St Olave's Union (Parish of Bermondsey from 1904), Surrey, London
St Olave's was the subject of a report in An Account of Several Workhouses..., dated May 1729.
The workhouse site was the corner of Parish Street and Crucifix Lane (now Druid Street), Bermondsey. In 1733, St Olave's was divided into two and the area containing the workhouse fell in the new parish of St John Horsleydown. Its location is shown on the 1790s map below.
The Parish Street workhouse was rebuilt in 1831.
The parish of St Thomas, Southwark, opened a workhouse in around 1734. In 1777, it could accommodate 23 inmates.
The St Olave's Poor Law Union was formed on 25th March, 1836. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 19 in number representing its 3 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians for each):
Surrey: St John, Horsleydown (7); St Olave's (6); St Thomas (2).
The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 20,021. The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1833-35 had been £10,617 or 7s.1d. per head of the population.
Parish Street Workhouse
The existing St Olave's parish workhouse on Parish Street was taken over by the new union and continued in operation for many years. Its layout is shown on the 1875 map below. The main part of the workhouse, at the south of the site, was arranged around three sides of a square. Males were housed in the southern wing, and females in the northern wing, with the dining-hall, kitchens, offices and guardians' board-room at the west, fronting onto Parish Street where the workhouse main entrance was located. The area between the three wings was divided up by walls into yards for the different categories of workhouse inmate. The sick wards northern part of the site, while the workhouse laundry was placed behind the women's wards.
In 1868, the recently formed Metropolitan Asylums Board set up six new Sick Asylum Districts for the purposes of providing hospital care for the poor on separate sites from workhouses. One of the new Districts, named Rotherhithe, comprised the St Olave's Union and the parishes of St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey, and St Mary, Rotherhithe. However, the new hospital required by the new scheme was felt to be too expensive and, instead, the Rotherhithe Sick Asylum District was reconstituted as an enlarged St Olave's Poor Law Union.
The expanded union acquired the existing workhouses from Bermondsey at Tanner Street (formerly Russell Street), and from Rotherhithe at Lower Road. The St Olave's Board of Guardians was required to redeploy its various sites in order to provide satisfactory and separate infirmary and workhouse accommodation for the enlarged union. However, by 1873, no satisfactory plans had been submitted to the Local Government Board who then used their powers to force a scheme on the union. As a result, Rotherhithe was adopted as the site of the union's infirmary and appropriate alterations made. At the same time, the union decided to replace all its existing vagrant wards with new wards on the cellular system on a site on Lower Road adjacent to the Rotherhithe workhouse.
In 1904, the St Olave's Union was renamed the Parish of Bermondsey.
Lower Road Infirmary
In 1873-5, the St Olave's Union's new infirmary was erected at the west side of Lower Road, Rotherhithe, on a two acre site to the west of the former Rotherhithe workhouse. The site location and layout are shown on an 1888 map.
The infirmary was designed by Henry Saxon Snell who was the architect of a number of London workhouse and hospital buildings at this period, including ones for Holborn, St Marylebone, St George's Hanover Square and St Luke's. His proposed design for St Olave's is shown below. The initial phase of construction accommodated 175 patients, although the completed scheme would cater for 400.
The central block contained administrative offices, with male and female ward blocks to either side. The infirmary was enlarged in 1877 and the further extended in 1890-2 to designs by Newman and Newman.
The establishment later became known as Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Infirmary, then as St Olave's Hospital. All the buildings have now been demolished.
In 1897-1900, another institution was erected at Ladywell intended solely for the accommodation of the aged and infirm, possibly the only such establishment of its type. The site location is shown on the 1916 map below by which time the establishment had become known as Bermondsey Institution.
The scheme was designed by the team of Newman and Newman. The entrance to the site was from the north at Slagrove Place. The main buildings comprised a central administration block and dining hall flanked by three double pavilion ward blocks at each side. Four wards were for the "infirm", six for the "healthy infirm" and two for the "healthy aged". Males were accommodated at the north of the site and females at the south. There was also a separate block for six married couples, plus an isolation hospital, laundry, two chapels (Church of England and Roman Catholic) and a water tower.
