Cirencester Workhouse 1724-1837

by Louise M Ryland-Epton


Louise Ryland-Epton introduces us to a period of Cirencester’s workhouse history not previously researched or published in detail before, and where the town’s efforts provided a notable early example of its kind. The parish invested in its workhouse with three main objectives in mind: that the labour of the poor in the workhouse could generate a profit; that the workhouse could act as a deterrent against people applying for relief; and finally that the building should be a refuge for the impotent poor.


The image of a ‘workhouse’ is associated very much in the popular imagination with Oliver Twist and workhouse scandals during Victorian times. In reality, however, workhouses existed long before and became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century across England, to both house and put the poor to work. One such early institution was established at Cirencester in 1724 and is the subject of this article.


Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Cirencester along with parishes across England had been given responsibility to look after its own poor. This was either through setting the able-bodied poor to work or by providing relief to those who couldn’t work, namely the sick, the elderly and very young. Exactly how this was to be done was down to the individual parish.


New legislation

In 1723 legislation was passed that allowed parishes, if they wished, to set up a workhouse without the need to obtain a separate ‘private’ act of Parliament, which had been required before. It was this legislation which gave Cirencester the impetus it needed. In October 1724 at a crowded vestry meeting it was resolved to adopt the new legislation and create a workhouse. Lord Bathurst gifted a house to the town for the purpose, described as ‘an old substantial large House’, and Gabriel Cooke, ‘a substantial inhabitant’, was contracted as its first master. The building was converted and opened the following year to take in anyone within the town who required parish relief. The town was evidently proud of this achievement, as the workhouse was included in several editions of a bestselling book on the subject. Entitled An Account of Several Workhouses, this book helped to popularise workhouses across the country.


The establishment of the new institution would have been viewed by Cirencester’s elite as a positive development. By setting the poor to work in this way, the parish could sell the goods they produced to either offset the cost of looking after them, or to actually make a profit. The organisation of the institution would seem to suggest that it was also intended to discourage inhabitants seeking relief in the first place. This had the advantage of reducing costs at the same time as raising an income. Initially rates did indeed become considerably reduced, in all probability the result of fewer applications for relief.


How the poorer inhabitants of Cirencester felt is not recorded. Prior to the opening of the workhouse, parish relief would have included pensions and other benefits which would have kept the poor at home. Now the option was either to enter the workhouse and abide by its regime or seek an alternative, such as charity or family support.


The newly opened workhouse occupied Chesterton House (not to be confused with any later use of that name locally); this was just outside of town on the road to Cricklade but set back from it so that the poor, in some senses, were physically removed from town life. Its location needs some explanation to place it in the Cirencester of today. This was not the workhouse which still survives as the offices of Cotswold District Council and which dates from a later stage of poor law administration, being newly built in 1836. But one replaced the other on the same site, the earlier building being completely demolished. It stood on Bathurst Estate land between the Cricklade road (now Watermoor Road) and the line of the Thames & Severn Canal, and is clearly shown as a substantial building on a plan of 1827 in Gloucestershire Archives (GA. Q/SRL/1827/B/Z).


The inmates were identifiable by their brown jackets and later by the badges they had to wear. The capacity of the workhouse was large by contemporary standards at 120 but presumably necessary to accommodate all those who needed support. Thus within its walls the elderly, young, sick and able bodied were all housed in close proximity. Although evidence is scarce with regard to the treatment of inmates at this time, the workhouse was intentionally being managed to make it an unattractive option to all but the most desperate. It is likely that it was viewed with fear by the poor.



Importance of labour

From the outset, labour was an important aspect of life inside. Inmates worked in the workshops or were sent out to work directly for local clothiers. This was generally in woollen and yarn manufacture. Outside, the grounds were cultivated with produce sold adding another source of income. This pattern persisted for most of the hundred years of its existence although the management seemed to have adapted its practices according to the prevailing economic background by investing in new technology, selling in more distant markets or producing new products.


