Old Town Workhouses

One of the Old Town’s most famous houses was once a workhouse for the poor, Steve Peak recalls.

The 15th century cottage Shovells – 125 All Saints Street – is well-known for its long sloping roof and for having been the home of an admiral’s mother 300 years ago. Today it is a highly desirable residence, but in the late 1700s it was the last-stop for the poorest people of the parish of All Saints. At that time, if you were very old, crippled or poverty-stricken you sought help from the gentry of your local parish. They might give you some money, or they could send you to their workhouse. Shovells was the workhouse for the eastern half of the Old Town – All Saints parish – from the mid-1770s until about 1820, during the first boom period for Hastings as a seaside resort.

The impoverished folk of the west half of the town – the parish of St Clements – had to go to a building at the far end of George Street, where 42 George Street stands today, between the amusements centre and the West Hill Lift. Two centuries ago this was the west end of town, with the sea almost coming up to the cliffs – and as far away as possible for the better off residents of St Clements, who lived mainly in the High Street and Croft Road.

This aid for the impoverished started with the 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, which made parishes legally responsible for looking after their own paupers. This was funded by parish overseers collecting a poor-rate tax from local property owners (the origin of today’s council tax). The overseers initially gave assistance in the form of ‘out relief’ – grants of money, food, clothes etc to people in their own homes.

However, the workhouse (first known as the ‘poor house’) had emerged by the early 18th century as an alternative form of ‘indoor relief’, both to save the taxpayers money, and as a deterrent to the able-bodied unemployed, who were required to work, usually without pay, in return for board and lodging.

The 1723 Workhouse Test Act gave parishes more powers to run these ‘houses of correction’, and in 1753 the overseers of All Saints and St Clements, plus St Mary-in-the-Castle, decided to build a shared workhouse. This was to be in George Street, on the site of some small cottages called Pilchard Houses, which had been donated by local MP Colonel Pelham. The new workhouse, with an adjoining fenced-off yard, opened in 1754, and paupers were transferred there from the three old parish poor houses.

But the new system did not cut the costs of relief, as was hoped by the well-off parishioners, and rates soon went up significantly. So in 1773 the three parishes decided to have separate workhouses

The St Clements parish overseers retained the 1754 George Street workhouse as their own, although it was just in the parish of St Mary-in-the-Castle. St Mary’s parish, still all farmland with few paupers, had their workhouse at Baldslow. The biggest social problems in Hastings were in the densely populated All Saints parish, where there were many people in need. From 1773 several properties were used as workhouses, with Shovells becoming the main one until about 1820.

Then a house up Old London Road took over the role. This was where the house now called Snushalls stands, in what was once the Springfield Nursery, on the east side of Old London Road between Ashburnham Road and the bottom of Robertsons Hill.

The 1820s saw growing poverty and unemployment across Britain, and the cost of poor relief escalated, with large amounts being given in out-relief. Then in the winter of 1830/31 there was a major revolt amongst agricultural labourers which frightened the nation’s establishment into rethinking the whole poor relief and workhouse system.

In the ‘Captain Swing Riots’, farms and barns were burnt down to force farmers and landowners to give workers higher wages and better conditions. Captain Swing swept across most of southern England in a few months, starting in the countryside immediately to the north and east of Hastings. The uprising was conducted in a highly organised but covert manner, modelled on smuggling and the French Revolution. This, and the large amounts of taxes being given in out-relief, galvanised the government into immediately carrying out a major inquiry into why the poor laws seemed to actually help the near-revolution by the English working class.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act clamped down much harder on the lower levels of British society. Rather than give food and money to the unemployed at home, who could then plot another Captain Swing revolt from their living rooms, it was decided to force them all to go into a new and much tougher form of workhouse. All able-bodied persons who sought relief would be given it – but only within a prison-like workhouse. Many preferred to starve rather than be subjected to such denigration.

The 1834 Act forced the 15,000 parishes to merge into 643 ‘unions’, with each having its own workhouse about 20 miles from the next. Hastings was to have a new workhouse, with Rye and Battle its nearest neighbours.

The Hastings Union was formed at a meeting in the Old London Road building in July 1835. The members were the 13 parishes roughly within the current borough boundary, plus Fairlight and Guestling. The Ore poor house was then in Ore Village, a few yards to the east of where the clinic is today, and St Mary-in-the-Castle’s was on the site of 12-16 Wellington Place.

The new Hastings Union Workhouse opened in July 1837. On its first day, the old parish workhouses transferred 160 paupers, half of them from Hastings Old Town. This stark, forbidding building was the biggest in Hastings. It was on the site of a chicken farm on the north side of Cackle Street – now Frederick Road – in Ore Valley, and dominated life in Ore up until recent times.

As Hastings declined during the late Victorian era, so the Hastings Workhouse grew. In the years just before the First World War it often had over 400 inmates living there, plus more than a hundred ‘casuals’ staying just one night. In 1930 the government scrapped the workhouse system, turning them into hospitals. Hastings Workhouse became the Municipal Hospital, renamed the St Helens Hospital in 1948, and replaced by the Conquest in 1998. Much of the 1837 workhouse still stands, and has been turned into flats.

Following the opening of the Union Workhouse in 1837, all the parish workhouses were disposed of. Shovells went back to being a cottage, while the St Clements workhouse was demolished and replaced by the current building, No 42 George Street. The tightening up of the poor law made life much tougher for ordinary working people, and killed the possibility of a successful Captain Swing revolt. Meanwhile the well-off enjoyed lower taxes and in Hastings they were spared a sight of the poorest Old Towners, who were over the hill and far away.workhouseOT
Inside the workhouse