The workhouse in Elm Grove

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

The new parish workhouse and infirmary was built by George Maynard on seven acres of land purchased in 1854, but the cost of construction, £41,118, was mostly offset by the sale of the Church Hill workhouse and grounds. The foundation stone was laid on 11 May 1865 by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Moorsom, chairman of the local board of guardians, but the buildings were not finished until June 1867 after considerable delay. The principal building, facing north-west above Elm Grove, has a frontage of 318 feet and stands 50 feet high with a central clock tower which bears the date 1866. At the rear was the infirmary with a chapel on the top floor.

First inmates in 1867
The first inmates were accepted on 12 September 1867 and the change-over took ten days. Accommodation for 861 people was available, and the facilities included the workhouse proper, an infirmary with several wards, a chapel, laundry, and casual wards for temporary relief. Water was taken from the Warren Farm well until 1878, and a cesspit was used until the building was connected to the Lewes Road sewer in about 1876. The workhouse was extended when new casual wards opened in April 1887, and two new infirmary blocks (now facing Pankhurst Avenue) opened in July 1891 with a third block opening at the rear in 1898. Professional nurses were introduced by 1902, but did not have a permanent home until 1929.

A harsh regime
From March 1871 regulations were issued by the national Poor Law Board and the workhouse was inspected weekly by the guardians’ visiting committee. A harsh regime was maintained in order to discourage people from applying for parish relief, and those that did were made to wear the workhouse uniform; men were issued with grey suits and were set to work breaking stones, while the women wore blue and white striped dresses, and picked oakum (tarred rope). The inmates were allowed one outing during the summer, and one at Christmas to visit a pantomime.

Opened as the ‘Kitchener Hospital’
In early 1914 Brighton Workhouse was renamed the Brighton Poor Law Institution, but shortly afterwards the building was offered to the military as a hospital and the 1,050 inmates were evacuated to large houses in Brighton and Hove, and to other institutions in the county. The ‘Kitchener Hospital’ opened in January 1915 and was used until April 1916 for wounded Indian soldiers and then for British troops. It was handed back to the guardians in July 1920, reopening as the Poor Law Institution, but on 1 April 1930 the Brighton Board of Guardians was replaced by the county borough council’s public assistance committee as the workhouse system was brought to an end and a more liberal regime was introduced to dispel the old workhouse atmosphere; only the aged and infirm were then accommodated in the Poor Law Institution which became known as the Elm Grove Home.

Brighton Municipal Hospital
On 1 November 1935 the Brighton Municipal Hospital was established and took over most of the buildings, and it took over the whole site in 1939-40 with the remaining dependents evacuated once again to various establishments in the county. In 1948 the buildings became Brighton General Hospital upon the establishment of the National Health Service.

Comments about this page

  • My Grandma (Clara Potiphar of Grove street) had a hernia, she was told she would have to go in the General Hospital. I can remember the family going with her to the hospital. We got as far as the entrance gate, and my Gran froze and no matter what we said or did, nothing was going to get her in that gate. She would not speak as to why she refused to go in. We went home, and then she told us something that we didn’t know, she was born in the Workhouse, and stayed there until she was 12 years old. She worked in the laundry (ironing) and was paid 9 and a half pence a week for a 14 hour day, 6 days a week. It was hell for her to recall her experiences to us. She finally went in to the Royal Sussex.

    By Ray Stoner (08/03/2013)
  • My mother, myself and my two brothers spent some time in Elm Grove workhouse in the early 1960s. All I can remember is one large room with beds in it and my mother putting two of them together for us all to sleep in,and eating porridge in the mornings. Is the workhouse still standing?

    By Andrew Kedziora (24/06/2013)
  • Similar to Ray Stoner, my mother was told (about 1996) by her doctor that she would have to go to hospital for an operation after she was diagnosed with diabetes in her ’90s. As mum had not been in hospital since I was born in 1949, her first reaction was to state “I’m not going in that bl**dy workhouse!”. I explained that it had not been ‘the bl**dy workhouse’ since about 1928! Mum had been brought up in Hackney and Bethnal Green before WW1 in dire poverty as Grandad was out of work. A gentleman’s cane maker…when less gents were carrying canes [King Edward VII did carry one…King George V did not]. She never forgot those days. Of course she was always intended for the Royal Sussex County but those deep associations quickly surfaced.