During the First World War, Ladywell provided treatment for military personnel under the name of Bermondsey Military Hospital.
After 1930, the institution was taken over by the London County Council's welfare department and continued in use as a residential institution for the elderly.
Most of buildings have now been demolished with the remainder converted to residential use.
Shirley Cottage Homes
In 1903, the St Olave's union erected a large children's cottage home "village" at Wickham Road, Shirley. The homes, designed by the same partnership of Newman and Newman responsible for the Ladywell Infirmary, were scattered over an 80-acre site. The location of the homes, also known as Shirley Schools, is shown on the 1911 map below:
There were 38 children's cottages, making Shirley one of the largest cottage homes sites ever erected. Some children stayed there for just a few weeks, some for up to fifteen years. The number on the roll rarely fell below 400. As well as the children's houses, other buildings included a sick bay, swimming bath, laundry, and workshops. A large school stood at the north of the site.
The entrance to the site was at the south on Wickham Road where a lodge was located.
To its north, there was a single-storey block which in later years was used as a store by the estate's painters and carpenters.
The children's houses contained around a dozen boys or girls under the care of a house-mother of house-father.
In March 1927, a journalist wrote an account of a visit to the homes:
A visitor from Moscow was recently shown round the Guardians' Schools at Shirley. He grew more and more bewildered. At last (the headmaster told me) he stopped and said, “It is very strange. I took all my ideas of your Poor Law system from the works of your great writer, Charles Dickens, and this” — he threw out his arms expressively — “is so different.”
I could well understand. Shirley is a surprising place. Although an “institution,” it gives the impression of a beautiful English village, with an uncommon share of green spaces. The 38 cottage homes are spread along two miles of roads.
There are elementary schools, and technical schools completely equipped for the training of boys in carpentry, engineering. plumbing, tailoring. bootmaking, bandsmanship, gardening, agriculture; and of girls in dressmaking, laundrywork, cooking, and all of the arts of the housewife. There are playing-fields, a model farm, a swimming-bath. Oliver Twist could not have asked for more.
It is some comfort for those who believe in progress to recall that “Oliver Twist” was written in the first years of Victoria, and that in the first years of the next reign the Bermondsey Guardians ware building Shirley. They did it in this spirit. When they bought these 75 acres they said, “We will have none of your institutional uniformity. We will shake 38 dice out of a box on to the map, and where they fall we will build our cottages.”
It couldn't be done quite like that, but it was very nearly; and the only likeness I could trace with Bumble was the alphabetical christening of the cottages: Acacia, Ash, Beech, Birch, Bramble, and so on. (Bumble, you remember, on the same system named hie “fondlings” Swubble, Twist, Unwin, Vilkins.)
Traversing half the alphabet and passing through the Stores, where boys were sorting provisions into parcels for the cottages, I found the headmaster in an inner room, and was rather alarmed to hear that “the Board was sitting in solemn conclave,” and I was to have the honour of going round in their company.
However, the party dwindled to four. There was the clergyman, whose roving eye found the first blackbird's half-completed nest in the hedge near the band-room: he was an idealist and full of schemes. The headmaster, of inventive brain and even temperament, talked of feeding-troughs and football matches, of Cox's Orange Pippins and see-saws: from time to time he pointed out practical objections to the reverend gentleman's proposals.
The Chairman said little, but, at the height of a discussion, his left eye would slowly close and as slowly re-open, an eloquent spot in an otherwise solemn countenance. It was pleasant to see how the small children ran to greet these gentlemen; but embarrassing, when I was the last to leave a classroom of five-year-olds, to be in the full fire of a salvo of kisses blown from forty pairs of shameless lips. The older children were well-spoken, answering questions sensibly, not in the least shy.
“We have 608,” said the headmaster, “evenly divided between the sexes. Seventy-five per cent have lost their fathers. We take them from 1½ to 16. The population of Bermondsey has dwindled so much that more than half are now boarders from other places. We charge 24s. 6d. a week, which includes education, and make a profit.” (Oliver's faster-mother, you remember, charged 7½d., and also made a profit.)
