Ditchburn Place: 1838 Victorian Workhouse


In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, taking responsibility for the poor away from the Church, and giving it to local government. The act also degreed that workhouses be built, to take in those who were unable to support themselves, so in 1838, in Cambridge, Ditchburn Place was built. Workhouses were usually overcrowded and were deliberately made to be unappealing places to discourage people from ending up there. People worked for ten hours a day starting as early as 5am, and only had a one hour break! On entering the workhouse, ‘Inmates’, as they were called, were separated into different groups by age, gender and whether they were ‘able-bodied’, or infirm or elderly. This meant that families were torn apart, able to see each other only rarely. Women were in charge of cooking, looking after children, sewing and laundry, while men worked unpicking old ropes, spreading gravel, and grinding wheat and corn. Children would start work from the age of seven, with three hours every day for school. It was considered very shameful to end up in a workhouse and there were ways that people from outside could tell if you lived in one. A woman who lived there as a child recounted how the workers took her to the police station to get shoes: ‘there was a whole crowd of kids [at the police station] and they gave out new boots. Everyone knew where you’d got them’. The workers did sometimes get time off and treats for special occasions. Reportedly, workers were allowed to visit the festivities held at Parker’s Piece for Queen Victoria’s coronation and every year at Christmas, rather than the gruel they ate every other day, families were given beer, beef and plum pudding! It closed in 1930 to become a hospital, serving as a war hospital in World War II then a maternity hospital from 1948 when the NHS was formed. In 1983 it was converted into sheltered accommodation for the elderly, as it still is today.

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In the nineteenth century, concern and awareness about the poverty of the masses was penetrating the ruling elite who feared a revolution, like that which had spread across France at the end of the previous century. The rise of labour movements, such as the Chartist movement, also caused concern among the ruling class, particularly when combined with rising food prices and a rocketing population, which drove wages down but living costs up. The response of the wealthy came in 1834. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act took responsibility for the poor away from the parishes, giving it to local governmental boards called the Boards of Guardians, who were required to set up a workhouse, where those who could not support themselves could go.

The Cambridge Workhouse was built in 1838, and placed far out in, what was then largely fields, to keep the poor away from the rich members of the University. It was originally known as the Cambridge Union Workhouse when it was first opened. The land was bought in 1837 for  £500. Soon after it was erected, in 1845, the railway station came to Cambridge and was built in the same area as the workhouse. This area quickly became densely populated, but remained a poor, disease-ridden area.

Conditions were intentionally bad, to dissuade people from coming. Everyone was made to get up at 5am in the summer, and 7am in the winter, and to do 9 hours work in the winter, and 10 in the summer. The women prepared food, cleaned the workhouse, washed clothes, looked after children and the sick and made clothes for the workers, while the men unpicked rope fibers from old rope, ground corn/barley/wheat, spread gravel, and dug for materials. Children worked from the age of 7, taking 3 hours out of their working day for education. The elderly and the sick were not forced to work.

Men, women and children were separated in the workhouse, so families were split up. People were also divided into the ‘able bodied” and the “aged and infirm”. The latter were far more numerous than the former in workhouses. The inmates were segregated into:

  • Aged and infirm men
  • Able-bodied men and youths over 13
  • Youths and boys between 7 and 13
  • Aged and infirm women
  • Able bodied women and girls over 16
  • Girls between 7 and 16
  • Children under 7
  • Infants could be with mothers, and some mixed as part of work eg. Nurses or child-minders

The reports of conditions in workhouses were appallingly bad! There were rumours of assault, indecency, misconduct by inmates and masters, overcrowding, drunkenness  and even suicide. 

The inmate’s diet was largely bread and gruel, with a few potatoes and suet or rice pudding. Here is the menu for food in Cambridge, Chesterton, Huntingdon – amounts for men, women in brackets:

  • Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays
    • Breakfast – 6 (5) oz. bread, 1 ½ pints gruel
    • Dinner – 5 oz. cooked meat, ½ lb potatoes
    • Supper – 6 (5) oz. bread, 1 ½ pints broth
  • Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays
    • Breakfast – 6 (5) oz. bread, 1 ½ pints gruel
    • Dinner 1 ½ pints soup
    • Supper – 6 (5) oz. bread, 2 oz. cheese
  • Fridays
    • Breakfast – 6 (5) oz. bread, 1 ½ pints gruel
    • Dinner – 14 (12) oz. suet or rice pudding
    • Supper – 6 (5) oz. bread, 2 oz. cheese
  • Elderly of 60 years of age and up – one ounce of tea, five ounces of butter and seven ounces of sugar per week in lieu of gruel for breakfast.
  • Children under 9 – amounts were dependent on the child, above 9 – given same amount as women

Christmas was a special day in the workhouse. Inmates were given beef, plum pudding and beer, and a rest from the work. The police also came, and gave out vouchers for shoes at the Coop- you could get boots or heavy old brogues. These shoes however, were a blessing in disguise, as everyone knew from them that you were in the workhouse. To be in the workhouse was a shameful thing, as it was to admit that you were incapable of looking after yourself or your family. Society looked down on inmates of workhouses.

