When Honiton’s destitute faced a life of tears

Misery of the workhouse revealed - along with details of the town’s first workhouse.

BEFORE the introduction of the Welfare State, the poor were institutionalised by a society that offered just one alternative to an early grave.

Relief from hardship was provided in the form of workhouses, which were established in the 1700s and later stigmatised by respectable Victorians.

Unmarried mothers, the unemployed and ill, with no means of support, were forced to make the difficult choice between destitution or institution.

Entering a workhouse was, indeed, a choice, but not a happy one. In fact, such was the misery found behind workhouse walls that doors to the establishments were often referred to as ‘archways of tears’.

Pressures on the economy, illness and lack of family support led people down a road already well trodden by hundreds before them in Honiton. Such was the need for places at the town’s workhouse that a new, larger one had to be built.

According to Tony Simpson, secretary of Honiton Senior Council, the town’s first workhouse provided 60 places and was established some time after 1723 at Summerlands.

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Mr Simpson has seen a map, now in the Devon Record Office, which showed the site of the building and included a thumbnail sketch of it. “It was a long, three-storey building facing the former London Road. It was on the southern edge of the town with a few other buildings,” he told The Midweek Herald.

“As the numbers in need grew, smaller, local workhouses couldn’t cope with the scale of destitution from changes in agriculture and industry.”

In 1834 Devon Poor Law Unions were set up in 18 districts, including Honiton.

This led to the construction of a new workhouse, in Marlpits Lane - on a site now occupied by Honiton Community Hospital. Part of the original building remains.

It was large enough to accommodate 240 people.

“It would have been a final resort for older and senile people and vagrants, since there were no state pensions or benefits,” said Mr Simpson.

“Then there were those unfit to work, unmarried mothers rejected by their families and unwanted children, who were separated from their mothers.

“A census also shows that people like lace makers, who had fallen on hard times following the introduction of machinery, were also admitted to the workhouse.”

Mr Simpson added: “Charles Dickens visited Honiton and we know, from the first paragraph of Oliver Twist, that the workhouse regime could be pretty harsh, with wives, husbands and children all separated and having to wear a rough uniform.”

In fact, in Honiton, the ‘inmates’ could not be mistaken - right up until the day the institution closed, women were forced to have their heads shaved.

A former worker at the institution told this newspaper that heads were shaved to stop the spread of lice and to promote cleanliness. Nevertheless, it further set the poor apart from the rest of the community.

Many who entered the workhouse were destined never to leave. It seems the climb from the depths of poverty to independence was too steep to achieve. As we enter a new period of austerity, is it conceivable that, in a modern society, destitution could become a large-scale problem again?

l The map showing where the first Honiton workhouse was located will be on view at an open meeting of Honiton Senior Council next month. It will be at the Royal British Legion Club, in Dowell Street, from 10.30am, on February 7.