Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - May 2007
The large grim looking building, on Lexden Road, known as St Albright's, was built in 1836 as the Lexden and Winstree Union workhouse and, as such, was a place our ancestors avoided if at all possible. The structure has survived but the reason for its creation, and the effect it had on our area, may not be widely known.
Prior to 1834 each parish was responsible for "looking after" the poor of the parish. The 1834 Act changed all this in many ways not least by forming parishes into unions. The local workhouses were made redundant and the Guardians of the Poor for the Union were appointed. The Lexden and Winstree Union was responsible for more than 30 parishes from Mount Bures to Dedham and Wivenhoe. The Guardians met for the first time on 2nd February 1836 under the chairmanship of Charles Gray Round. Their first tasks were to ascertain the amount of accommodation required to house the poor; then to find out the condition and capacity of the buildings in use in each parish. Although most parishes had workhouses at some time, by 1836 the main ones in use were at Dedham, Wivenhoe, Copford and Langham.
After some discussion it was realised that existing facilities were insufficient and the decision was taken to build on 5 acres at Lexden Heath made available by the chairman. In June 1836 plans were agreed and a loan of £6,800 authorised to pay the capital costs. Some of the expense was to be met by the sale of parish workhouses. Birch Workhouse is easily identifiable and documents show that it had been leased for 1,000 years in 1757, from William Round, with a smaller piece of land granted to the Parish by Richard W Whitfield in 1770.
Layer Breton, however, is very different. In 1836 William Wheeler, churchwarden, and most of the parishioners wrote saying they wished to dispose of "Golding Gardens" a tenement on Shatters Green by the side of the road leading from Layer Breton Heath to Layer Marney "used and occupied as the workhouse". Not receiving a reply from the Guardians they wrote again pointing out that the building was dilapidated and valued at less than a pound! The position became desperate but it was finally sold in December 1837 but for how much the archives are silent! The exact position of the building in question is not clear but the 1842 Tithe Map indicates a small building on the right hand side at the corner of Shatters Road as you go towards Layer Marney.
The Union Workhouse regime was intentionally strict and the quantities and standards of food allowed closely controlled. The diet was as follows: Breakfast 6 ounces of bread per day and 1.5 pints of gruel for men, females one ounce of bread less. Dinner 5 ounces cooked meat 5 days per week, and 1.5 pints soup another three days of week for both men and women. Supper 6 ounces of bread and 1.5 pints broth three times a week for men, women 1 ounce of bread less, but both men and women got 2 ounces of cheese 4 days a week. People over 60 might be allowed 1 ounce of tea and 5 ounces butter plus 7 ounces of sugar in lieu of the gruel. The diet of the sick was to be agreed with the Medical Officer. The doctor for this area came from Coggeshall and recorded cases leave no doubt in ones mind that there was a great reluctance to call the doctor out even if people knew how and where to make contact.
The running costs of the Union Workhouse, together with any authorised "out relief", fell on the local rate payers so there was always pressure on the Guardians to be sparing. Before committing anyone to the Workhouse not only had the local relieving officer to be satisfied but also the Guardians committee had a say. On occasion a form of means test was applied before a decision was made, for example Henry Adams of Layer Breton, was asked to pay a shilling a week for his mother's maintenance but he pleaded that he could not pay as he was supporting his sister. When the Guardians found that his sister, aged 17 or 18, was able bodied and able to work they ordered him to pay!
Local tradesmen tendered to supply food to the poor and both Royce and Digby, millers from Birch, made successful bids. Such arrangements had to be policed and queries were raised as to the quality and weight of bread and other items. The able bodied poor in the workhouse were required to work doing such tasks as untangling coir ropes, grinding bones and other extremely hard graft. The grounds of the new building were laid out by labourers from the Dedham workhouse. Families were split up and not allowed to live together. Prior to the new workhouse opening local paupers were often housed miles away - Martha Wheeler aged 62 and John Bumby (sic) aged 77 were sent to Langham workhouse, while ten year old Joseph Moss the son of John Moss of Birch, was sent to Wivenhoe. The Union Workhouse was finished in just over a year and the first of the 300 inmates arrived in July 1837. Gradually the local workhouses were cleared but there is no record of how the transfer was accomplished - did they walk from Dedham, Mount Bures, Wivenhoe and elsewhere?
There are examples of people seeking assistance being required to attend meetings of the Guardians and, here again, we have no record of how they made the journey. Frequently the poor from one parish at a time were called to Colchester, or later, the workhouse, but one wonders how this was carried out. In some instances meetings were adjourned until the following day which must have been almost impossible for the infirm to cope with. The workhouse was staffed with a porter, a master and his wife as matron, a schoolmaster and schoolmistress plus a chaplain. Samuel Chisnell was appointed porter when the workhouse opened at a salary of £20 per annum and a suit of clothes plus double rations. The schoolmaster with his wife acting as schoolmistress, received £30 and double rations. Within a week of being appointed the schoolmaster asked that his son be allowed to live with him and his attention was drawn to his contract which forbade this happening. The allowance of double rations may not have been a treat as the former master of Dedham workhouse had appealed, unsuccessfully, a year earlier, to be allowed a better quality of meat than the paupers. Before 1836 relief for those able to fend for themselves had been distributed at the local workhouse but with their passing another method had to be found. Local inns were ruled out as being totally unsatisfactory and in many cases a room was rented on an occasional basis to act as a central point in the parish.
There was always a stigma attached to being identified as a pauper and for the aged and infirm without a family to support them the Union Workhouse was always a place to be dreaded. Even many years after the system went out of use (1930s) the old workhouses, often by then converted into hospitals, were known as "The Union". In looking through the archives I was reminded of this when I came across a request from the Guardians of the Poor for Kingston upon Thames asking if the planners and builders of the Lexden workhouse were reliable? Kingston Hospital, as it was known in the 1950s when my mother was a patient was frequently referred to as the workhouse and always known by a number in Wolverton Avenue perhaps as an attempt at disguise - hence the Lexden and Winstree Union Workhouse building is known to us as St Albrights. Has anyone memories of its former use?.