The local Workhouse Story

Did Laindon and Langdon Hills once have their own Workhouses?

Billericay workhouse site, 1896. (Click map to read more)
Orsett workhouse site, 1920. (Click map to read more)

The “Spike” or workhouse was formerly abolished in 1929 which accounts for the fact that the Ordnance Survey map of Essex issued in the 1920s shows buildings at Billericay, Dunton and Orsett indicated as “Workhouse” whilst the same map issued in the 1930s shows the same buildings at Orsett and Billericay indicated as “PA Institution” while the indication applied to the buildings at Dunton has become “Farm Colony”. 

The history of the Dunton Farm Colony and its links to the Poplar Board of Guardians are already well covered elsewhere on this website, particularly its historical association with George Lansbury and his determination to do something more humane than what was happening to destitute and homeless men elsewhere. As it is made quite clear this facility, although situated in the Laindon district, was not intended to be available for use by the Laindon and district community and its presence at Dunton was resented by some because it was considered that the Colony’s inhabitants lowered the tone of what they considered the district should otherwise be. 

If the facilities of the Public Assistance Institution were required for residents of Laindon parish it would be at Billericay because, as has already been stated, Laindon was in the Billericay Union. Conversely, residents of Langdon Hills’ parish would be dealt with at Orsett, Langdon Hills being in that Union. This fact alone can be seen as evidence that while, today, Langdon Hills and Laindon are invariably regarded as being very much one and the same place, they were, in the past, regarded as being completely separate communities. 

The “Unions” themselves were a creation of 1834, a reform deemed necessary in the long-running succession of “Poor Law” Acts of Parliament concerning what to do with the destitute and homeless in England arising from Henry VIII’s decision to abolish the Monastic system. The loss of all those religious houses like Abbeys, Nunneries, Monasteries etc. to which the desperate had turned at times of extreme need meant that there was a vast increase in the number of citizens resorting to begging and it was left to Henry’s daughter to sort out the mess her father’s actions had generated. 

Elizabeth I, having realised that the extensive use of branding, mutilation, the whip and the gibbet had little or no effect on bringing down the number of people reduced to begging, decided that the question of alleviating the sufferings of the poor was really a religious matter and that it should, therefore, in future, be referred to the lowest unit of the newly established Church of England, namely the parish. This had the effect of elevating the importance of the incumbent priest or cleric in each location, making him directly responsible for his parishioners’ physical well being in addition to the health of their souls. To assist in this venture, power was granted to levy a local tax based on property values and known as “The Rates” in order to alleviate the effects of poverty in deserving cases. 

Although in retrospect it can be seen that this granting of extra powers at the parish level in what came to be called “The Vestry” was probably the genesis of improved record keeping (clerics were compelled to maintain records of baptisms, marriages and burials), of government at the local or district level, or, even, of the of the 20th century’s welfare state, there is probably also good reason to believe that the granting of the power to impose a tax was cause of the development of the resentment reflected in the view that nobody should ever receive anything for doing nothing which view, not invariably, gets translated as the idea of “looking after the tax payers’ interests.” 

This regularly recurrent view, still persistent, was the most likely cause of the development of the concept of the workhouse particularly when the argument is aggravated by an inability to reach common understanding on who should be deemed worthy of being called the “deserving poor” in a constantly unstable economic world. In response to the “something for nothing” argument, some parishes throughout England began, haphazardly, to create specific buildings in which those members of their parish could, in response to request from them for help, be not only accommodated but put to performing a useful task the fruits of which, in turn, could produce a return that offset the parish’s initial outlay on the venture itself. Such buildings it was that earned the name “Workhouse”, a sobriquet designed to make a clear distinction from those other houses in which miscreants were corrected, otherwise known as “Jails” or “Prisons”. 

There was, as there still is to this day in similar circumstances, a problem of deciding what a “useful task” for the inmates of the Workhouse might be that does not conflict with the commercial interests of the wider community, particularly if that wider community is already bearing a grudge against what it sees as being officialdom’s outlay of revenue derived from its own hard efforts on others less worthy than themselves. For this reason, the selection of two particularly unpleasant tasks, that of stone breaking and that of oakum picking both of which were allocated to be performed by the inmates of prisons and workhouse alike is no accident in a world where many similarly unpleasant, arduous and repetitive jobs are considered to be the special preserve of those who indulge them. We shall, of course never know the full extent of the resentment taken to the grave by those who, having made a point of making a living from either stone breaking for road dressing or oakum picking for ship caulking, found their specialist mission in life being snatched from their monopolistic grasp, as they saw it, by officialdom’s actions. 

From the death of Elizabeth I until 1834 represents a period of some 240 years during which the individual parishes of England and with time those of Wales as well wrestled with problems created by poverty and the workhouse idea spread to many parts of the kingdom, in some cases as the result of ad hoc amalgamation of the resources of adjacent parishes. No evidence has been established that either Langdon Hills or Laindon parishes ever actually joined in the practice, although certainly Great Burstead parish with which Laindon clearly had a close affinity was said to have such an institution close to the “Sun” public house in Billericay, Burstead’s larger “township”. 

