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Hereford County Union Workhouse

Historic Environment Record reference no. 20127, Ordnance Survey grid reference SO 5158 4014

The former County Workhouse in Hereford was later incorporated into the buildings of the County Hospital. The workhouse buildings stand on the site of St Guthlac's Priory, which was moved from its original site near Castle Green when Hereford Castle was built. The south-east section of the building comprised nurseries, a yard, female dormitories and bedrooms.

The Union was formed on 12 April 1836 and the workhouse was built the same year, after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. The architects were Johnson and Trehearn, who were given a brief to build a stone and brick workhouse for 300 people that included a vagrant house of two rooms, sheds and pig sties. The workhouse opened in January 1838. In 1842 a fever ward of four rooms was added.

The building work on the main building was completed in 1837, and in August of that year advertisements were placed in the Hereford Times for the posts of Master and Matron, porter, cook, chaplain, nurse, schoolmaster and schoolmistress. There were also adverts for people to put in tenders for the supply of equipment for the workhouse. These included the bedding and clothing of the inmates. For the men these included jackets of fernought cloth and for the women there were grogram gowns and petticoats of linsey-woolsey. Fernought was a strong woollen cloth mainly used by men on ships in times of bad weather. Linsey-woolsey was a fabric made of linen and wool (or sometimes cotton and wool). Grogram was a very coarse mixture of silk, or mohair, and wool, which was sometimes stiffened with gum.

The advert for the Master and Matron read:

"Wanted, a Master and Matron for Hereford Union Workhouse. A man and his wife without incumbrance [children] would be preferred. They will be required to enter upon their duties immediately after their election. Testimonials as to character and fitness to be sent to the Clerk of the Board (free of expense) endorsed  'Testimonials for Master and Matron' on or before 1st November next and all applicants whether Master or Matron to appear personally at the Board on Wednesday 7th November."

(Records of the Board of Guardians, 18th October 1837: Hereford Record Office, K42/215)

The overseers of the workhouse were a Board of 53 Guardians, who represented the 45 parishes that were entitled to send their poor there. The population of the area within the Union was, at the time of the 1831 Census, 23,075. By the time of the 1891 Census this had risen to 34,120.

The workhouse was run by a Master and Matron, appointed by the Governors, and assisted by a Superintendent of industrial labour, a Schoolmaster, Schoolmistress and a Chaplain.

Work that was carried out by the inmates included oakum picking (drawing out threads of hemp, which would used to make rope), stone breaking (the product would be sold to make road surfaces), pounding bones and cleaning hair. The workhouse had a good-sized vegetable garden and piggery, the pigs from which would have been used to feed the inmates.

In July 1909, a poster was displayed in the workhouse listing the type of work expected of casual paupers. It read:


The task of work for casual paupers when breaking stone shall be the following, viz :-

3cwt when detained one night only,

10cwt daily when detained for more than one night.

Such stone must be broken to a size as to pass through holes in the screen provided for that purpose, such holes being two inches in diameter.

By Order

R. Moore, Clerk

(Hereford Record Office, T75/1)

During the harsh winter of 1841, which brought with it poor harvests and failed potato crops, the admissions to the workhouse had reached 207 by early February. This led to an emergency meeting at the Guildhall at which the Reverend John Venn addressed those present. John Venn was a man who had lived his life with Christian devotion and zeal to the improvement of conditions for the poor. After the meeting the Hereford Society for Aiding the Industrious was set up, and by March they had offices in Bye Street. The Society had two main principles: the truest charity is that which enables the working man to maintain himself and his family in comfort and independence by his own prudence and industry; and that the upper classes are bound by all considerations of benevolence, of morality, and above all, of religion, to try to place every man in a situation which will enable him to do this. By June 1841 a small business loan scheme had been set up.

Sometime between 1876 and 1888, infirmary blocks were constructed to the north of the workhouse, with separate blocks for men and women. Around the same time a chapel was erected to the west of the workhouse building.

Life inside the workhouse was strict and each establishment ran to a regulated set of guidelines. In 1913 the regulations in Hereford Workhouse were:


Every inmate upon admission shall be searched and any articles prohibited by Act of Parliament, Order of the Board or Guardians shall be taken.

Every inmate is to be bathed and cleansed and suitably clothed before being admitted to the ward.

The clothes and articles from the inmate are to be cleansed and disinfected, labelled and stored and returned on discharge.

Articles prohibited include:
Food, tobacco, snuff.
Spiritous or fermented liquor or any drug or poisonous matter.
Cards, dice or any other article conducive to gambling.
Letters, cards or written/printed matter of an improper character.

Hours of rising, meals and going to bed

Except for children, the inmates of the sick and lunatic wards, or inmates infirm through age or otherwise, the hours of rising shall be from 1st April - 30th September: 5.45am. From 1st October - 31st March: 6.45am. Bed is to be no later than 8pm each evening.

The hours in the sick and lunatic wards for the non-bedridden shall be at the discretion of the Medical Officer. The infirm not in sick wards at the discretion of the Master or Matron.


Breakfast: April to September: 6.30 - 7.00; October to March: 7.15 - 7.45
Dinner: 12 - 1pm
Supper: 6 - 7pm

All meals are to be in the dining room, except reception inmates, nursery, sick, lunatics and the old. Inmates shall be seated according to sex and class.

A gong or bell shall be sounded at times of rising, meals or going to bed. All inmates shall respond quietly and without delay.

The Master and Matron shall inspect inmates daily. Culpable absence, slovenly dress, or un-cleanliness shall be punished.

The Master or other officer shall read the prayers before breakfast and after supper. Services on Sundays, Good Fridays and Christmas shall be arranged by the Chaplain.

(Hereford Record Office - T75/1)

Punishments in Hereford workhouse

Punishments were mainly dealt with within the workhouse, with the Relieving Officer being obliged to report all incidences to the Board of Guardians. The Records of the Board of Guardians give examples of the types of offences and punishment.

On 14th February 1838, the Master reported the following punishments of the last fortnight:
"Joseph Taylor of Marden, stopped his cheese, gruel and soup for one day for breaking stone in a negligent manner and making use of ill language."

"Joseph Green of Holm, Refractory Ward for one hour for cursing and fighting with the smaller boys."

On 7th March 1838:
"Margaret Morgan, age 14, of Saint Owens - two hours in Refractory Ward for stealing Schoolmistress's gloves. Also stopped cheese, soup and gruel for cursing the other children in the schoolroom and taking bread belonging to other paupers."

(Records of the Board of Guardians, 1837 - 1838: Hereford Record Office, K42/215)

During World War II the hospital facilities of the workhouse were used as part of the Emergency Medical Service scheme. The remaining residents who were part of the Public Assistance scheme were moved to Bromyard, Leominster and Ledbury.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]