The Bath Union Workhouse

There is a burial ground in Wells Road, Bath where 3,182 bodies were buried between 1858 and 1899 in unmarked graves. John Payne, whose great grandparents are buried there, explains the history and considers the need for a permanent memorial. Additional material by Aileen Thompson.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act established a uniform system for the administration of welfare. This resulted in the building of the Bath Union Workhouse between 1836 and 1838.

The New Poor Law, introduced in 1834, was designed to reduce the total expenditure on poor relief, especially that given in people’s own homes and communities. Its introduction caused much debate, with some comparing conditions in the new workhouses to slavery and others insisting that when relief was given to poor people it should be in return for work, and that conditions in the workhouse should be no better than conditions of working families outside it.

The Bath Union Workhouse was built between 1836 and 1838 on Frome Road at Odd Down. The first chairman of the Bath Union Workhouse, the Rev. Thomas Spencer of Hinton Charterhouse, believed that while the workhouse should act as a deterrent through a strict regime, it would also provide training, enabling inmates to learn a trade to enable them to earn a living outside the workhouse.

The workhouse building was built to a standard design with three wings radiating from the central offices of the workhouse, linked to form a hollow hexagon. The open areas were used as recreation yards. There were day rooms, dormitories and work rooms, an infirmary, a kitchen and a laundry. Land was purchased south of Frome Road for gardens to grow food.

An arial view of the Workhouse, 1930s

The workhouse was designed for 600, but as early as 1845 contained 758 adults and 374 children. On arrival families were broken up as men, women and children were housed separately. The workhouse was soon enlarged, with invalid wards added and in 1857 the so-called ‘lunatic wards’ for the mentally ill. A separate laundry and bakery were built in later years, the intention to reduce costs by employing pauper labour. Accommodation was also provided for the itinerant poor. Diets were simple and boring, beds were hard and everything was done as cheaply as possible. The most obvious discipline of the workhouse was time: getting up, eating and work all took place at the summons of the workhouse bell, which can still be seen – now silent – at the entrance to St Martin’s Hospital.

There were punishments for those who broke workhouse rules, such as by swearing or fighting. There were also rewards such as beer for inmates who took on responsibilities in the infirmary, laundry, kitchen and gardens.

Children from poor families ended up in the workhouse because they were abandoned by their parents or orphaned, and lessons were provided in the school rooms. School teachers were employed not just to teach the children but to supervise them from morning till night, including chapel on Sunday mornings. The majority of the girls later went into service; for the boys a wider range of apprenticeships were available, often based on the practical skills they had learned in the workhouse.

Workhouse inmate: William Wingrove 1819–1867
William grew up in Walcot and was a French polisher by trade. He married and had children, but his wife died, probably in childbirth. By the 1860s, William and two daughters were all living at Bath Workhouse. He died in 1867 at the age of 49. In 1871 Martha Wingrove, aged 28 and described as an imbecile, and Catherine (Kate) Wingrove, aged 32, described as a lunatic, were both still living in the Workhouse, though in the 1881 census they are both described as epileptic. Martha died later that year and was interred at the Burial Ground. What became of Kate is a mystery. What did it matter? They were only paupers…

Within a few years of the building of the Bath Workhouse, it became apparent that the majority of inmates were simply not capable of work. In 1857 only 139,130 out of a total workhouse population in England and Wales of 843,430 were able-bodied. The remaining 700,000 were children, the old or the mentally ill. This imbalance meant that as the century moved on, the history of the workhouse overlapped more and more with the history of health and welfare provision.

The work of building a chapel for the workhouse began in 1843 and was completed in 1846. All inmates were expected to attend chapel on Sunday morning. Before 1847 the bodies of those who died in the workhouse were returned to the parish where they had lived. Once the chapel was built, burials took place in unmarked graves on the land next to the chapel. A total of 1107 bodies are buried there. In 1855 the Board of Guardians purchased a further field on the other side of Frome Road, adjoining Wells Road. Pauper labour was used to clear stone from the field and these stones were used to build the wall that is still there today. The new burial ground was opened in 1858, and 3182 bodies were buried there between 1858 and 1899 in unmarked graves.

The Workhouse Burial Ground is now open space in the care of the Parks Department at Bath and North East Somerset Council. It is still consecrated ground. The main workhouse buildings, including the Hexagon of 1838, have now been converted into housing, while some of the later infirmary buildings are used for NHS offices.

The names of the dead are in the list of burials carefully preserved and transcribed in the Bath Record Office in the vaults of the Bath Guildhall. My great-grandparents Charles and Ann Payne died in Bath Workhouse, and are buried in unmarked graves in the field on Wells Road, Odd Down, Bath, now known as Wellsway. The field was defined by rough grass – unloved and uncared for. Charles had come to Bath from Chewton Mendip to make his fortune. Clearly he failed.

Workhouse inmate: Sarah Papler (or Pepler) 1808–1893
A Gloucestershire girl, Sarah Papler married a farmer at Wotton-under-Edge at a time when farming was in decline. In various censuses Sarah was living on the farm or working as a servant in Bath. By 1891 she was an inmate of Bath Workhouse, described as an 81-year-old pauper. She died two years later and was buried at the Workhouse on 23 November 1893. Her life, like so many in Victorian England, was an unavoidable progression through a life of poverty, from her birth to her end in the Workhouse.

In 1937 the workhouse infirmary became St Martin’s Hospital; other parts of the buildings were used to accommodate the elderly and chronically ill. In 1948 the hospital and the infirmary were combined into a single hospital. Older patients later in the 20th century continued to be fearful of St Martin’s Hospital, and especially its geriatric wards, because of the stigma of the hated workhouse.

I wrote a number of poems addressing the social and moral issues raised by what I called The Workhouse Dead (“the rotting leather ledgers/… list the money spent, the figures,/ but not the suffering/ of children, elders, the mad, the sick”). These were read on a series of walks between the city centre and the Burial Ground, hosted by myself and walking artist Richard White. From this emerged Richard’s proposal to adopt a ‘slow walking’ approach, honouring our workhouse dead by traversing slowly and carefully the field in which they were buried, as we read their names.

Each time we gathered, walkers brought flowers, left pebbles and later flags on sticks fluttering with the names of the dead on them; a ‘poor’ memorial evolved but we were no closer to having a permanent memorial. Cue Bathscape, Bath’s Lottery funded Landscape Partnership project. Working with Bathscape’s Community Projects Officer, Lucy Bartlett, we have been able to persuade the Parks Department to change the mowing pattern to allow wild flowers to flourish. There will be interpretation boards to tell locals and visitors about the history of the Burial Ground. We hope that one day there will be a simple permanent memorial here, designed in consultation with local people. Proceeds of sales of our booklet From Workhouse to Hospital have enabled us to set up a fund for that purpose.

My hope is that the field will become a place where youngsters will play, where family gatherings and picnics will take place, as well as being a place of thoughtful remembrance. Laughter as well as tears.

Copies of From Workhouse to Hospital can be bought for £5 at the Museum of Bath at Work or the Oldfield Park Bookshop in Moorland Road.

Main image: Christmas Day in the Workhouse, c. 1890