    By Geoffrey Mead (25/06/2013)
  • Hello Andrew. As the article says, the old workhouse became the Brighton General Hospital in 1948 and, yes, it is still in use as such today. I’m trying to imagine why your family would have been there in the 1960s. Could it be that your mother needed medical treatment, and you three children had nowhere else to go so were accomodated by the hospital in some way? It’s puzzling.

    By Janet Beal (26/06/2013)
  • There was a reception area for giving overnight shelter and food for homeless men and women at the entrance by the road at Brighton General Hospital, well into the 1970s.

    By Margaret Seymour (27/06/2013)
  • I’d like any information anyone has about what happened to the ‘lunatic’ patients, from their incarceration, treatment etc to what happened if they were released when the building was taken over, or where they would have been buried if they died. I have a cousin who was a ‘lunatic inmate/patient’ documented from 1901 – 1911 under Census information and am trying to trace further information. She may have died in 1918 but I’m trying to confirm this, but for historical research would be grateful for any information/details anyone can provide, thank you.

    By Dee Redmond (08/10/2013)
  • After the War my family split up for a few years, and although my parents ran a sweet shop and tobacconist in Viaduct Road, my brother and I were sent to live with our grandmother in Hillingdon. Aged 7, I contracted measles whilst on summer holiday in Brighton, and spent three weeks in the old workhouse. I remember looking out over Brighton from the top of the hill and wandering round the rose gardens and I think there was a bowling green. I was very upset to be separated from my parents during my precious summer holiday, as the only visitor I was allowed was my older brother who was off on National Service. 

    By Shirley Osborn (15/04/2015)
  • The workhouse was built by my great great grandfather, Jabez Reynolds; George Maynard was one of the designers. I have a document, signed by Jabez, about his building career. He was both a contractor and developer, working for others as well as speculatively, and built about 1,000 houses in Brighton and Hove including other landmark buildings such as Palmeira Mansions (one block built by him, the other simultaneously by his son, also Jabez Reynolds); Adelaide Mansions and Medina Terrace; and many houses, large and small, including Coleman Street and Washington Street in Hanover. I’d really appreciate it if you could amend the article above, recognising Maynard as one of the designers and Jabez Reynolds as the builder. 

    Editor’s note: Thank you Joanna – but as the note at the end of the piece says, it is from an old reference piece which we do not have permission to edit.

    By Joanna Biddolph (31/10/2015)
  • My grandfather was taken into Brighton General Hospital in 1951 and eventually died there. They had to tell him that he was in the Sussex County Hospital and that the buses he could see going by were in Eastern Road. He remembered it as the workhouse and would not have wanted to be there.

    By Ron James (09/05/2016)
  • In 1955 I used to work at the General’s nurses’ residence as a cleaner. Is the hospital still in operation? Being in Canada now, I don’t hear much news about it still being used.

    By Sylvia Stickel (01/01/2017)
  • My Great Grandmother was in the workhouse for a year at some point between 1910-1920, she had a very troubled life with my grandmother being the youngest of 9 children (the only one now alive still). She was brought up mostly in children’s homes around Brighton. I am a student filmmaker at Sussex University and am currently in the process of making a film about the Brighton Workhouse and my Great Grandmothers story. Reading all the stories in this page has inspired me to want to include them in my film if at all possible, if anyone is willing to share their story with me I would be very grateful? My email is Thank-you!

    By Aiyana Gane (19/06/2017)
  • I would like to make contact with Joanna Biddolph above. Jabez Reynolds is also my great great grandfather and I have  a four page document written by him setting out details of his building projects.

    By Robin wilson (05/11/2017)
  • Robin Wilson above says he has a document setting out details of Jabez Reynolds’ building projects.  I understand he built houses in Hanover. I am researching Washington Street’s history for my son and wondered if there’s any mention of the development of this street in this document, please?

    By Alison (05/12/2017)

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