There was also said to have been a workhouse established at Fobbing although no clue is given as to the nature and the extent of its building has bee published. The fact that, in many cases, evidence has emerged that workhouses once exited in locations which, to our modern eyes, appear remarkably unlikely is, on the one hand an indication of the extent of population loss that that occurred in a parish and on the other what might be described as the attitude that many of the parishes past population took to some if their fellow parishioners in their midst. For example, both the small Essex villages of Woodham Ferrers and Rettendon have street names that indicate the past presence of such institutions located at suitably distant position from the main body of the location. 

Furthermore, of course, the obvious denuding of the population of such agricultural areas of the County consequent on the general industrialisation process forcing many of the kingdom’s population into towns taking place all across UK meant that improving of the application of the Poor Law became inevitable and the formation of the Poor Law Unions like that of Orsett and Billericay followed. 

The establishment of the Poor Law Unions in England and Wales in 1834 (Scotland, where the workhouse was known as the “Poorhouse”, was, as ever, somewhat different) set in train a whole series of administrative reforms based on the amalgamation of parishes principle. The general improvement in the state of the roads and of the drainage system went hand in hand with the supervision and improvements in Public Health; the necessary arrangements like the provision of Schools made to cater for Universal Education Acts; the standardisation of the administration of the expanding Boroughs, and Towns leading in turn to the creation of Urban and Rural District Councils all had their basis in the Poor Law Unions. 

Slowly the Established Church in the shape of The Vestry had less and less influence on secular affairs throughout the 19th Century and although the parish (translated into “Civil Parish”) remained the smallest geographical unit of representation with any significant influence until the 1920s and 30s, constant urbanisation has meant that that influence in social affairs has meant less and less over time.

The worst horrors of the workhouse as described in “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens had largely evaporated by the end of the World War one as so many other social institutions had, in the course of time, developed to assuage many of the problems that beset society. It was no accident that the roots of the origin of the English words “Host”, “Hospital”, “Hospitality”, “Hospice” and “Hostel” all derive from the same beginning, a word conveying the sense of a place in which the arrival of guests was welcomed which definition stands in stark contradiction from the message conveyed by the “Workhouse” ethic. 

The destruction of the Monastic system in 1534 had ended a whole complex of intuitions that served as the answer to so many disparate but similar long running needs. Foremost of these were the places of refuge for the sick, the mentally disturbed and the dying; namely the hospitals. The slow reinstatement of these “lost” institutions that followed between 1534 and 1929 links closely with both the growth of the Workhouse as well as with the creation of those specialist buildings established by the charitable endeavour of concerned citizens. It is a clear indication of the economic conditions of that time that the number of established workhouses outnumbered the number of independent hospitals and that, in many cases, it was only to the workhouses that those in need of medical attention could turn for assistance. As well as a fear of the threat to society that poverty could exert, the similar fear of disease meant that the congregation of so many into workhouses, in turn, meant that the guardians of such places were compelled to establish integral infirmaries in an attempt to avert cross infection. Thus, it had become by 1929, the fact that in re-labelling many workhouses as “PA Institutions” it was also possible, at the same time and under the same Parliamentary Act, to also nominate them as “Hospitals”. Such was the fate of the Billericay Workhouse that, under this Act, became known as St. Andrew’s Hospital. 

This transition coincided with the beginning of a considerable expansion of the population in a rural district that was to become, five years later, “urbanised” and in which the hospital itself, within the same decade, was called upon to expand its facilities in advance of an anticipated rush of wartime casualties. Thus, by this reform, the more important work of the Billericay Workhouse became curing the sick and not just caring for the impoverished. 

A similar fate overtook the Orsett Workhouse. For years, the Eastern National coach service that operated between Harwich and Tilbury Ferry and vice versa stopped at the corner of Rowley Road and High Street, Orsett where, to the continual amusement of the Laindon and Langdon Hills schoolchildren who used the service to reach the secondary schools of Grays, the bus conductor could invariably be relied upon to announce that this was point at which to alight for “Orsett Horse Piddle!”. 

The fact that after 1929 the “Spike,” due to the major changes that had taken place in its functions had largely lost its fearsome reputation does not, however, mean that it no longer carried obligations under the old Poor Law Acts. Each of the PA Institutions retained what were known as “Casual Wards” that remained as a refuge for the itinerant; the “Tramps” or “Hoboes”. 

Both Billericay and Orsett were on a circuit of such places (the next northwards was St Johns at Chelmsford) and were said to be so positioned as to enable each refuge to be reached within a day’s walking distance in order to avoid the users being classed as completely destitute and to be permanently incarcerated as a result. For some reason that has never been clear to the author, people on the “tramp”, almost invariably male, were regularly to be seen to be walking in Laindon High Road, constantly on the search in the road’s gutter for discarded cigarette butts, travelling from Orsett and towards Billericay, seldom in the opposite direction. It was only with the formation of what is now referred to as the Welfare State after World War II that this practice ceased, together with the disappearance of the long-term inmates of the Dunton Farm Colony. 

(Note: A comprehensive website devoted to the history of workhouses is available at

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  • In the 1950’s I used to travel on the Eastern National, which went past the stops for Tilbury Hospital, Orsett Hospital and St Andrews, Billericay. We frequently saw a nurse waiting at the Orsett stop, to collect a parcel from Tilbury or to hand in a packet for St Andrews!

    By Mary Cole (nee Norman) (08/05/2012)

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