The original building and layout
Chosing the plan
In 1820 land on the brow of Church Hill was purchased for £1,400 and a further £10,000 was set aside for building a new Brighton workhouse in Dyke Road. From 40 designs submitted, the directors and guardians chose the plans produced by Mr. William Mackie, an architect of Charlotte Street, Blackfriars, London. Although they considered that it offered both elegance and economy, in later years many alterations were subsequently made at the guardians’ whim or fancy.
Laying the foundation stone
Mr John Cheesman, whose family included many local builders, carpenters and manufacturers of cement, was selected to both undertake and oversee the building work and he provided the crude foundation stone that was laid in 1821 by the Reverend D Carr, the Bishop of Chichester. The stone, we are told, measured some 24 inches by 18 inches by 10 inches and had been dug up on the site. The illustration here shows the main frontage of the building, facing the route from the top of Church Hill to the Devil’s Dyke. The inscription over the main door read:
“Brighthelmstone Poor-house, Erected AD., 1821,
Vicar, Rev. R. J. Carr, D.D.
Churchwardens Edward Blaker, Robert Ackersall, Richard Brodie”
This new Brighton workhouse was set in some 9 acres of land and located on the east side of the road immediately above the extended area of St. Nicholas’ Churchyard. When it was originally built, the site marked the northern edge of the town and the start of the route north to the Devil’s Dyke and over the South Downs. At the time, the workhouse was said to occupy a position affording magnificent views of the sea, but J. A. Erridge wrote that in reality it was a desolate, wind-swept location which he felt to be “a Howling Wilderness”.
What was where
The plan shows main frontage which was some 191 feet long, behind which was an ‘H’ shape that divided the workhouse into sections which we are told was ‘in order to class its inmates in the most regular manner’. Each internal area had access to a yard and the central section was for the workhouse administrators. We are told that the northern wings contained the wards for males not capable of hard work, sleeping rooms, an eating room, sick rooms, and a boys’ school. Each room measured fifty feet by twenty five feet. Opposite, were apartments for females, including the sick, those lying-in following childbirth, children, and any females not capable of hard work. The southern wings contained further sleeping rooms, a school room, and another eating room. In the yard were a corn mill, a whiting manufactory, and workshops for dressing flax and carding wool.
The inmates’ duties included grinding their own flour and making their own clothes, as well as toiling in the workhouse workshops where they made such items as ‘whitening’ (ground chalk used for white-washing, etc), ropes, cords, doormats, rugs and sacking. The central section housed the entrance hall and administrative area which included a committee-room for examination of applicants, the overseers and clerk’s office, and the governor’s room which also had its own sleeping apartment. Behind that was a kitchen with a high ceiling, a wash house, a brew house, a bake house and a laundry. In addition, there were other apartments for males able to work, the upper floor being sleeping rooms, while the lower floor contained additional workrooms, a school room (probably for girls and infants) and a further eating room.
Addition of an infirmary
The garden covered about 9 acres and plans were in hand to build an infirmary in the grounds. The workhouse infirmary was built by 1850 and can clearly be seen silhouetted on plans after that date.