Chris Upton surveys the remnants of that once ubiquitous feature of the industrial landscape, the workhouse.
Last Sunday I pulled up outside the Jolly Collier in Old Heath Road, Wednesfield, to take a picture of it. The pub was built on the site of the Wednesfield parish workhouse, and (as you may already know) I’ve got a thing about workhouses.
The three men having a smoke by the door were surprised by this sudden press attention.
“Are you planning a burglary?” asked the first. When I expounded on the significance of their local they were immediately interested.
“What’s a workhouse ?” asked the second.
“A place for housing the unemployed,” I explained.
“You’ve come to the right place then,” quipped the third.
Most people, in fact, have a reasonable idea of what a workhouse was, and realise that their town once had one. More often than not, its buildings have been incorporated into the local hospital.
In the case of Wolverhampton that is New Cross. Tucked away behind the A&E and the urology unit, and remarkably invisible for its size, still stands the great tower of Wolverhampton union workhouse.
Just inside the porch is the plaque marking its arrival in 1900, the last workhouse to be built in the West Midlands. But the fallen plaster scattered around the floor suggests that the tower is not long for this world.
Much as the NHS has relied on the Poor Law for its buildings and sites, it is far from keen on their continued survival. Their duty of care is directed elsewhere.
But the remains of Wolverhampton union workhouse at New Cross are only the tip of the iceberg. Long before the Poor Law Amendment Act created the large bureaucracies known as Poor Law unions, there were far humbler institutions called parish workhouses.
The Act of 1834 simply merged the parishes into larger units for economies of scale, much as today’s “super hospitals” have hoovered up the old cottage hospitals.
What we now call the city of Wolverhampton was once a patchwork of smaller, independent parishes, each with its own church and its own workhouse. So don’t ask me where Wolverhampton workhouse is, because I’ll give you nine different answers.
And since no one has ever put this information together before, let me introduce you to them.
The earliest of them – probably the oldest in the West Midlands – opened at Bilston in 1700 in a house belonging to John Wooley of Ye Bull. The agreement between Wooley and the parish was made on March 23, 1700, on which day Widow Bennett was placed there.
According to the contract the poor were to have access to as much of Mr Wooley’s garden “as will conveniently take half a hundred of plants”. The sum agreed for the handover was £2. The house in question was in a fold off High Street, still known as Workhouse Fold in the 1890s.
Land in Willenhall “at the rear of houses on the east side of Stafford Street” was purchased for a workhouse in 1741, with an entrance in Little Wood Street.
The last master was Job Thatcher, who ran it from 1819 to its closure in 1839. In 1839 the Willenhall vestry resolved to sell the building, though Upper Lichfield Street remained known as Workhouse Lane for many years after.
Most parish workhouses have long since bit the dust, but remarkably the Bushbury poorhouse – built in 1831 – still stands at the corner of Bee Lane and Primrose Avenue. The building has been re-faced, probably from the days when it was a doctor’s surgery, but the old parish brick can still be seen peeping out from underneath.
Tettenhall workhouse has still certainly disappeared, though we know it stood at the corner of Wrottesley Road and Redhouse Road. It was built with money from various parish bequests in 1714. After the house closed it was converted into seven cottages, which survived well into the 20th century.
The parish workhouse for Penn was at the corner of Wakeley Hill and Church Hill. The old cottages that still occupy this site may possibly be the old workhouse, or at least be connected with it. I haven’t entirely solved this puzzle.
As for the parish of Wolverhampton itself, things get even more complicated. The huge expansion of the town in the 19th century meant that the poor had to move to larger premises, not once, but twice. The earliest workhouse, built in the 1700s, stood back from Horseley Fields, in a lane (not surprisingly) called Workhouse Lane. Today it would be in the middle of the bus station.
In 1839, after the creation of Wolverhampton Union, new purpose-built premises were opened on Bilston Road, opposite to Commercial Road at a cost of £8,000. (There are retail units on the site now.) The design (an unusual St Andrews Cross) is attributed to George Wilkinson, who was responsible for no less than 18 other workhouses, mostly in the south Midlands.
Although built to house 800 paupers, the Bilston Road workhouse was soon too small and the area too industrialised for the health of the inmates. But only after many years of dragging their feet did the Poor Law guardians stump up the considerable sum of £160,000 for a replacement at Heath Town. This is the one we can see at New Cross Hospital today.
After the Poor Law Amendment Act the relatively rural parishes of Penn, Bushbury and Tettenhall were allocated to Seisdon Union, and in 1860 a new union workhouse was erected at Trysull in Staffordshire.
The other parishes (much more industrialised) were awarded to Wolverhampton. And so began the process of closure and demolition I’ve been trying to reverse in this column.