Chesterfield – Workhouses

Poor Relief in Chesterfield before 1834

Relief still carried out under the provisions of the Elizabeth Poor Law of 1598.  The relief was supervised by the Overseers of the Poor.  Most of the relief was outdoor relief, taking the form of regular weekly payments of money and occasional gifts in cash or kind, given to the poor in their own homes.  The weekly allowance for a single person was 1s.0d or 1/6d.

There were also a small number of paupers in the workhouse in South Place.  In 1797 there were 31 inmates, 14 children, (aged 18 months – 7 years), including 6 bastards;  11 women, who were either the mothers of the children or aged:  and 6 men, between the ages of 66 and 88.  The workhouse was said to be “built in a good situation:  it is kept clean, and is sufficiently spacious”.  The paupers in the workhouse spent their time spinning lint and wool:  while the men were sometimes sent out to work in the neighbourhood.

In 1795 £680. 8s 3 ½ d had been spent on poor relief in Chesterfield, compared to £334. 12s. 7 ¾ d in 1774.

After 1834

As a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, Chesterfield was made the centre of a Union covering 34 parishes and a population of 34,246 in 1837.  Once the Board of Guardians and other officials had been elected, it was necessary to build a large, new workhouse.  A site on Newbold Road, opposite Holy Trinity Church, was bought for £700.00.  The Guardians declared that what they wanted to build was “a good and efficient workhouse which shall not have the appearance of either a prison or a palace, and which shall be an asylum for the aged, the helpless and the infirm, while at the same time it shall hold out no inducement to the idle and profligate to enter within its walls”.

The final cost of the building and furnishing of the workhouse was £10,000.00 and as the money had been raised by loans, the payment of the interest increased the amount raised from the ratepayers.  Nevertheless, the total cost of poor relief in the Chesterfield Union area fell from £8,874 in 1835 to £6,338 in 1838.  Although the figure gradually rose again, it only once passed the figure of £8,874 in the 1840’s.  (1844).

The workhouse was designed to accommodate 300 paupers. One favourable reaction to it in the “North Derbyshire Chronicle” in 1839:  “During the practical question of the Amendment Act in Chesterfield Union, the wants of the really destitute and deserving poor have met with more uniform attention and have been more liberally supplied than they were under the old system”.

In accordance with the new approach to poverty advocated by Edwin Chadwick and Dr Kay-Shuttleworth, the Guardians undertook to provide the paupers in the Workhouse with medical care and education.  However, they had great difficulty in attracting suitably qualified applicants who were prepared to accept the harsh conditions of living in the workhouse.  3 nurses and 5 teachers came and went between 1840 and 1842.  The nurses and teachers were not particularly well paid and they were kept continually at their post, being allowed very little freedom and even needing to get permission to go outside the workhouse.

The Guardians were very concerned to make sure that the medical attention which the paupers received was not superior to that available to independent workers.

In 1840 vaccination of the workhouse children against smallpox began.  In their education, the children were taught elementary reading, writing and accounts, as well as being trained for possible jobs.  The girls were taught “all the arts of household service” while the boys were taught to clean cutlery, shoes and windows, to whitewash rooms and to garden.  However, it appears that they were taught no specific skills or trades.

With regard to diet, the Guardians aimed at keeping the paupers healthy, while at the same time making their diet monotonous and less attractive than that of the lowest paid workers in their own homes.  e.g see overleaf ….

Dietary Table


Life in the workhouse was strictly regulated, with segregation of the sexes and the children.  Offenders against the workhouse rules were punished in the following ways:  for refusals to work, disorderly conduct, stealing, or striking or ill-treating others, either a period on bread and water or a spell in the refractory ward.  Other, more serious cases were sent before the magistrates.

The question of how the adult paupers were to be employed was given serious thought, because the Guardians’ responsibility to the ratepayers required that the inmates should “use their best exertions by reasonable labour” to contribute to their upkeep.  Both men and women were set to work oakum-picking, while some men spent their time breaking cinders.  Some paupers, mainly women, came to do domestic jobs in the kitchen and wards, chiefly washing and ironing.  One man was responsible for the workhouse pigs and the coal delivery.