Ewell Parish Workhouse from before 1760 to 1839

Situated at the edge of a community, Almshouse, Poorhouse, Pest House and Workhouse

Portion of the 1802 Enclosure Map - click to enlarge
Portion of the 1802 Enclosure Map - click to enlarge
Yellow area = (A) The First Workhouse,
Green area = (B) Old Pest House and (C) Almshouse,
Purple area = (D) Possible Later Pest House

The concept of a 'workhouse' was introduced by an Elizabethan poor law act of 1576 and in 1597 the post of overseer of the poor was created.

The date of establishment of Ewell's first workhouse is not known but its location was to the north of Gallows Lane represented in the 1802 Enclosure Map as the structure on an unnumbered plot, held freehold, below Copyhold No.346. C S Willis mentioned that here were 'some old almshouses that were voted a nuisance to the parish and pulled down' in the first half of the 19th century. The 1866 O S Survey shows a development of three terraced houses in their place, off Gibraltar Lane backing on to field 270: they survive numbered 102 - 106 West Street, believed to have been known sometimes as the *Gibraltar Cottages, noted above, or Homestead Cottages.

Extract from the 1866 OS Map - Click to enlarge
Extract from the 1866 OS Map - Click to enlarge
Yellow area = (A) First workhouse/alms house & Green area = (C) Second Workhouse,
Red Buildings = Hard's properties

At some early date a Pest House was set up on the other side of the street. [A pest house or pesthouse was a hospital or hostel used for persons afflicted with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera or smallpox, often used for forcible quarantine.]

Knatchbull's General Workhouse Act of 1723 enabled single parishes to erect a workhouse if desired so that they could enforce labour on the able-bodied poor in return for relief. A 'workhouse test' enabled parishes to refuse relief to those paupers who would not enter them. Nationally, the building of workhouses increased considerably under this Act, and by the end of the 18th century their number had increased to almost 2,000, most holding between 20 to 50 inmates.

[Since in surviving records the terms 'poor house', 'workhouse', and 'almshouse' have been used interchangeably, for the following narrative A will signify the first and C the second with B used to denote the old 'pest house' and (D) a building possibly used as a later isolation unit.]

It was not uncommon for such buildings to be located on parish boundaries as was the one at Ashtead which had been set up as an 'almshouse' in the 16th century, voluntarily provided until 1723. Ewell's first workhouse building (A), was established on a freehold plot on Gallows Street away from the village centre with a pest house (B)opposite. Smallpox was almost an annual occurrence and the pest house was certainly used for a serious outbreak in 1762/3. Rent and repair (by Henry Kitchen) of the later workhouse (C) is found mentioned during 1760. In the Overseers' Accounts for 1766 it is referred to as the 'Almshouse' when a well was dug to serve both those premises and the Pest House next door.

Confirmation of the continuing coexistence of the original Poor House (A) and a building (C) adjacent to the Pest House, in their different guises, is found in a Vestry Minute of 29 October 1772:-
"Persons under 50 years living in Almshouse , requirement to leave. Failure to do so, removal to Workhouse. No persons under 50 to reside in Almshouse in future without the consent of the Vestry."
The inhabitants of Ewell determined in May 1776 further to enlarge and improve the Pest House "for to make a workhouse of the same for the better employment of the poor".

Conditions remained degrading, however, as revealed by a Committee of Inspection's report from 1777. The children were found to be virtually naked, verminous, and wretched, with adult inmates equally neglected. Henry Scriven, a lunatic, "partly naked and chained with the door open and hogs in the room which might have destroyed him": the workhouse "so very offensive above stairs that we could not go to inspect the rooms and bedding". Other records contain more than one reference to the purchase of a "Straight waistcoat" presumably used for restraint.

Henry Kitchen provided the detailed estimate for building and furnishing a new wing of the old 'Pest House' in May 1781 in order to enlarge the [newer] workhouse (C).

