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Chester, Cheshire

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Up to 1834

Chester established a workhouse in 1575 when in a building just outside the Northgate near the quarry in the Gorse Stacks was converted for this purpose. In October 1691, the churchwardens of St. Olave's parish requested the lease of land on which to build 'conveniencys' in order to set the poor to work.

Following the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, several parish workhouses were set up in Chester. St John the Baptist opened one in 1724, and there was one in Handbridge by 1730. Another existed in St Oswald's parish and, in 1751, Chester Cathedral opened its own poor-house. In 1757, a House of Industry for use by all the city's poor was opened on Kitchen Street at the north-west corner of the Roodee.

In 1762, Chester formed an incorporation of parishes (Holy Trinity, St Bridget, St John the Baptist, St Martin, St Mary on the Hill, St Michael, St Olave, St Oswald, and St Peter) under a local Act of Parliament which gave it greater freedom in the management of the city's poor relief. The incorporation was governed by the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, and seventy-four other guardians. The Act also gave control of the Roodee workhouse for a period of 99 years.

At 2am on 24th February 1767, a disastrous fire broke out at the Roodee workhouse used for spinning cotton. The building, which then housed 200 children in addition to the adults, was totally destroyed. The fatalities included sixty children, twelve men and five women — seventy-seven in all. A report in the London Chronicle recounted the horrifying scenes of inmates running naked from the building, while others jumped from windows and the roof. A party of thirty men was employed to dig out the bones and dead bodies but without success — it was assumed that they had all burnt to ashes.

Chester was the subject of a report by Eden in his 1797 survey of the poor in England: some respects, incorporated by an Act of Parliament (2 Geo. III. c. 45, 1761), each parish supports its own Poor. There is a general Poor-house in Chester, to which every parish can send its own Poor, on payment of a sum each year. The original intention was to have a house of industry, a plan which has at different times been carried into execution, continued for a few years, and then dropped. For the last 2 or 3 years very little work has been done. The Poor-house is situated near the river, the lodging and other rooms large and well aired; 15 or 16 beds in a room, made of chaff or straw, and much infested with bugs. No small apartments for married people. The Poor in the house at present are chiefly aged persons and children. Old women spin flax and pick oakum. Children at 10 years of age are sent as apprentices to Manchester and other places. About 11 deaths annually in the house. The assessments vary much in different parishes. The rates are about 2s. in the pound. Voluntary contributions in 1794 for poor relief came to £491 17s. 1d., of which £156 11s. 8d. remained in hand in November, 1795. 8,000 persons, nearly half the population, applied in the winter of 1794-5 for relief. The weekly bill of fare is as follows: Breakfast—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Broth and bread; other days— Milk gruel and bread. Dinner—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Beef, potatoes, etc.; Monday, Wednesday—Butter, milk and potatoes; Friday—Beef, soup and potatoes; Saturday—Oatmeal hasty pudding. Supper—Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday—Bread and butter ; other days—Milk, gruel and bread. One lb. of bread allowed each day to grown persons, 6oz. beef on meat days, and 1 pint of beer; children in proportion. Butter milk served on potato and hasty pudding days. The people of Chester find great disadvantages from the parishes not having been completely united. Removals and expensive appeals are continually taking place between the parishes. The great number of annual guardians is very inconvenient. The Poor have generally a dislike to come into the workhouse.

According to the House of Industry's annual reports, it also took in paupers from parishes outside the city, including Blacon, Hawarden, Higher and Lower Kinnerton, Mold, Puddington and Whitby. The annual numbers of inmates rose from 2,724 in 1810-11 to 5,496 in 1812-13 and then, after a fall, to 7,011 in 1817-18.

The House of Industry was extended in 1819 by the addition of a block for pauper lunatics on the west side of the building. This cost about £700 and averaged around twenty-two inmates. A school for 50 infant paupers was added in 1823 at a cost of £523. In 1821, a warm bath was installed in the main house.

Chester Roodee workhouse site, c.1870

Another contemporary account of the Roodee workhouse (Hemingway, 1831) was fulsome in its praise of the establishment:

There are few places in the kingdom where the comforts of the poor are so efficiently provided for, as in this institution. The board of guardians meet every Thursday, when each individual case of the out-poor is brought before them ; and when each inmate of the house is at liberty to state his complaint, if he have any to prefer. The internal management is truly excellent, and exhibits an example that may be advantageously followed by any work-house in the nation. The food of the inmates is good and nutritious; their treatment, gentle and humane, while an appearance of cleanliness and an air of comparative comfort are prominently discoverable throughout the whole of the little community. For 20 years, Mr. Jarvis has had the superintendence and management of the house affairs, and it is to his humanity and unceasing attentions, with those of Mrs. Jarvis, who is matron of the house, that is to be attributed this excellent state of its internal government.

