Billericay’s Workhouse

The discussion around the welfare state and what people are and are not owed by their governments is not a new one.

 

In fact, it’s been going on for generations, and one of the earliest schemes designed to help the state’s poor and destitute, at least in theory, was the building of workhouses.

 

Workhouses were not pleasant places – in fact, they were designed specially to deter people from using them. The Victorians divided people in need of financial aid into two categories – the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor”. The deserving poor were those who were poor through no fault of their own, and could not work either due to sickness or age or some other infirmity. The undeserving poor were people who had become poor through some fault of their own – whether that be laziness, vice, or stupidity.

 

The Victorians had little empathy for the complicated nature of people’s behaviours. Addictions like gambling or alcoholism were seen as personal failings rather than sicknesses, so there was a great fear that any system in place to deliver financial relief would be exploited by the undeserving poor, and workhouses were accordingly made as grim as possible so they would only be used as a last resort by desperate people. This was criticised by many contemporary writers, perhaps most famously Charles Dickens, who vividly described the horrors of workhouse life in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist.

 

There may have been a workhouse in Billericay from as early as 1719 when a three storey building with twelve rooms was recorded as built for the poor on Laindon Road. A report in 1777 also recorded a workhouse in operation at Brentwood, which could house up to 14 people.

 

A new Billericay workhouse was built in 1839-1840 on a site called Stock Hill Field. It was designed by architects George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt, who had designed other local workhouses, and cost £11,000 to build. The workhouse was laid out in the shape of an H with women living in the west side and men in the east, with children living in the central area and in the southern parts of both wings. The building also included a nursery and a chapel. In 1898, more land was acquired for the expansion of the workhouse, and an infirmary was built along with more wards and a Labour Master’s house.

 

After 1930, Billericay’s workhouse was closed and the building became the Billericay Public Assistance Institution, under the jurisdiction of Essex County Council. After that the site was used as a hospital, but it eventually closed in 1998, and has now been redeveloped for use as residential homes.

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