Ancestry UK

Margaret Joan Wells-Gardner

'Ring in the Old' - Growing up in the Lexden and Winstree Workhouse

Looking back, one of the clearest of my childhood recollections is of The Bell. The bell punctuated the daily life of the closely-knit community which was 'home': The Workhouse.

There were about two hundred of us there. There were Master and Matron (my father and mother); a small staff called the Officers; and the Inmates. My sister and I were known as Miss Sybil and Miss Joan. We had been born in this Workhouse, and our father had been born there when HIS parents were Master and Matron. (Three years elapsed between my grandparents' retirement and my own parents' taking up duty, which they did in 1906).

The bell hung in its belfry on top of the octagonal tower which was the centre of the House. The bellrope descended through the rooms below — part of the Master's apartments — to the ground floor. It included a length of chain, and made a fearful clatter. On weekdays the bell was rung to this timetable:


Getting-up time




Begin work


Master and Matron available for interview in their offices


Cease work

12.00 noon



Resume work


Cease work




Bed-time (8.30 in summer)

This showed that the inmates normally worked less than an eight-hour day. They did not work on Saturday afternoons or on Sundays, unless in the kitchen or helping the infirm and so forth.

Many people living nearby relied upon the Workhouse bell as a time-keeper. Once, when for some reason it was rung later than usual, some of them came to complain!

The inmates, other than the sick and aged, worked according to their ability — and of course without pay; this being the current system. Many of them seldom handled money, unless friends outside sent them small sums.

Many of the men worked in the garden, which provided nearly all the fruit and vegetables needed. The garden covered about four acres and a nearby field also belonged to the Workhouse. Other men looked after the pigs; some cleaned the rooms, some chopped wood or did other domestic or maintenance work. When I was very small, the water was pumped by hand from the well to the storage tank in the roof. I can just remember three or four men working together at the pump at intervals during the day. Then an electric pump was installed, and later an emergency supply was laid on from the public mains, which had not always been available.

The women worked in the kitchen or the laundry, in the sewing room, at cleaning or in helping to care for the infirm. Until about 1930 there was a nursery (later transferred to a neighbouring institution), and there the babies were looked after by their mothers. These mothers were nearly all single girls who had had their babies in the maternity ward. They were not allowed to leave the Workhouse unless or until they could take their children with them, which meant that some of them actually remained there for years.

Until about 1920, older children had lived in the Workhouse and gone out from there to the village school. Then a Home for them had been opened a mile or so away (and supervised by parents) and they did not come to the Workhouse unless they had parents there whom they visited. Much earlier on, the 'Workhouse children' had been taught on the premises by a schoolmaster and schoolmistress.

Each department of the House was supervised by an Officer. There were not many Officers when I was small, but the staff gradually increased as they came to have more time off-duty and as the demands of the House grew. I can remember the days when my father had only two male officers — a porter, whose duties were many and various, and an engineer-handyman. About that time there were three nurses in the infirmary block. One was a midwife, and my mother shared the midwifery with her. There was also a cook, a laundress and one or two 'attendants'. All except the engineer-handyman were resident. Each had a fortnight's holiday a year — I think the head-nurse-midwife had three weeks — but otherwise they rarely had a whole day off duty. They were free after the mid-day meal once in the week and on alternate Sundays, and had one other evening 'off' during the week. Otherwise, although not actually working, they were on the premises in the evenings in case they were needed. Board and lodgings, uniform and laundry etc. were of course provided for them, and medical attention if necessary, and I think their cash salaries were about £50 in most cases. When my parents took up duty in 1906 their own salaries were £60 and £40 per annum, and they said their posts were considered handsomely paid at that time.

There was a visiting chaplain and a visiting doctor.

Father and Mother were very much tied to their work, or at least to the premises, and there responsibilities were great. Until 1930, when the County Council took it over the House was administered by the Board of Guardians (the elected Guardians of the Poor) who met fortnightly in the Boardroom, but then and later the Master and Matron were responsible for the day to day management and for dealing with the many and varied situations, and indeed emergencies which arose. There were many aspects of their work: the care of the old, the sick, the infirm; of children, of mental defectives; of the vagrant men and women who came to the 'tramp wards' and who usually stayed two nights, working on the premises during the intervening day. The kitchen, the laundry, the boilerhouse, the food and clothing and hardware stores, the garden, the office - all these had to be 'kept going', whilst the House itself had to be maintained in good repair.

Board Day was quite an event, especially before motorcars ousted horses from the scene. There were about 35 Guardians, for every parish provided for by the House had its own representative on the Board and the larger parishes had more than one.