The elementary schools are on L.C.C. lines, and several boys a year win scholarships to the Croydon secondary schools. The training in the technical schools is thorough. I saw a young plumber who had been to see what was wrong in one of the cottages, had located the defect, and written his report in lucid English, and was now carrying out a repair in a workmanlike fashion.
A tailor of 16, sitting cross-legged and already acquiring the gravity of the trade, showed me the waistcoat he was making, and told me he had graduated through trousers, and was yet to advance to jackets. (“We have old boys as cutters earning £7OO a year,” said the headmaster.) All the clothes for the children are made in the schools, and so are the boots.
At band practice were learners stiffened by a few key men, like the ruddy lad who had come from the farm to play the enormous B flat tuba. Small boys favoured the cornet: a not so very big boy, the trombone. They played a foxtrot and the R.A. quick march in almost professional style, and I was not surprised to hear that the band proper has a famous reputation.
About the farm, I will say only this. If you think pigs must needs be dirty creatures, see those at Shirley. Environment counts!
The cottages would lower the pride of a Dutch housewife. The floors have never known soap; they are polished like mirrors. Tho stairs are teak, the walls distempered in pleasant colours. There are books, pictures, games: each child has a locker for his own treasures. We found some babies at tea: so far from asking their foster-mother for more, they offered us bites at their bread-and-butter.
I wish you could see some of the 'homes' they come from," said the clergyman. He told me of one block of dwellings owned by a great public company — and of other things. Shirley is building a new generation out of the wreckage of an old.
Clouds? Two. So many very young children have recently been taken — “False economy,” said the clergyman. “I was always against it” — that the technical shops are not getting, all the big boys they could take. And London's suburbs are creeping up to the boundary fence. The purchase of a small piece of land would keep backyards at arm's length: the whole place is so big an argument for wide and generous outlook that surely this will be managed.
“Some day,” said the headmaster, “when the Guardians cease to need Shirley, London will take it over a fully equipped technical and agricultural school ready to her hand. Such another place will never seen. For one thing, the cost of building it now would four times great.” “And the rest,” said the Chairman.
In 1930, the homes passed to the London County Council which ran them until the London Borough of Lambeth took them over in 1965. The homes finally closed in 1983.
The site has now been redeveloped for residential use. Several of the original children's home survive. The site of the homes' school, at the north of the homes, is now occupied by Shirley Oak Hospital.
Peckham Cottage Homes
The union also established two cottage homes in Peckham at 'Elmside', 180-182 Peckham Rye, and 'The Hawthorns', 43 The Gardens, Peckham Rye, which in 1908 could accommodate a total of 94 children.
Tooley Street Offices
In 1899, the St Olave's Guardians opened new offices at 283 Tooley Street to replace their existing premises on Tanner Street. The building was designed by local architects Newman and Newman and its construction cost £20,000. As well as offices, the scheme included an out-relief station, dispensary and vaccination station.
- 1881 Census - St Olave's (Parish Street) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Bermondsey (Russell Street / Tanner Street) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Rotherhithe (Lower Road) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Rotherhithe Union Infirmary
- Long-term workhouse inmates (1861)
- 1881 Census - St Olave's (Parish Street) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Bermondsey (Russell/Tanner Street) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Rotherhithe (Lower Road) Workhouse
- 1881 Census - Rotherhithe Union Infirmary
Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.
The Ancestry website has two collections of London workhouse records (both:
- The London Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records (1764-1930).
- The Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1738-1930 — a wider range of London workhouse-related records.
- The FindMyPast website has workhouse / poor law records for Westminster.
- London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB. Holdings include: Guardians' minute books (1836-70, 1904-1930); Financial records (1836-1930); Staff register (1848-67); etc.
- Higginbotham, Peter Workhouses of London and the South East (2019)
- Adams, J and Coll, G (1999) The History of Shirley Oaks Children's Home (London: Deptford Forum Publishing).
Unless otherwise indicated, this page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.