Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

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The Workhouse.

In 1747, the Vestry decided to provide a Workhouse and Messrs Fawcett and Forster, leased two houses for this purpose. This was closed and a new Workhouse was built in 1855/6 at a cost of £5,900. The grounds and buildings occupied about 4 acres. It was capable of accommodating 164 inmates, with the cost per head of about 4 shillings (20p).

Before the Second World War (pre 1939) at about 6pm. there was often to be found around half a dozen tramps queuing up outside the Old Police Station in the Front Street waiting for a ticket, just so that they could spend the night in the Workhouse.

In 1851 the Chester workhouse was a building inherited from the parochial authorities. It was situated south of West Lane on the site of a garage in an area which has changed drastically in modern times.

The Census gives us a brief glimpse of the occupants and inmates of the workhouse of March 1851. Joseph Dodds and his wife were in charge as master and matron. In October 1851 Dodds died and was replaced by the 49 year old Robert Leathard whose wife therefore replaced Mrs Dodds as matron. Leathard's previous work had been as storekeeper for 19 years at Ouston colliery. The 48 inmates were 19 men, 19 women, six boys and four girls. The men were probably quite beyond work. The youngest of them was 57.
Apart from four idiots, the men divide into ten coal miners,three agriculturalists and two labourers. The miners were aged between 57 and 83 years which strongly suggests they were past work. The only teenage males were among the idiots which confirms the impression that the workhouse was in practice a receptacle for the helpless and not the unemployed. The same idiots were still in the workhouse in 1881 which also suggests a tolerable regime. But the female inmates were much younger. Only five of the 19 were over 65 years. The majority, twelve of them, were aged between 15 and 45. In their case absolute destitution was probably the cause of their presence. Three of them were house servants in their late twenties. One was a 35 year old dressmaker and the 15 year old was described as a scholar. Among the women were probably some single mothers.

It would appear that anyone who did not present themselves as 'normal' would be classed for census purposes as an idiot. There were four such adults of each sex in the workhouse and two boys. This it would seem was a description of anyone who suffered from perhaps deafness, severe speech impediments or from some mental disability, which in this modern day and age would benefit from the advances of medical science. To modern sensibilities, to describe someone as an 'idiot' for census or any purpose, would seem cruel in its directness.

In 1897, there were 149 inmates, meals were very poor and people dreaded the thought of going there. It was enlarged in 1899 and again in 1921. Originally, there was a gateway and a gatehouse with a morgue, but both were demolished for road-widening schemes.

The Workhouse and Relief to the Poor, were administered by a Board of Guardians. These "Chester Guardians" came to a spectacular end in 1926 when they were suspended by the Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain no less, for their alleged generosity to the large numbers of unemployed single miners in the area.

The Gateway, Gatehouse and Morgue buildings, later to become the Registrar's Office for Births, Marriages and Deaths.

These buildings were demolished so that road widening work could be carried out.

The Workhouse for Men.

The Workhouse for Women.

The Workhouse, later to become Chester-le-Street General Hospital