Hadleigh workhouse inspires historian's new book

Hadleigh's Guildhall provides the setting for local author Peter Holland's latest novel

Hadleigh's Guildhall provides the setting for local author Peter Holland's latest novel - Credit: Archant Archive

If you’ve ever visited the sleepy market town of Hadleigh, you’ll no doubt have caught glimpse of the town’s medieval Guildhall. The Grade I-listed timber-framed building, which can trace its origins all the way back to the 15th century, has a vibrant and fascinating history. 

But did you know it was once the location of a former workhouse?  

Local resident Peter Holland spent three years researching it for his master’s dissertation, following a lengthy career as a teacher.

Peter, pictured here alongside fellow author Elizabeth Wilde McCormick

Peter, pictured here alongside fellow author Elizabeth Wilde McCormick - Credit: Peter Holland

“I was a teacher for 30 years - but a history degree is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he explains. 

“Alongside that, I also developed an interest in writing novels.” 

But it wasn’t until he’d completed his studies that Peter was inspired to combine these historical findings with his love of fiction writing. 

“In February last year, I gave a talk at Hadleigh library all about the workhouse, as it’s an interesting case.” 

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Workhouses were commonplace across England between the 17th and 19th century, and provided those who were poor with work and often somewhere to live. 

“Several people who attended my talk were aware of my novels, and afterwards said to me I should do one on the workhouse here in Hadleigh,” he adds. 

Hadleigh Guildhall

Hadleigh Guildhall - Credit: Archant Archives

A month after his talk, the country was plunged into lockdown.  

This provided Peter with the perfect opportunity to put pen to paper once again, working on what was to become his fourth fictional book, Benjamin Squirrell and the Hadleigh Workhouse.  

Set in 1793, it follows workhouse inmates Amy, Ben, Daisy and Sarah, who are all dependent on their master Daniel Ward for welfare. But with the local reverend and doctor keeping a close an eye on the goings on of the workhouse, are they aware of the full extent of what goes on within? 

“I’ve written three novels previously over the course of two to three years, but this one was much easier as I could pull a lot of what I’d written from my research into my novel.  

“When you do a history dissertation, you're advised to research something local in order to uncover something no one else has done, so it seemed perfect to do it on the workhouse in the 1790s and how distinct it was.” 

But what exactly was it that made Hadleigh’s workhouse so unique, and therefore the perfect backdrop for the novel? 

Peter, who used the Suffolk Records Office in Bury and the Hadleigh Archive to conduct his research, found the building was cost-effective to run, unlike many of its contemporaries at the time.  

“It was cheaper to give the poor food, fuel, clothing and let them stay in their own homes, rather than take them into the workhouse.  

“In addition, it was right in the centre of town and opposite the church. I think because of this, it made it more difficult for the workhouse master to abuse the inmates, as the priest and the town’s charities were in such close proximity. This is reflected in the novel.” 

Guildhall restoration October 1965 Hadleigh.

Peter focussed his dissertation on what life was like at the workhouse within Hadleigh Guildhall - this research then provided him with information for his novel - Credit: Archant Archives

The characters featured in Peter’s book draw parallels to real people who lived in Hadleigh at the time, but some of the names have been changed slightly. “It’s historical fiction - so it’s set in a real period and based on what went on at the time, but the plot itself is all fiction,” he adds. 

Peter also researched workhouses further afield, and drew inspiration from the Andover workhouse scandal of the 1840s, which revealed that inmates at a Hampshire workhouse were starved and severely mistreated by their master. This was one of the many catalysts that led to huge changes in the supervision in the running of such establishments.  

"When we think of workhouses, we generally think of those portrayed in popular media, such as the one in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. But that was set in London the early 19th century, and by that time, workhouses were these big buildings known as union workhouses – much like the one that was built in nearby Semer. These housed hundreds of people in them, but the one in Hadleigh was much smaller, and a lot of what my research focused on was why Hadleigh’s workhouse survived so long – as it was there for over 250 years.” 

The workhouse was eventually shut down in 1834. 

“One of the other interesting things about Hadleigh at the time was the influence of charities, and this is something I also built into my novel,” adds Peter.  

“Hadleigh was very well served by charities, and there several at the time. For example, the Grand Feoffment Charity built all of the almhouses in the town, and this had an effect on the workhouse. Another charity called the Ann Beaumont Charity was established around the time, and still exists today. 

“She was one of the few women in East Anglia at the time to have her own will, and through that she was able to set up a charity which helped care for the poor in Hadleigh at the time.” 

Until the Wills Act of 1837, a woman couldn’t write her own will unless she had the permission of her husband – and even then, he could withdraw that permission at any time. 

Benjamin Squirrell and the Hadleigh Workhouse

Benjamin Squirrell and the Hadleigh Workhouse - Credit: Brigand London

With a number of fascinating historical themes and social issues explored throughout the novel - is there a chance for a potential follow-up sometime in the future? 

"When I wrote this, I didn’t originally plan a sequel. But writing is such a funny thing - it’s so addictive. I’ve actually started another book, but it’s not something I’m in a rush to finish. I thought I’d bring something else to Hadleigh, but set a few years later between 1810 and 1815. I’m about 5,000 words into that one.” 

Benjamin Squirrell and the Hadleigh Workhouse is £7.99 and is available from Keith Avis Newsagents on Hadleigh High Street, or from Brigand London. To find out more, visit www.brigand.london