Wealthy country gentlemen would arrive in carriages driven by their coachmen; farmers would drive up in high dogcarts; poor clergymen would come in modest traps. What must have been some of the last traces of the squire-and-parson hierarchy lingered on here, but the Guardians were genuinely concerned for the welfare of the House, and took personal interest in the Inmates coming from their own parishes.

Able-bodied men Inmates who were used to horses, and most of them were, were detailed to act as ostlers on Board Days. There was never any difficulty about this, the men welcoming the change of routine — and the tips they received. They would unharness the horses and overlook them in the stables until the early afternoon when, after the various committee meetings, the full Board meeting and a cold lunch (organised by Master and Matron), the Guardians would leave.

All this created a welcome bustle, and I remember faintly the summer day when, in the midst of the Guardians' arrival, a runaway cow dashed up the drive and tossed our little dog, Pat, high in the air.

With the disappearance of the horses, Board Day lost some of its glamour; but the Guardians continued to come fortnightly, in their cars, until the House was taken over by the County Council and small house committees took their place.

This workhouse was built in 1837 (the year of Queen Victoria's accession), of red brick with a slate roof. In shape it was rather like a wheel with four spokes. The hub was the tower I have mentioned earlier, topped by the belfry. It had three floors, the centre being one large room — the Master's drawing room — with windows facing north, south, east and west. This room was octagonal and between the windows were doors leading to each of the four wings which formed the 'spokes' of the 'wheel'. There were two bedrooms above, and the kitchens were on the ground floor below. The wings were the inmates' and officers' living quarters and also contained the stores and the offices. They consisted of three floors, but were not quite as high as the central tower. Single-storey buildings made up most of the circumference of the 'wheel'. Here were the laundry, the 'tramp wards' and various outbuildings, and quite an imposing Georgian entrance front facing the main road, with a large porch and entrance hall above which was the boardroom.

Behind the main House was the infirmary building. This comprised two blocks each of four wards etc. with a smaller block between them which was the nurses' home.

The chapel stood in the garden behind the infirmary. It was of red brick, well furnished and appointed, with a tiny chancel and a coloured east window. Babies born in the Workhouse were baptised here if their mothers wished it, and here my father and his sisters and brothers had been baptised, and also my sister and I and, much later on, my nephew.

Between the four wings of the main building were open 'yards'. One was paved and was where the linen was hung out to dry after washing. The laundry led off this yard. The others were gravelled and decorated with flowerbeds, and had garden seats for the Inmates in their leisure hours. The main garden was outside all this. In front of the House was a wide lawn with entrance gates at each end and a broad curved drive between them. There were fine beech and other trees, and shrubberies. Further back were a flower garden, an orchard and a large vegetable garden.

In one corner was the Dogs' Cemetery. Here were the graves of the dogs, and one cat, which had belonged to the various Masters. Most of the graves had little headstones. They were kept tidy, and in springtime the little cemetery was full of daffodils. It is sad indeed to add that present-day, unimaginative bureaucracy had levelled the graves and taken away the headstones.

By today's standards the inside of the House was austere. Some of the lower rooms had stone floors (all these were replaced by wooden floors in my parents' time) and many walls were of painted brick. Although none of the rooms was dark, the lower rooms had windows set high in the wall — these again were improved as time went on. The furniture was very plain and the mattresses, expect in the infirmary, were of straw. Non the less, there were certain comforts; and it must be remembered that most of the Inmates, though through no fault of their own, had come from homes which we should call poor today. There were coal fires in the day rooms and coco-matting and rag-rugs on the floors. There were pictures — perhaps not of high artistic merit — vases of flowers, and 'wireless'. A few newspapers were provided, and books and magazines were often given by people who lived nearby.

Washing facilities were rather crude: basins tucked away on landings, most of them with only cold running water. Hot baths were provided weekly. All these conditions were gradually improved.

The infirmary was comfortable and its standards were, I think, equal to those of most other small hospitals at the time. The wards overlooked the garden and were bright and cheerful, with open coal fires in winter. Each ward held about twelve beds, and there were armchairs for the patients who could get up. No surgery was done there. Patients who needed such treatment went to the local general hospital. Nor was the maternity ward in the infirmary itself, but in the women's wing in the main House. This was usual in Workhouses at the time. I never asked the reason, but it was probably to guard the maternity patients from any infection. (The maternity ward was closed in the 1930's, and the patients sent to another hospital).

