Care of the poor previous to 1834

Brighton General Hospital, once Brighton Workhouse
Image of Brighton General Hospital originally taken for the Hanovernet website

Before 1834, the poorest in society were cared for by the parish in which they lived, or had right of settlement. During medieval times it was the duty of the church to care for the poor, as instructed in the scriptures, but the Reformation and subsequent abolition of monasteries led to a succession of ineffectual and cruel laws. The Poor Law act of 1547 allowed branding and slavery as punishment for persistent vagrancy and another in 1572 ordered that beggars should be branded on the shoulder. In the meantime it was left to parishes and charities to cope with the elderly poor and the sick.

The Vagrancy Act

The act for the Relief of the Poor in 1601 (sometimes called the Vagrancy Act) authorised parishes to build Poor Houses for the ‘deserving poor’. Each parish was to elect one or two Overseers, whose duty was to maintain the poor and set them to work. This was funded by a levy of a poor rate on the residents of the parish. The Act of Settlement in 1662 gave parishes the right to remove anyone who was likely to be a charge on the parish. Settlement could be gained by being born in a parish, renting a property worth more than £10 per annum, marrying someone with settlement rights, or paying parish rates. Parishes often disputed settlement and cases went to the quarter sessions; in Brighton these were held at Lewes.

A typical case

One such case was an order for the removal of Stephen Agnus in 1701; he came from Sittingbourne in Kent, had not gained a legal settlement and was likely to become a charge on the parish. A request was made for them to receive and provide for him; a reply came back from Sittingbourne acknowledging Stephen Agnus as an inhabitant legally settled of its parish. During the 18th and 19th century, many parishes built workhouses to house paupers under one roof as a way of reducing the cost of the poor rate. The poor rate was used not only to house the poor, but also to make up the wages of those on a low income. These were known as out-workers. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment act abolished outdoor relief and made all the poor go to the workhouse.

First Brighton workhouse in Bartholomew Square

The Brighton workhouse was originally located in the old Town Hall in Bartholomew’s Square which was built in 1727. At a public vestry meeting held at the Old Ship on October 18th 1727, it was agreed that the ‘Churchwardens and Overseers should borrow one hundred pounds, upon interest at 5 per centum per annum’ towards building the new workhouse. There is an entry in the minutes of the public meeting on the 13th November 1727 of a contract being entered into between the parish and Thomas Fletcher and Thomas Tuppen, ‘for digging and steining the well to the new workhouse, complete with fittings for ten guineas’. In 1800 the Vestry minutes record that an extension was built in the yard of the Town Hall to enlarge the workhouse by the addition of 24 beds. The enlarged building at this time housed approximately one hundred and fifty people. The master was John Sicklemore and the building remained in use until 1822.

Church Hill workhouse 1822

A new workhouse was constructed on the east side of Church Hill in 1822. The foundation stone was laid by the vicar, the Rev Dr. Carr. A document entitled ‘Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Brighthelmstone Workhouse’, dated 1822, sets out clear guidelines for the daily routine in the workhouse.  It states that a daily ‘occurrence’ book should be kept and a record made of all persons admitted and discharged and of births and deaths. Upon entering the workhouse, paupers should be stripped, bathed and issued with the parish uniform. Visiting times were Tuesday and Friday between 1-4pm. The Governor it emphasised, was placed in a position of great trust. The document stated that he must be: ‘frugal in housekeeping, exact in his accounts, humane and attentive to the sick’.