After 1834

Chester's Incorporation status exempted it from most of the provisions of the 1834 Act. The Roodee workhouse continued in use, with offices and a boys' school located at 34 Bridge Street. In 1869, Chester was reconstituted as a Poor Law Union which formally came into being on 30th September, 1869. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 19 in number, representing its 9 constituent parishes: Holy and Undivided Trinity (2 guardians), St Bridget, St John the Baptist (5), St Martin, St Mary-on-the-Hill (3), St Michael, St Olave, St Oswald (4), and St Peter. The parish of Chester Castle joined the union shortly afterwards. Then, in 1871, Chester Union absorbed part of the Great Boughton Union, the remainder continuing under the name of the Tarvin Union. The following parishes were transferred from Great Boughton:
Bache, Backford, Blacon cum Crabwall, Great Boughton, Capenhurst, Caughall, Chorlton by Backford, Christleton, Claverton, Croughton, Dodleston, Durham on the Hill, Eccleston, Elton, Hapsford, Hoole, Ince, Lower Kinnerton, Lea by Backford, Littleton, Marston cum Lache, Mollington, Mollington Banastre, Mollington Tarrant, Moston, Newton by Chester, Picton, Poulton, Pulford, Great Saughall, Little Saughall, Shotwick, Shotwick Park, Stanlow, Great Stanney, Little Stanney, Stoke, Thornton le Moors, Bridge Trafford, Mickle Trafford, Wimbolds Trafford, Upton by Chester, Wervin, Woodbank.

In 1873, a new Chester Union workhouse was erected at Hoole at a cost of about £30,000. The design for the buildings was opened to competition and the winning plans were submitted by W Perkin and Sons. The new workhouse had a large T-shaped main building facing to the east, with a separate infirmary to its west and a school to the south. The site location and layout are shown on the 1911 map below:

Chester workhouse site, 1911

After the opening of the new workhouse, the old Roodee workhouse site was used as a confectinary works by the Cheshire Preserving Company. The building was demolished in the early 1900s.

In 1894, the British Medical Journal set up a "commission" to investigate conditions in provincial workhouses and their infirmaries. Following a visit to Chester, the commission's report noted that patient in the workhouse infirmary had recently died. A pauper employed as a night attendant had been found guilty of manslaughter due to his rough handling of the patient while unsupervised by the sole nurse who was occupied in another block. The BMJ report criticised Chester's crowded infirmary wards and undue reliance on pauper nurses, especially at night-time. It recommended that more fully trained nurses be engaged, ideally under the supervision of a trained medical superintendent. It was also suggested that telephones or bells be installed to improve communication between the wards, the master's quarters, and the medical officer's home. Further details are available in the full report.

In November 1894, the BMJ reported that:

At Chester Assizes, on November 2nd, John Tonge, an assistant night nurse at Chester Workhouse, was tried for the manslaughter of Thomas Darlington, an inmate, aged 84. Being annoyed at the man's conduct, the prisoner, it was stated. threw water over him, pulled him out of bed, and afterwards struck him in the side, with the result that two of his ribs were broken and his lungs injured. He died three days later. Mr. Justice Lawrence, in sentencing the prisoner to twelve months' imprisonment, said he was afraid they seldom got to know what happened in places of this kind.

After 1930, the workhouse became St James' Hospital. In 1948, following the inauguration of the National Health Service, it was renamed Chester City Hospital.

Chester main building from the north-east, 1990s

The former workhouse buildings have now all been demolished.

The union's offices were later at 161 Foregate Street in Chester.

Cottage Homes

In 1900, the union erected a central children's home on the Wrexham Road together with smaller cottage homes at Upton Heath (Long Lane), Saughall (Hermitage Road), and Dodleston (Main Road). All the buildings still exist.

Chester Central Home, 2013.
©Peter Higginbotham

Chester Upton Heath home, 2013.
©Peter Higginbotham

Chester Upton Heath home foundation stone, 2013.
©Peter Higginbotham

Chester Saughall home, 2013.
©Peter Higginbotham

Children at the cottage homes had occasional outings to the countryside and seaside as pictured below in 1925.

Chester Cottage Homes outing, 1925.
©Peter Higginbotham




Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.

  • Cheshire Archives and Local Studies Service, Cheshire Record Office, Duke Street, Chester, Cheshire CH1 1RL. Holdings include: Inmates lists (1875-1954); Births (1914-43); Burials and graves in Union cemetery (1882-1900); etc.


  • Burne, R.V.H. (1965) The Treatment of the Poor in the Eighteenth Century in Chester (Journal of the Chester and North Wales Architectural and Historic Society, lii, 44-48.)
  • Handley, M (2007) Poor Law Administration in the Chester Local Act Incorporation, 1834-71 (in Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol.156).
  • Hemingway, J. (1831) History of the City of Chester
  • Lewis, C Building Cheshire's First Workhouse (in Chesire History, vol 38, 1998-9
  • Utting, EJ (1969) The Working of the Poor Law in Chester in Tudor Times (A thesis for the degree of B. Phil. in Local History, presented to Liverpool University)


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