Berkhamsted Union Workhouse | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Berkhamsted Union Workhouse

Berkhamsted Union Workhouse

The Poor Law Act of 1601 ordered every parish to set people to work who had “no ordinary trade to get their living by.” Overseers of the poor were appointed to levy rates to provide tools and equipment, to relieve lame, blind and impotent persons, to put out children as apprentices and provide for the impotent poor and to build poorhouses. In the 18th and early 19th century, Berkhamsted’s workhouse was “a wretched, straw-thatched building” that stood on land subsequently occupied by Park View School.

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The Poor Law Commission was set up and new administrative units, Poor Law Unions, were created and run by a locally elected Boards of Guardians. The funding of each Union and its workhouse came from the local poor rate to which each parish in the Union contributed. The Berkhamsted Poor Law Union was accordingly formed on 12th July 1835.

Upon his death in 1831, The Reverend George Nugent, who lived in the Red House, Berkhamsted, left in his will a gift of £1,000 for a new workhouse. The new workhouse was built on the corner of Kitsbury Road, where a dilapidated row of old tenement known as “Ragged Row” had stood. The balance of the gift remaining after the new workhouse was completed was invested and the proceeds credited to the parish towards the poor rate. As Nash commented in his Reminiscences of Berkhamsted, “Thus, contrary to the intention of the benevolent donor, the ratepayer, and not the poor, derive the benefit from his bequest.”

People ended up un the workhouse for a variety of reasons; some were too poor, old or ill to support themselves. Unmarried mother’s might find themselves disowned by their families and that the workhouse was the only place open to them. Some inmates stayed in the workhouse for many years. In 1851 Matthew Gower was 77 years old and had lived in the workhouse since at least 1841. His wife Martha lived at the Northchurch Almshouses.

Conditions in the workhouse were deliberately harsh to ensure that only those in desperate need resorted to it. On arrival at the workhouse the new inmate was first interviewed to establish his or her circumstances. Formal admission was authorised by the Board of Guardians at their weekly meeting and they could summon an applicant to attend before them for interview. The new arrival was stripped, bathed and medically examined. Personal clothing was removed, cleaned and stored, only being returned when the inmate left the workhouse.

Tramps and vagrants could find a shelter for the night as poor guardians were required to provide a night’s shelter to any destitute person in case of “sudden or urgent necessity” in return for them undertaking a work task. Accommodation was provided at a basic level, inferior to that of the main workhouse. These quarters became known as tramp wards, or casual wards, known colloquially as “the Spike,” with their occupants being referred to as “casual poor” or just “casuals.” Unsurprisingly the accommodation was not to the liking of all.

A CASUAL- Samuel Poole, of Newark, was charged with wilful damage to a stool, value 2s, at the casual ward, Berkhampstead Union on 17th Inst.. – Mr James Jesty, Master of the Union, stated… on Monday morning the defendant had 4lbs of oakum to pick and witness had his attention called to him, when he found him with a stool knocked to pieces and making a fire in his cell. Poole said the place was not fit to pet a dog in he had two rugs and a shirt given him. – Defendant now said the 3 inch pipe for heating the room was half let in the floor and when he got out in the night was quite cold. – Mr Jesty said the water was heated as usual and was all right at 9.00pm on Sunday….In default of paying £1:12:6  damage, fine and cost, prisoner was committed for twenty-one days hard labour.”

Birtchnell recorded his memories of the workhouse and the tramps that used to gather awaiting a night’s accommodation in an article in the Parochial Review in 1957. “This grim building seemed to mark the end of Berkhamsted (I always looked upon Gossoms End as a separate village), and as children we were scared of the tramps who collected outside the workhouse in the late afternoon, waiting to secure a night’s lodging. The tramps, by the way, loved to linger in St John’s Well Lane, and here one of the richest men in the town was once mistaken for a vagrant and given a shilling by the rector of Northchurch.”

Clothing issued by the workhouse was not referred to as a uniform as such, but nevertheless marked the wearer out as an inmate of the workhouse. In 1846 two tramps had torn up their own clothes and had been given new ones branded “Aylesbury Union.” When they arrived at Berkhamsted they hoped to avoid public humiliation by tearing those up and receiving replacements. The replacement clothes were however also stamped, in this case with “Berkhamstead Union.”

The Bucks Herald in 1890 reported on the case of another tramp, James Croft, who also destroyed his own clothes in attempt to get better replacements   When he was admitted to the workhouse, his clothes were, as usual, taken from him until the following morning. When he got them back, he tore them up “…shoes and all – everything except his shirt.” He appeared before the magistrates charged by James Jesty with the destruction of his own clothes.  He told the court he was a gardener from Watford and that no one would employ him in the clothes he had, but they would if he had better clothes. He was sent to prison for 14 days.