Categories of inmates
  1. Men and women who are of good disposition, regular in their behaviour, decent in their dress and have been in better circumstances.
  2. Men and women of irregular behaviour, not cleanly in their person and of a vagrant disposition.
  3. Mothers and their infants.
  4. Boys capable of work.
  5. Girls capable of work.
  6. Children not able to work.
  7. Lying in women.
  8. Sick women.
  9. Sick men.
Work schedules

Work is defined as being from 6am-6pm in summer and from daylight to dusk in winter. Bed times are 9pm in summer and 8pm in the winter, with prayers every morning and evening. The main work for the able bodied consisted of collecting and crushing of oyster shells in a large iron mortar. The material produced was then sold as manure or for constructing paths. Another occupation of the poor recorded by Erredge was that of scavenging and watering the streets. He described them as ‘harnessed by means of ropes to the muck-trucks and barrel-constructed water carts’. Other work included stone breaking and oakum-picking (oakum picking involved teasing out the fibres from old hemp ropes). The resulting material was sold to ship builders, mixed with tar and used to seal the lining of wooden ships.

Inmates’ diet

In the Directors and Guardians accounts of 1837, there is a handwritten list of vegetables sold from the workhouse garden between April and September that year. A total of £7.1s 4d was sold, and it is reasonable to assume that some inmates were employed in this way. The Vestry books make it clear that the diet of the inmates of the workhouse was beef, split peas, oatmeal, bread, butter cheese and beer. There were no hot beverages or anything sweet. Their medical care was put out to tender.

Child labour

An interesting entry in the Vestry minutes held at the Town Hall on Monday 3rd June 1805 made reference to children ‘lately sent’ as apprentices to a cotton mill in Backborough, Lancashire, owned by Messrs Birch and Robinson. The Overseers, Daniel Hack, John Turner and Thomas Miller appointed Messrs Hargraves and Mills to visit the children at the ‘cotton manufactory’ and report on their return ‘the state of their health and morals and such other circumstances as may come within their observation’. There is no reference in earlier vestry minutes of any plans or intentions ,or any contract or request from the mill, to send the children to Lancashire or how many were involved.

Conditions for children

In the Vestry minutes on 18th June 1805, Hargraves and Mills presented their report, which is fully documented. They arrived at the cotton mill while the proprietors were away, and without their knowledge. They state that the children worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week, which was ‘far from laborious’. Their diet consisted of alternate days of milk and animal food. Twenty cows were kept for this purpose. They made a reference to the bread being ‘remarkably brown’, but were assured that it was ‘wholesome good bread’. The children were ‘tolerably clad’ (the girls better than the boys) and appeared in a good state of health. They found their education was very limited consisting of two hours every Sunday which was taught by the clergyman. None had been taught to write. A copy of their report was given to the mill owners. Their reply stated that at present the mill employed 140 children in all as apprentices and had been doing so for twenty years. If the Parish was not perfectly satisfied with their treatment of the children they could take them back or ‘transfer them to a person they might appoint’. They also mentioned that in all the years they had child apprentices, ‘not one act of bastardy has occurred’. (Vestry minutes 18th June 1805 ESRO)

The real facts

Owners of large textile mills purchased large numbers of children from workhouses as a source of cheap labour. The children became known as pauper apprentices and signed contracts that virtually made them the property of the factory owners. By the late 1790’s about a third of all the workers in the cotton industry were pauper apprentices, and they were especially predominant in large factories in rural areas. “For example, in 1797, of the 310 workers in Birch and Robinson in the village of Backbarrow (sic), 210 were parish apprentices” (

Extracts from history notes on Brighton Workhouse originally written for Hanovernet

Comments about this page

  • I read with interest about B.G.H.,which we always refered to as ‘The General’. I have many memories of that imposing building at the top of ‘The Grove’. I was born and brought up in Seville Street, just off Elm Grove. In 1948 I had my Tonsils removed whilst a patient in the Children’s ward in ‘A’ block. In the late 1950’s I attended Anatomy & Physiology lectures, as part of the pre-nursing course at Stanmer school. Four years later, when I was a student nurse at the childrens’ hospital, we were given accommodation on the top floor at B.G.H. Nurses Home. The rooms were so small we called them ‘Horseboxes’ !. Over the years I and members of my family were either patients or visitors at the Hospital. I remember the distinctive uniforms the Nurses wore, and the high standard of care they used to give.

    By Pamela Bolden (nee Manktelow) (08/06/2004)

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