Happier times for our old Suffolk workhouses

Stow Lodge today, long claimed to be the best workhouse in Suffolk. Photo: Don Black.

Stow Lodge today, long claimed to be the best workhouse in Suffolk. Photo: Don Black. - Credit: Archant

Where they survive in our scenery, workhouses have changed to serve modern needs but not lost their reputation for being harsh and feared. Don Black suggests that there’s a more positive view of them.

’Twas Christmas Day in the workhouse’... no single poem in the English language has been more parodied, in versions from from the pure and sentimental to the version which continues ‘...The busiest day of the year/

The paupers’ hearts were filled with joy/ And their bellies full of beer.’

These verses only get worse from then on, but my memory - admittedly from the last days of workhouses as such - support the opinion that these institutions did a good job in difficult times.

The last master and matron of Stow Lodge, on the edge of of Stowmarket in Onehouse parish, were family friends. I stayed with them once when my parents were away.

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Then, and later as a reporter, I witnessed their supervision of many a well-fed Christmas. This is evident in the East Anglian Film Archive picturing the master all smiles as he carries in the leading turkey.

Way before then then the Christmas dinner comprised roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer, better fare than many people could afford in the outside world.

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Workhouses were indeed dreaded by the population at large. It was a matter of shame to go to them as a last resort.

But there’s also proof that Stow Lodge, right from its start in 1781, was a cut above the general run.

Even its construction was superior to any other in Suffolk. It cost more than £12,000, compared with, for example, £4,800 for a workhouse just as big at Nacton.

Stow Lodge was described in 1810 as having “more the appearance of a gentleman’s seat than a receptacle for paupers.”

Its plans show bedrooms designed for married couples; elsewhere families were strictly separated into dormitories for men, women, boys and girls.

In 1833 Squire Pettiward of Finborough Hall, in a nearby estate, bequeathed “1lb of good tobacco and 1lb of good tea” to inmates at every Christmas.

Only a mile away in the other direction, Stowmarket people sent gifts of food at this season throughout the workhouse’s life. Concert parties came from far and wide to give free shows.

Other workhouses faced problems of distance from caring communities and smaller budgets than what was available from the growing industrial town of Stowmarket and fertile farmland around.

The board of guardians for the 14-parish Stow Union paid their workhouse officers an extra £2 every Christmas for beer.

In one Edwardian Christmas, however, the guardians decided that 24 of the younger inmates were able-bodied men and not entitled to a festive dinner. They had to be content with the usual rather monotonous fare.

There appears to have been a general improvement in the next few years.

The EADT neatly summarised the situation on on Boxing Day 1913, the last Christmas before war changed lives and social attitudes for ever:

“There has been great manifestation of good-will and kindly thought towards those who are not among the most fortunate.

“Entertainment has been provided with a free and generous hand at the numerous institution devoted to the welfare of the sick, aged and poor.

“At the workhouses, asylums and other institutions the occasion was undoubtedly a red-letter day in the lives of those who, by misfortune, have had to take up their abode in what are real homes for large numbers of men, women and children who have no homes of their own.”

These days Stow Lodge has been divided into residential apartments with good views over the countryside.

Well-designed NHS services built at the rear include the Suffolk centre for brain injury rehabilitation.

The hospital itself closed in 1991, but not before Ken Abbott of Mendlesham had written up its story in an excellent booklet for the league of friends.

Urban Stowmarket has steadily crept up close to the former workhouse, notably the high school full of young people who, hopefully will never know privation common in the past.

If we go back far enough into our own histories, some of our ancestors were probably among inmates of workhouses or beneficiaries of parish welfare for the poor that preceded them.

The continuity of welfare of this kind, imperfect as it certainly was, has few equals outside Britain.

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