A new workhouse was built in Gloucester Road in 1839 serving the whole of the Thornbury district. Before that several of the villages around had their own workhouse. Thornbury’s old Workhouse was situated in St Mary Street. On the 1840 Tithe Map shown on the left the large hatched area on Plot 208 was still being shown as being owned by the Board of Guardians of Thornbury Union.
An indenture dated 1739 refers to two purchases of adjoining messuages and adjoining garden and orchards in St Mary Street ‘for the erection of a workhouse for the reception and setting on work the poor of the parish’.
One of these messuages was bought for £41 from Esther and Thomas Browne of Wheatenhurst. This was an old tanhouse which had belonged to Katherine Rippe. Click here to read more about the earlier history of this building
The second property acquired cost £90 and was for a building adjoining the first building on the north end and previously owned by a Thomas Lewis from Kingswood in Wiltshire. We don’t know anything about the earlier history of this part of the property. It is possible that this was building later known as The Court House.
A group of overseers, churchwardens and the Corporation of the Poor were involved with the purchase. These were: Thomas Linke of Oldbury gentleman, Robert Marsh of Thornbury tallow chandler Edward Parnell of Kington gentleman and William Bartlett of Moorton yeoman. The total cost of the properties came to £131, but only £11 of this was funded by the inhabitants of Thornbury through the poor rate. The rest had to be borrowed from the trustees of the personal estate of Jane Russell.
We don’t know much about the operation of the old workhouse. The accounts of the overseers show that in the 1740’s the cost of running the workhouse at that time was about £30 per quarter. The Master’s salary was £2 10s per quarter.
It is interesting to see an entry in the accounts for 1743 which show ‘Prophesa Croom’ was paid 4 shillings a month for 12 months. In 1747 Professor Croom was paid 3 shillings a month. The two entries might indicate that children were provided with schooling whilst in the Workhouse. We can’t explain why there are no other similar payments in other years.
We are grateful to Tony Cherry for sharing his research which he put into his book ‘I’m a Pauper, Get Me Out of Here’. The book focuses on the new workhouse in Gloucester Road which replaced the earlier one in 1839. However Tony mentioned a questionnaire completed by the Thornbury Union to a Royal Commission in 1832 which asked about the numbers, age and sex of the inmates in the old Workhouse. The Union reported that there were nine women and seven men (mostly aged), and fourteen boys and fifteen girls (mostly young). Another 156 individuals were provided with ‘outdoor relief’.
There are various other references in Tony’s book to the conditions in the old workhouse. He mentioned that in 1836 the Guardians approved a system where children were required to work up to four hours each day heading pins. Lunatics considered dangerous were sent to special asylums elsewhere in the region rather than the workhouse. Those not considered dangerous were allowed in the Workhouse. This was because it cost the Guardians 8/- per pauper per week in asylums compared with 3/- to 4/- per week in the Workhouse.
Although the Workhouse was generally considered an unhealthy place to be, there was one account of someone who appeared to thrive on the conditions there. The Atheneum Magazine reported in 1807 that Mary Biggs had died aged 105 in Thornbury Workhouse having lived there for 35 years. She was said to have retained her faculties unimpaired until the last. The Scribes Alcove website shows that Mary Biggs was buried in Thornbury on 2nd November 1806. It notes that the burial record shows ‘by her own account she was 107’. Scribes Alcove also has a record of the burial of William Biggs on 29th February 1760 who was living in Workhouse at the time of his death. The 1760 accounts show that the Guardians paid 2/6 for the ‘bell, grave and affidavit for William Biggs’ and another 2/- for 4 men to carry his coffin to the grave. It is possible that William was Mary’s husband and that she had lived there ever since!
On 4th December 1840 the Guardians sold the property to Abraham Cole for £425. It was described as being ‘All that large house lately used as a Workhouse with outhouse yard and garden adjoining’. We know from later census and rent books that this large dwelling house later became known as The Court House.
The other part of the property which had its origins in the Tan House, became Abraham Cole’s malthouse, then a warehouse and was finally used as a garage. Click here to read more