In many respects the workhouse appears to have been well managed within its aims and the work of inmates raised a valuable income. Despite the occasional need to appoint individuals to scrutinize the quality of the goods and to provide compensation for bad workmanship, there were few complaints and certainly the workhouse did not experience problems with the labour force as they did in other places such as Bristol. This may have been because the workhouse population were actually rewarded financially for their work in Cirencester. Later accounts show that they were further compensated if they worked during the Mop Fair.


During the economically buoyant times from the 1720s through to the 1750s the model worked well. At times pressure was brought to bear by outbreaks of infectious diseases which occurred at various points during the eighteenth century. This necessitated the provision of a pest house and apothecary to the poor early on. Occasionally a pauper was relieved at home for a short period, usually whilst sick but this was with specific agreement and certainly not the norm. Indeed, it seems that the town was particularly determined to stick to its original objective of only giving relief to the poor in the workhouse.



The first indication of pressure came within the provision of the apothecary, who by the 1750s was treating not only those paupers in the workhouse but those at home too. This may have been the result of yet another epidemic but gradually the changing economic back-drop also meant considerable pressure was being brought to bear elsewhere. Demand at the weekly wool market was drying up and along with it the associated manufacturing trades were in decline. Unsurprisingly therefore, by the 1770s the intention to provide support only within the workhouse had to be replaced simply by virtue of the fact that the parish had to provide for much greater needs.



Whilst the workhouse remained full, increasing numbers were being relieved outside it. The bill for poor relief trebled in the three decades to the dawn of the nineteenth century and perhaps predictably the proportion of income raised by the work of inmates was diminishing. However, income was well in excess of that raised by Bristol or Gloucester Workhouses despite their bigger populations.



New approach

In 1810 the vestry tried something new. At a public meeting of ratepayers at the Town Hall it was decided to adopt the provisions of Gilbert’s Act (otherwise the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, 22 Geo.3 c.83), a piece of legislation which attempted to better provide for the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and sick. Its implementation is surprising as historians have assumed that no parish in the region had adopted it. This action radically changed how the workhouse was run. The institution was now placed under the management of a Board of Guardians. These men directed a workhouse which catered exclusively for the elderly, sick and orphaned children. The able bodied were instead provided relief at home. Conditions for inmates could have been expected to have improved but the picture is mixed.


Contracts for shaving and hair cutting of residents, gifts at festivals and occasional celebrations such as the capture of Napoleon indicate that some things were done to make life more bearable. The management also tried to ensure that the workhouse was clean, maintained and linen regularly changed. However, the accommodation of inmates was bare and stark. Dormitories generally contained only beds and bedding of the most basic kind. There was little provision for comfort. Few rooms were heated and none were lit by candles or lanterns at night. There were no chamber pots or warming pans to better provide for the sick and elderly and there were few places to sit at the end of the day or place personal belongings.


Meals were eaten in the great hall unless inmates were excused by sickness. Twelve benches were arranged around six tables, each table accommodating up to twenty people. Meal times were strictly regimented, ‘for the more effectual maintenance of decency and order.’ However, provisions brought in indicate that the food provided was at least quite varied and plentiful. Indeed, evidence suggests that the diet of the workhouse population was better than that enjoyed by poor labourers in the villages outside of town. Moreover, the sick and the young were given supplements in the form of milk, fine bread and wine.


These subtle allowances for the sick reflect a more altruistic attitude towards this group as had been demonstrated since the very earliest days of the workhouse. Medical provision had been one of the more positive aspects of the regime, although early on this was also the result of concern to stem the tide of infectious disease. Over time provision had become more sophisticated with subscriptions to local infirmaries, the services of a midwife and inoculations against small pox. Again, in these respects, inmates were arguably better off than the poorest outside.


The children too were relatively well provided. They had specifically allocated accommodation. The nursery was heated and comparatively well-equipped and there was a schoolroom. However, there were no books, paid school master or toys. The elderly, sick, and mentally ill were also still housed in close proximity to the children. In 1811, for example, the workhouse population included four women labelled as ‘lunatics’, one of whom was described as vicious. The environment is thus not likely to have been a comfortable one for any of these groups.