My mother and the head nurse were qualified midwives and, if a maternity patient was 'pending', they took care never to be out of the House at the same time. I have known my mother to forgo many outings on this account, and she accepted it cheerfully as part of her duty. The doctor was of course called if needed. In my childhood the doctor had no telephone, and the man who was the 'messenger' for several years an inmate named Harry Rogers, used sometimes to go out in the middle of the night to summon him. Harry would walk to the doctor's house, a distance of about two miles, and the doctor would drive him back in his car. (Harry made many other journeys into the town and he had a truck, a kind of cupboard on wheels, which he used for carrying goods. The job of the messenger was a rather special one. It could only be undertaken by a man who was reliable, intelligent and trustworthy, and it meant many outings and extra meals and hot drinks after late journeys).

Sick persons had any special diet, stimulants or 'extras' they needed, without stint. Otherwise, in my early days, the Inmates' food was plain and uninteresting, although sufficient. There was a sort of rationing system which ensured that each person received a certain quantity of various foodstuffs. I think this system had been laid down by the Local Government Board, and was common to Workhouses everywhere.

For breakfast there was porridge, bread and butter or margarine, and tea. For dinner six days a week there was meat, soup or fish, vegetables and sometimes a pudding. Once a week, dinner was of bread and cheese. Mugs of tea were served after a meal of bread and butter or margarine, often with cheese or jam, and with cake to follow on Sundays. At this particular House, and no doubt at many other 'country Workhouses', there were plentiful supplies of vegetables and fruit from the garden, which were given to the Inmates. Some of them also received biscuits, cake, eggs, etc. from their friends outside. As time went on, the food became much more varied and eventually supper was also provided. The Officers had cooked breakfasts and two-course dinners every day.

It should be added here that the general health of the Inmates was good, and I cannot remember any epidemic illness occurring apart from colds and influenza.

Clothing was plain and serviceable. The men wore cloth jackets and caps, and corduroy trousers. Each man had a cloth 'Sunday suit' in addition. In my childhood the women wore blue print dresses, white aprons and frilled white caps. They had black woollen stockings and black laced boots, and their underwear was made of calico. In winter they wore shawls for extra warmth. Each woman had a 'best dress' for wear on Sundays and other special occasions. Stocks of other clothing were kept, and any Inmate going away for a holiday with friends, or leaving the Workhouse, was properly fitted up, using the clothes he had brought with him at the time of his admission if they were in good condition. The women's caps had been discarded by the time I grew up, as being too old fashioned. Old fashioned they no doubt were, but they were also decidedly becoming. The other clothing was modernised as time went on.

People were admitted to the House by the Relieving Officers for the areas from which they came. If they were ill or very old, they came directly into the infirmary. Otherwise they were placed in the Receiving Wards until it had been ensured that they were clean and free from any infection. Their own clothing and any valuables which they brought with them — there were seldom any of these — were kept safely for them, but they themselves kept any small personal articles they wished always to have with them, and, of course, their wedding rings. If they brought money with them, or were sent money by friends, it was kept for them and given to them in small sums whenever they asked for it. This was done entirely in their own interest, as there was a risk of theft by some of the other Inmates.

People were occasionally admitted who had considerable sums of money. Fixed weekly deductions were then made for their maintenance, and any money still in hand when they left was returned to them. If they died in the workhouse, the balance was handed to their relatives.

The Inmates could be visited by friends on Sundays and on one weekday afternoon, but visitors coming long distances could come at any reasonable time. When any sick person was on the danger list, his relatives were sent for. If he died, the relatives made their own arrangements for his burial or, if this was impossible, the Master arranged for his burial in the parish from which he had come to the Workhouse. Some of those who died had no friends, and the Workhouse was indeed their only home. However humble, their lives they were properly cared for and finally laid to rest with every respect.

The chaplain visited the sick Inmates and, on Sundays, after a rather prolonged ringing of the bell, Service was held in the Chapel. It was a simple service. The psalms were read, and the hymns and chants sung to familiar tunes — and sung heartily, as I remember. Some of the men had been choristers in their parish churches, and a few had really good voices. Holy Communion was also celebrated in the infirmary wards for those who could not go to the chapel, and eventually the chapel was also used for non-conformist services. Very few of the Inmates were Roman Catholics, but those who were, were visited by priests and nuns.

The chapel was specially decorated for Easter and Christmas, and for Harvest Thanksgiving. For this last there was always a special preacher, sometimes the Bishop.

There were hot-cross buns for breakfast on Good Friday and eggs on Easter Day.

Christmas was the highlight of the whole year, and preparations began weeks beforehand. Puddings were made, decorations and presents were arranged for. Many local residents and firms sent gifts in money or in kind, and some of these gifts came from people who could not have had much to spend on their own festivities. With these and the money the Master was allowed to spend, every Inmate was sure of having at least one present.