Inmates were not allowed out without permission. Although it was difficult to prevent inmates leaving without permission, those that did risked being charged with theft of workhouse property- the workhouse clothing with which their own clothes had been replaced.

Inmates slept in dormitories segregated by sex. They rose at 6.00am in the summer and 7.00am in Winter. They were fed communally. Bread (14oz) and gruel (1.5 pints) for breakfast every day except Friday when the bread allowance was only 8oz, presumably because dinner was a 14oz suet pudding. On Mon, Wed and Sat, inmates could look forward to 5oz beef and 1lb of potatoes for dinner; on Tues, Thurs and Sun, 1.5 pints of soup. Supper on beef days was 1.5 pints of broth and 2oz cheese on other days. Smaller rations were given to the aged, infirm and the sick. Women had tea made for them by the Matron in lieu of gruel or broth. At Christmas the inmates enjoyed more festive fare.

“As usual on Christmas Day the inmates, sixty-six in number, were treated to a good dinner of beef and plum pudding by the kindness of the guardians, and under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Jesty, the master and matron. Mrs. Dudley Ryder again sent tea and sugar, oranges, and Christmas cards. The Rev. A. Johnson, one of the guardians, sent 6lbs. of tea and 2lbs. of tobacco; Miss Proctor, cake, tobacco, and Christmas cards for the sick; Mr. Harding, nuts and oranges; Mr. C. Tompkins, oranges and apples; Mr. F.Q. Lane (a guardian), six bottles of wine and evergreens; Mr. Dickman (another old friend of the inmates), a quantity of oranges, fruits, &c.; Mr. D. Clarke and Mr. D. Pike, fruit.”
(Bucks Herald, Jan 1892)


Medical care was provided to inmates. In James’ time as master, a nurse was included on the workhouse staff.  Originally workhouse infirmaries were intended solely for the care of residents in the workhouse, but towards the latter part of the 19th century the standard of care provided improved and from the 1880’s admission to workhouse infirmaries was increasingly permitted to those who although poor, were not sufficiently destitute to require admission to the workhouse. Like all recipients of union relief, they first needed to have their means assessed and might be required to contribute towards their care. (An example of such an admission is Theresa Callard, buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.) The workhouse medical service marked the beginning of a state funded medical service.

In return for shelter and food, inmates were expected to work, being allocated work in the larger workhouses by taskmasters. Women often undertook laundry work, making clothes, cleaning and cooking. In rural areas men were sent out  to work as agricultural labourers. Men were often put to breaking stones for use in surfacing roads or picking oakum. Oakum picking was teasing out of fibres from old rope and was very hard on the fingers. The loose fibres were sold to ship builders for mixing with tar to caulk wooden ships. Refusal to work would lead to an appearance before the magistrates:

“MAGISTERIAL – At the Union on Monday, 26th Nov…Joseph Evans,31, a casual, was charged by Mr James Jesty, master of the Berkhampstead Union, with refusing to do his allotted work of breaking stones after being accommodated for the night; Edward Mellor, 21, also a casual, was charged with the same offence; they were committed for fourteen days hard labour.”   (Bucks Herald, 22nd February 1890.)

Perhaps it is not surprising that on occasions tempers flared and on at least one occasion of which we know, James was assaulted by an inmate.

“ASSAULTING THE MASTER OF BERKHAMPSTEAD WORKHOUSE – Charles Hadley,  a tramp, was charged with assaulting and beating James Jesty… Mr Jesty said that he was the master of the Berkhampstead workhouse, but he had no porter and had to do the duties of tramp attendant himself. He went to the cell where the prisoner was confined and asked him what he meant by using threatening language to the Matron. Prisoner denied using the language, and assaulted witness, holding him on the ground until he was rescued by the police. P.C. Martin… said that the prisoner turned round and told the Master he was a bully and that he was drunk. Prisoner then attempted to get out, but the Master pushed him back to prevent him coming out. They then closed and the next witness saw was the prisoner holding the Master on top of him. He did not see a blow struck. Witness had to go and hold prisoner whilst the Master got up. The Master was not drunk – The prisoner was sentenced to three weeks’ imprisonment with hard labour.”  (Bucks Herald, 17th November 1894.)

The workhouse remained in use until 1935 when all the occupants were transferred to Hemel Hempstead. When the use of the word “workhouse” became discouraged, it was known as “Nugent House.” It was sold for £3,700 and the row of shops which replaced it still stand today.


No burials in Rectory Lane Cemetery are associated with this location yet.

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