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Almshouses and Workhouses

Caring for the poor

Old, Sick and Poor

Before the development of the modern welfare state, communities dealt with their poorest and most destitute members in two main ways. 

Wealthy individuals like George Garland gave money as charity ('alms') to set up a group of homes ('almshouses') as an act of social and religious duty. The homes were often very small, set around a courtyard and with a chapel where prayers were said for the soul of the benefactor. The warden and governors selected residents they felt would be quiet, sober, respectable and well-behaved

Poole had a number of almshouses, some of them very ancient. The Rogers Almshouses were already two hundred years old when the Garland houses were built. The St George's almshouses on Church Street dated back to 1586

Those not lucky enough (or respectable enough) to be accepted into an almshouse could ask their local parish for 'relief' paid out of the parish rates. Unlike alms, rates were a tax obligation not a charitable donation, and often resented. After 1834 a change in the law allowed several parishes to combine into 'unions' and build large prison-like 'workhouses'. Instead of receiving money, the parish paupers were required live in the workhouse, wear a uniform, and perform any type of work to earn their place.

You can find out more about Poole's Union Workhouse at this link. 

19th century workhouses soon got a reputation for being uncomfortable, degrading and unhealthy places - and families would struggle desperately to keep out of them. This continued into the 20th century, as the audio below demonstrates. 

The link at the bottom of the page has the Census return for Poole Union Workhouse in 1841. The oldest residents were 80 years old ... and the youngest was just three weeks. Is your family name on it?


Jack Spinney recalls the Poole Workhouse before WWI

show transcript