By Christmas Eve, the day rooms and the infirmary wards were gay with paper-chains and holly. On Christmas Morning the staff rose very early, and after the bell was rung at 6.45 they would sing carols beneath the dormitory windows. After breakfast the gifts were distributed, and then it was time for the Service in chapel.

For dinner there were turkey and pork, potatoes, brussel sprouts, Christmas pudding and mince pies, beer and lemonade. There were crackers for everyone. The preparation and serving of Christmas dinner naturally caused much work, and several people living nearby came each year to give voluntary — and very welcome — help. Other people came as visitors, mostly the Guardians or, later on, the members of the House Committee.

On Christmas evening, all who could, gathered in the dining hall for a party. The tables were moved back and the chairs set in a big circle. There were games and an impromptu concert when, year after year, some of the Inmates sang their favourite songs. There was much enjoyment, even if little musical talent. Lucy Webb, I remember, always sang 'The Old Rustic Bridge Beside The Mill', and Alice Kate Smith a fascinating song called 'When I touched my Seaweed I Knew It Was Going To Be Fine'. Winnie Keating danced a hornpipe. Some of the men, too, sang or recited, and the staff provided a few rehearsed items. The Assistant Master regularly sang 'The Mountains of Mourne' in a bass as deep as the sea to which those mountains sweep down.

Refreshments were handed round, and were taken to those who could not join in the party. The evening ended with 'God Save The King' and with 'Three cheers for Master and Matron' — but it was not the end of the Christmas festivities, the men and women having separate little parties in their day-rooms on Boxing Day and New Year's Day.

All through the year there were other occasional 'treats' — concerts given by people from 'outside', and one or more outings by coach to the seaside. There was an unofficial Ladies' Visiting Committee, whose members interested themselves in the Inmates and arranged little events for them including a 'tea' with games etc. in the summer. This took place in the garden if the weather was fine.

Here, then are my chief recollections of life in this particular Workhouse, which was, I think, typical of Workhouses everywhere. I visited a number of them, for my parents knew many other Masters and Matrons through what used to be called the Masters' and Matrons' Association.

Today, the Houses are held in contempt; we have adopted different standards. The system had indeed many faults — surely the greatest being the Inmates lack of liberty — but refuge was provided for those who could not make their own way through life. Nor did they lead useless lives. They helped each other — the deaf man literally led the blind man by the hand; the feeble-minded girl performed some small task for the infirm old lady.

There were sometimes feuds and dissension, but there were also cheerfulness courage, and Christian charity. The Inmates had their private sorrows, it goes without saying, but they did not abandon hope at the Workhouse door — and whilst for some it was their last home, for others it was merely a temporary shelter.

I remember with affection this House where I lived and others where I visited and sometimes stayed. They were little worlds of their own — each a busy community with its own outstanding personalities. If their walls could speak, what tales they would tell of those who used to live in them!

...And are they indeed peopled by ghosts? In the autumn of 1957 I went with my husband to a deserted Workhouse in Suffolk. It was one of the old Houses of Industry which existed there and in Norfolk, if not elsewhere, dating mostly from the 1760s and which were later used as Workhouses as we know them. I had not been close to it before, but its last Master and Matron, long since dead, had been well know to my father and mother. Now the old House was falling into decay. An outer door stood open and we went inside and walked through the empty rooms.

In style it resembled others of its own particular kind which I knew. The staircases were of wood, wide and shallow; the windows were large and low; there were ranges of attic rooms. It was an H-shaped building, very large and a tablet high on the wall of the central block showed the date 1776. At the back of this block, a narrow iron shaft ran from the ground to roof level, where it ended in a louvered top. Its purpose puzzled me greatly.

We went home, and for the rest of that day, and all the next day, I could not forget this old Workhouse. Suddenly, preparing for bed on the second evening I thought: 'The shaft was where the bell hung!'. There had been no belfry on the roof, which was certainly unusual for such a place, and I ought to have thought of this earlier, but I said nothing about it now. We went to bed, and at 11.30 a bell clanged twice, slowly and loudly outside our window, which is at the rear of the house. We both heard it, but there are no bells like it in our neighbourhood and it was not a fire or ambulance bell. Is it possible that what we heard...?

April 1959.
Margaret Joan Wells-Gardner

The original of Joan Wells-Gardner's text is held at the Essex Record Office (document reference T/Z 219/1). Her parents were Mr and Mrs Austin Gosling.

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