An old inmate remembers these shoes: “I remember going to the police station for a pair of boots. We had to go round the back. There was a whole crowd of kids and they gave out new boots. Everyone knew where you’d got them.’

Some men, tramps, stayed in a different building, outside the workhouse. They were given a bed for one night, in return for hard labour, but were not allowed to return for many nights. These men toured the workhouses in the area, until they were allowed back at the first. The ‘tramp hut” has now been demolished. Mr Sparrow remembers them:

‘…being an inquisitive boy as I was those days I used to go by the Workhouse, or the Union as we used to call it in those days… it was called the Union because there were others. Well being inquisitive I used to watch these vagrants as we used to call them, although compared with those of them we see today they were gentlemen. They used to go, mostly in the winter-time I used to see them, wrapped in old overcoats and caps and they used to be three or four at a time waiting at the gates of the union. Well they used to come, all men, I don’t remember any women, and they in turn used to stand at the gates waiting for them to open, there used to be a custodian, he had a uniform on and he let them in one at a time and searched them, put his hands through their clothes, to make sure they had no matches I assume, no other reason, there were no drugs in those days, not as such, as we know them. They were just smokers and some of them were boozers I suppose. So these chaps were searched and then they went in for the night. Before they left in the morning they had to chop wood. I well remember seeing them coming out with a handcart pulling it along the road full up with neat tied bundles which our parents used to buy from a grocer’s shop or even a green-grocer’s shop. Of course there was no central heating much in those days so we all had fires. The result was that these chaps used to chop the wood up for their night’s doss. They in turn then used to be let out and there were not allowed another night following that one they used to go round, well we used to term it ‘in a circle’ there was a workhouse in Linton and one in Safron Walden and by the time they got round them all and back to Cambridge again they were entitled to another night’s doss. It was a vicious circle, but they were a reasonably respectable bunch.’

The poor of the workhouse were part of the feast laid on, on Parker’s Piece, for more than 15,000 poor people, in honour of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.

Here are some accounts from residents of the Cambridge Workhouse:

Bill Raven was at Workhouse in Mill road from 1907-1910:

‘My mother was often unkind, but one day she went too far when she pushed me into a big bath of cold water. My screams brought the neighbours who stopped her and sent for the police who came with all the officials and although I was only one year old they took me away to the Workhouse which was at No.81A Mill Road. There I stayed with no mother, no father, nobody. After a time, two people came to foster me and I was taken out of the workhouse, but this was shortlived as (having two children of their own already) I became an unwanted child again, when they discovered that they had another baby coming. I stayed at Mill Road until I was three years old when one day, as I was playing in the backyard with the old tramps and other down and outs, Matron came out. She took me in for a good bath and dressed me in clean under clothes and a navy sailor suit with a lovely blue and white collar. When she told me two people had come to take me away, I cried the place down because I didn’t want to go; but it made no difference. You’ve got to remember that things were different in the past, there were no social benefits or anything like that. To lose your job meant you lost not only your pay but also your home and not much chance of getting more work, and of course at the end of it, there was the shame of the Workhouse.’

This is from an anonymous resident, who spent some time there:

“My mother had to go out in the snow with holes in her shoes, to go and plead for the five shillings to pay the midwife. She had to go and stand before the Board to plead for the money. My mother walked the streets of Cambridge for three weeks and slept under Victoria Road bridge with us children. Finally mother got a house in Cambridge Place. From then on my mother used to go out to work. She was allowed 10 shillings a week from the (Poor Law) Relief with 3 children under 3. My sister was a delicate baby and they allowed my mother 2 shillings a month for milk. My mother started to get the house together. Mother was under a lot of pressure. She took in washing. She would wash and scrub at her wooden tub. Sometimes she’d be washing at 3 in the morning. She was a remarkable woman.

“The first time we went to Mill Road, I was about three. I remember sitting at a big table on a small chair with a lot of other children and I remember being put in a bath with a lot of other children. It must have been a Sunday when a nurse took a lot of the children out. There were some in a pram and I was hanging on the side of the pram. We had navy blue coats and hats. I remember walking to town. Where Marks and Spencer is now there was a shop called Coads. We walked round there and when we got back to Mill Road the Sister reprimanded the nurse for taking me out without leggings on me. I think we were there because mother was in hospital. Another time we went in – I can remember a neighbour came in to get us ready. She was combing my hair. I said where are you taking us? She said ‘wait and see’. I remember walking through the iron gates into Mill Road. I think my sister went with my brother to Ross Street which was for the older children.” 

Ditchburn Place lasted as a workhouse until the early twentieth century when its caring facilities for the infirm became its primary purpose and it became known as the Poor Law Infirmary. For the next few decades it remained a hospital, looking after the poor and sick as well as the wounded. During the Second World War, it housed both Prisoners of War as well as evacuees! Over time it became a facility primarily for expectant mothers and in 1948 it was renamed the Mill Road Maternity Hospital. Douglas Adams was born there in 1952. Eventually the location and facilities were no longer suitable for the amount of patients that the hospital was handling so, with a large donation, a new hospital was built elsewhere and the building was converted into a facility for use for sheltered housing. It was named after the Ditchburns, who were Master and Matron at the hospital between 1934 and 1956. 

Ditchburn Place: 1838 Victorian Workhouse


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