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Thursford Castle Chapel at Thursford castle Gate post

Thursford Castle and the English Poor Laws

Medieval beginnings.
A system of poor relief was first introduced by Edward III in 1349 in response to an outbreak of Black Death in England which killed 30-40% of the population. As a result there was a heavy demand for workers. Shortages meant that wages rose or land owners simply let the land go to waste. The Law was designed to reduce wage costs and get those people who were able, back to work.

Tudor Poor Laws:
During the reign of Henry VII Parliament passed an Act designed to round up Vagrants and vagabonds and punish them by placing them in the stocks for 3 days. All they had to eat was bread and water. After that they were told not to enter the towns again. In 1530 Henry VIII replaced stocks with whipping for Vagabonds. However, under this Act, the old, the sick and the disabled were allowed to beg by issue of a licence.

In Edward VI’s reign a bill was passed in 1547 whereby vagrants were put in to 2 years of servitude and branded with a V as penalty for their first offence. A second offence meant death.

In Elizabeth I’s reign in 1572 an Act was passed to treat vagrants even more cruelly. However, this Act did distinguish between the professional beggar and those who were unemployed through no fault of their own and allowed to beg.

In 1597 and 1601 the first comprehensive Poor Law Acts were passed by Elizabeth I. Now known as the Elizabethan Poor Laws,  At this time there were poor harvests and rapid inflation due to population growth and other economic factors. Poverty was on the increase. Charitable giving decreased as Monasteries were destroyed under the purge of Catholicism. The Act of 1601 made administration of the Poor a Parish responsibility for the first time and the cost of looking after the poor was paid for by local taxes by rate-payers. Deserving cases were offered food [The Parish Loaf] and clothing. Even housing was offered in alms houses. Able bodied beggars were placed in Houses of Correction or they simply got beaten. For the first time the idea of workhouses came in to existence but they weren’t used much. There were 15,000 such Parishes in England based around a Parish Church. In 1662 the system was revised in the Settlement At to include only those people who were resident in each Parish.

The workhouse movement first came in to real use in the late 17th. Century. Created by Act of Parliament from 1696 a number of workhouses were created where care for the poor, a house of correction for petty offences and housing were all combined. By 1776 there were 1912 of them containing nearly 100,000 paupers. The idea really was to get these people ready for work so as to earn their keep, but many were ill, elderly or children, so their labour output was unprofitable. In 1782 Thomas Gilbert established the workhouses solely for the aged and infirmed. A system of outdoor relief was arranged for those people who could work.



Thursford Castle, as it was known locally, cost £6000 to build.

It was designed to house 250 people.

It replaced a workhouse in the High Street, Little Walsingham.

Wells-next-the-sea had a workhouse in Pasonage Street which held 43 inmates in 1793.

Annually, the tax rate for local people was £1.0s.7d  per head.

Thursford Castle was to cover 50 parishes, covering a total population of 20,866 in 1831. This ranged from 17 in Pudding Norton to 3624 in Wells.
Thursford is mentioned as one of the Parishes covered by the workhouse.

Built in 1836 and demolished in 1961, it lasted just 125 years.

Like many workhouses, the idea was a good one but life for the inmates was very hard. As a result, they have a place in English History but not much loved by those who might have fallen foul of the Poor Law system.

Some additional facts about the workhouse exist in the Archive and photographs of the original building and the present state of the ruin have been collected.

It is believed that the land is in private ownership.

During the Napoleonic Wars it was impossible to import cheap grain, so the cost of bread increased. However, wages stayed the same and so poverty increased yet again. 1814 saw the then Tory Government pass several Corn Laws aimed at keeping grain prices high. 1815 was a time of great social unrest with a General Depression and very high unemployment.

By 1820 the worhouses were thought to be the answer to spiralling costs of maintaining Poor Relief. This was the time of decline in the wool spinning and lace making industries, industries that provided work for many people, particularly rural people. Farmers were also using the Poor Law System to not pay their workers, shifting the responsibility to the Parish tax-payers. Then, in 1832 a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the Operation of Poor Laws. The existing system was widely criticised as actually creating poverty in many cases. The recommendations of the Commission were to

1. Make conditions in the workhouse as bad as possible so that only desperate cases would ever think of entering. The outside workers too would not now want to enter the workhouse.

2. A test would be applied to make sure that Poor Relief was only available to those who entered the workhouse.

The idea was to make the system of Poor Relief less attractive and therefore force people to work. This became an Act in 1834. Known as the Poor Law Act of 1834. It tried essentially to reduce burden on taxpayers and to win votes. A Poor Law Commission was set up.

It is about this time that workhouses like Thursford Castle were being planned. Those villages that couldn’t afford the cost of maintaining a workhouse clubbed together under a Poor Law Union organised by the National Poor Law Commission. However, despite all this change, the local tax-payer was still burdened with a Poor-rate particularly the property owning middle classes.

The Walsingham Union Workhouse arrived on the scene at this time. Built in 1836. Poor relief was only available to those actually in the workhouse. Conditions were deliberately made harsh to discourage too many people claiming. A workhouse was to be built in every Parish or in Unions of Parishes. However, in 1846 conditions in Andover Workhouse and elsewhere were discovered to be so inhumane that living there was dangerous. The government acted and abolished the Poor Law Commission. Acts of 1865/1867/1888 tried to clean up the treatment of inmates in workhouses.

By the turn of the 19th. Century worhouses were gradually going out of fashion as the cost of running them was spiralling and research in to the underlying reasons for poverty were better understood. During the First WW many worhouses were used as hospitals for wounded servicemen.

In 1930’s Walsingham Union Workhouse was closed. It became a smallpox hospital because of its relative isolation. In 1948 the Poor Law System was abolished and the Welfare State system took shape. The NHS came in to effect in 1946. The Walsingham Union Workhouse finally closed in 1960.

In 1961 it was demolished and bits sold off including the chapel windows which found their way to a church Chancel in Barford, near Norwich. They formed the East window. In 1961 planning permission was granted for 35 flats on the site, but the option was not taken up.