones.
Living conditions slowly improved after the 1880s. Over time workhouses evolved into orphanages and hospitals for elderly and infirm people and those with mental health problems or learning disabilities. In 1929 Poor Law Unions were abolished and their powers were passed to County and County Borough Councils. Workhouses were renamed Public Assistance Institutions. The workhouse system was replaced by the National Health Service in 1948.
More information about the history of the poor law and detailed histories of individual workhouses can be found on this website: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
Somerset was divided into 16 Unions. Two unions covered the area that is now North Somerset – Axbridge and Bedminster (later Long Ashton).
Bedminster Poor Law Union was formed on 11th April 1836. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of 34 Guardians, who represented its constituent parishes:
Abbot’s Leigh, Backwell, Barrow Gurney, Bedminster, Bishopsworth (from the 1890s), Brockley, Chelvey, Clapton, Clevedon, Dundry, Easton in Gordano or St George’s, Flax Bourton, Kenn, Kingston Seymour, Long Ashton, Nailsea, North Weston (from 1894), Portbury, Portishead, Tickenham, Walton in Gordano, Weston in Gordano, Winford, Wraxall, Yatton.
Bedminster Union workhouse was built in 1837-8 on what is now Old Weston Road at Flax Bourton at a cost of £6,600. It could accommodate 300 inmates and was designed by architects George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt. They also designed many other workhouses in the south-west including those at Williton, Bideford, Newton Abbot, and Tavistock.
There were three parallel buildings: an entrance block with a central archway, which was single storeyed; the main building with a central hub and an infirmary at the back with a washhouse and workshops at each side of it. There was also a school, more workshops and an isolation hospital. In 1860 a chapel was built to the south west of the entrance block. It was paid for by William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, designed by John Norton and dedicated to St George.
The Bedminster Union was renamed Long Ashton Union in 1899. Between 1929 and 1956, the workhouse became Cambridge House, a Somerset County Council run institution for people with learning disabilities. It was known as Farleigh Hospital after 1956 and closed in about 1993.
The workhouse site has now been redeveloped for use as offices, although most of the original buildings have been preserved. The office park is now called Farleigh Court.
Axbridge Poor Law Union was formed on 14th May 1836. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of 49 Guardians, who represented its constituent parishes:
Axbridge, Badgworth, Banwell, Berrow, Biddisham, Blagdon, Bleadon, Brean, East Brent, South Brent (Brent Knoll), Burnham with Aston Morris, Burrington, Butcombe, Chapel Allerton, Charterhouse, Cheddar, Christon, Churchill, Compton Bishop, Congresbury, Highbridge (formed out of Burnham with Aston Morris in 1894),Hutton, Kewstoke, Locking, Loxton, Lympsham, Mark, Nyland with Batcombe, Puxton, Rowberrow, Shipham, Uphill, Weare, Wedmore, Weston-super-Mare , Wick St Lawrence, Winscombe, Worle, Wrington with Broadfield.
The Axbridge Union workhouse was erected in 1837 on the south side of West Street in Axbridge at a cost of £4,496.17s.6d. The workhouse could accommodate 250 inmates. The architect was Samuel T Welch, who was also the architect of workhouses at Clifton and Wells. In 1903, a new infirmary with 72 beds, designed by Mr A. Powell of Bristol was erected at the north-east of the workhouse at a cost of just under £7,000. The site later became St John’s Hospital. After its closure in 1993, the main building was converted into residential flats and is now called St John’s Court.
Records for the Axbridge and Bedminster/Long Ashton Union Workhouses are kept in the Somerset Heritage Centre at Norton Fitzwarren near Taunton. Inmates of workhouses are also shown on census returns.