Gilbert's Act in 1782 provided instructions on how to manage a workhouse and, together with a recommended set of rules, the aim was produce standardisation as far as possible. The unemployed able-bodied poor would be provided first with outdoor relief and then with employment, while indoor relief in poorhouses was confined to the care of the old, sick, infirm and their dependant children

Consequently, the 1802 Enclosure Award Map of Ewell came to show two structures (B & C) on Copyhold Plot 348, marked 'Workhouse' but incorporating the ancient Pest House, and, south of Plot 346, another building [an Almshouse, originally the first workhouse of the parish (A)]. On Copyhold plot 344, noted 'Poor of Ewell', stood a further structure: one cannot identify its function but, as a matter of speculation, it could have been a later 'pest house' (D), or isolation hospital for infectious cases, at a remove from the Workhouse complex (B & C).

In 1826, as mentioned earlier, the original workhouse (A), otherwise Alms Houses or Poor House Cottages, was in a state of dilapidation. These structures were demolished for salvaged materials to be used to improve the later workhouse (C) and the freehold land on which they had stood was sold off for £30. Then two more rooms were added to the workhouse in 1831.

Houses on the site of the original workhouse
Houses on the site of the original workhouse
Image courtesy of Brian Bouchard © 2011

It has been reported that in the Parish of Ewell during 1834, the poor rate was cut in half by employing the poor on the roads by task-work. Royal Assent was granted on 14 August of that year for a Poor Law Amendment Act to be placed on the Statute Book. This minimised the provision of outdoor relief and made confinement in a workhouse the central element of the new system. To qualify for relief, it was not sufficient for the able-bodied to be poor; they actually had to be destitute. It was decreed that external relief for the poor was to be stopped within two years. Thus the constitution of Epsom Poor Law Union and Board of Guardians came to be declared on 31 May 1836.

Occupants of Ewell's old workhouse, according to Mr Willis, "were the fatherless children, and the feeble in body and mind... The paupers were set to work carding and spinning wool." In planning for a new Union, the surviving buildings had been reserved for children [LINK to The Poor] but the Ewell premises were sold for £270.7.0 in 1838 and the proceeds contributed towards the cost of building a new Central Workhouse in Epsom for the Union.

Houses on the site of the later workhouse
Houses on the site of the later workhouse now 107-117 West St
Image courtesy of Brian Bouchard © 2011

Minutes of the Guardians of the Poor of Epsom Union also record that, on 6 December 1837, freehold land of 34 perches situated at the south end of West Street, Ewell, in front of the messuage lately used as a workhouse had been conveyed to Joseph Cooper, butler to Samuel Farmer [1748 - 1839] of Nonsuch Park. Another plot of 31 perches in the same area went during the same year to William Smith of Ewell, carpenter.

By 5 May 1874, when they were acquired by William Hards, a local builder, 11 dwellings had been built on the two plots.

In a curious twist of fate, six houses built on the land were eventually acquired by Charles Cooke, Master of Epsom Union Workhouse, - on 31 December 1884 (SHCOL 6109/1/10) after the demise of William Hards, 18 June 1884. [Cooke had taken over as master about 1877 and is considered in The Poor on this website, under Some Officers at page 25. Although his marriage to the widowed Mrs Fanny Owen Chance was registered at Epsom, 12/1881, she died, aged 39, to be buried in Epsom Cemetery on 2 October 1883. Her successor as Matron, Mrs Harriet Griffiths, became Cooke's second wife (Reg. Epsom 12/1884). Charles Cooke was buried at Epsom, aged 44, on 9 January 1893 but his relict Harriet did not follow him there until 1926, at the age of 83.]

Those six properties consequently became known as Cooke's Cottages, Lower West Street, Gibraltar; brick built, they appear to be represented by the terrace numbered 107 - 117. Others continued to be called Hard's Cottages. Many more buildings are shown on the 1866 OS Map covering the entire area once used as a site for the Pest House (B) and Workhouse (C), with the railway track cutting through one corner. More recently, the former workhouse site has been cleared for the development of Larby Place.

A much more detailed account of life and death in Ewell's workhouse may be read in Nonsuch Antiquarian Society's Occasional Paper No. 14, 'Caring for the Ewell poor before 1838', published in 1983.

Link to the main Epsom Union Workhouse page.

Brian Bouchard © 2011

Lady Berkeley
Lady Berkeley
Rooths House
Rooth's House
Singeing Beard
Singeing Beard
Chamiers of Epsom
Chamiers Epsom
Woodcote Park
Woodcote Park
Rev. Boucher
Rev. Boucher
Rev. Parkhurst
Rev. Parkhurst