Moreover, despite the fact that Cirencester Workhouse was no longer intended to accommodate the able bodied, work remained an important aspect of life. Between March and September the working day lasted from 6am until 6pm with shorter hours in winter. Inmates could be punished if they refused labour or spoiled their work and certainly the presence of a ‘prison room,’ complete with bed, implies that breaches of discipline could result in periods of confinement.


It is difficult to deduce from the evidence an overall more compassionate regime. But either way, as the 1820s headed to their close and possibly necessitated by spiralling costs the vestry shifted tack and Gilbert’s Act was quietly dropped.Since it had first been established, the organisation of Cirencester Workhouse had been adapted and shaped to the changing times. Whilst the parish had encountered many of the problems experienced by other towns, its workhouse was relatively well managed and successful from the perspective of its objectives. The material conditions for inmates appear to have been adequate for their needs. It was certainly not comfortable and day to day life was probably both monotonous and hard. However, the diet and medical provision looks to have been better than that available to labourers outside the workhouse and conditions are likely to have improved over time.


A new regime

When with characteristic enthusiasm Cirencester embraced the provision of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the old workhouse was demolished to make way for a new one, which we still see today.  This new institution was designed as its forebear had been to deter people from seeking relief. Perhaps unsurprisingly the town adapted to the regime quickly and more easily than in many places. Indeed, the new Cirencester Poor Law Union took its interpretation more literally than others did elsewhere. 


This may have been a contributory factor in the town becoming associated with a scandal, when in 1837 the very meagre dietary allowance of the new workhouse caught the attention of the national press. The Hull Packet mused how local ratepayers could ‘submit to such barbarities as these,’ whilst in the capital a shocked Standard reported the diet contained a third less solid food than was fed to inmates in the London Unions. 


From the perspective of the poor the new regime was a retrograde step but its organisation demonstrates yet again the forward thinking and resourcefulness of the Cirencester elite. It is interesting to note, however, that this new workhouse would not last as long as the old one. In the end it would suffer the same fate as Victorian workhouses up and down the land and be deemed a failure.



This article is based on the author’s thesis ‘Cirencester Workhouse Under the Old Poor Law, 1724-1836’, an MA dissertation, Open University 2016. Copy deposited in Gloucestershire Archives, RR79.146GS.


Primary Sources:

Documents held in Gloucestershire Archives (GA). Please check their website for opening hours and access during building works planned for August 2016 to 2017.


GA, Cirencester Overseers Accounts 1809-1810; accounts of Guardians of the Poor (under Gilbert’s Act), 1810-1827 (P86/1 OV 2/1).


GA, Draft agreement to Maintain Poor in Cirencester Workhouse, 1813 (D1070/I/43).


GA, Minute Books, 1836-7 (G/CI/8a/1).


GA, Parish Book 1753, 1753-1754 (P86/1a OV 2/1).


GA, Printed Statements of parish accounts, 1811-1829 (P86a VE 3/1-7).


GA, Vestry Minutes, 1613-1886 (P86/1 VE 2/1).


Printed Sources:

Anon, An Account of Several Work-Houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor, (London: Joseph Downing, 1725 and 1732).


Eden, Sir Frederick, The State of the Poor: A History of the Labouring Classes in England, (London: J. Davies, 1797).


Update to June 2019:

Louise Ryland-Epton also contributed a more detailed article on this subject entitled ’Cirencester Workhouse under the Old Poor Law’ which was published in the Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, vol 135 for 2017, pp.225-236. In May 2019, Louise won the Bryan Jerrard Award for 2018 for this latter study which is presented annually by the Gloucestershire Local History Association [GLHA] for the article which in the judges’ view presents the best study of an aspect of Gloucestershire’s history published in the past year. There were ten finalists – so, congratulations, Louise; it’s good to have a Cirencester winner!