You'll end up in the workhouse... if you're lucky

The threat of the “the workhouse” has been a very real and terrifying one for many families over the last four hundred years, but as times change and the desire for renovation has grown, the old workhouse has reinvented itself – with help from imaginative architects.

Richard Morton, of RM Architects, looks at how the workhouse can be transformed from austere and forbidding structures to beautiful and practical homes for an aging population.

Although they are thought of as Victorian institutions, workhouses and their precursors originated in the sixteenth century, particularly when state-provided poor relief was crystallised in the 1601 Poor Relief Act. The institution finally came to an end in 1948 with the introduction of the National Health Service. Many former workhouse buildings were turned into public hospitals, many of which still survive today.

The Henley workhouse, on which RM Architects are currently working for Beechcroft Developments, is an early example dating from 1790 and, like many others, it was switched to hospital use in the 1940s. Like most workhouses it was prominently sited to act as a reminder and deterrent but was also, in its design, invested with a certain amount of civic pride which is evident in the harmoniously arcaded south courtyard. Gradually the building was extended to include separate dormitories for men and women, an infirmary, a school and even an isolation ward - the Pest House, in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge* languished for a week in 1794.
All of these buildings had been neglected and altered during 60 years of hospital use but in one area on the upper floors, originally planned to accommodate two rows of beds with narrow gangways between, the name card holders for the beds and the hooks for the paupers’ workhouse uniforms could still be seen. It was these features which led English Heritage to identify the buildings as important survivals and which added to the challenge of finding a conversion strategy which would bring them back to life as highly desirable cottages and flats for retired people. The design process undertaken by RM Architects was sensitive and painstaking, preserving the intertwined features from different stages in the life of the buildings, and creating a design that achieved both planning permission and listed building consent. The restoration and alteration work will soon commence.
The Grade II listed Marlborough Workhouse, on which Richard worked for English Courtyard some eight years ago, dates from the boom in construction following the Poor Law Act of 1834 which obliged all parishes which did not already have a workhouse to build one without delay. Such was the intensity of this nationwide building programme that formula designs were adopted, many of them by the architect Sampson Kempthorne. The Marlborough building is an example and has many of the features which we now find so appalling - the rigorous segregation of men, women, boys and girls into different dormitory wings and separate exercise yards with the Master overseeing everything from his central turret. The intention was, after all, to dehumanise the 'undeserving poor' as a strategy of deterrence.
In one respect though the Marlborough building, like the one at Henley, failed to fit its purpose. Far from being forbidding in appearance, it is warm and attractive. The Bath stone in particular, brought to site down the Kennet and Avon canal and revealed in all its honey coloured richness by specialist conservation work, is beautiful and the simple classical detailing is crisp and elegant.
A key aspect of the design strategy here was to take down the old outbuildings, opening up the four unpromising exercise yards and creating intimate garden rooms: a paved Italianate court planted with herbs, a formal rose garden, a cottage garden and a quiet collegiate lawned courtyard. The communally maintained landscaping, including the fine, mature trees that ring the site, provide a beautiful outlook for residents without the onerous burden of maintaining such a large garden. A simple but important change happened inside the building, with the raising of the first floors. This not only gave increased headroom within the homes, but allowed much better views for occupants who may have to spend a larger amount of time in bed.
The only planning problem arose after completion when English Courtyard had to restore the inscription with the Workhouse name which had been removed because of concerns about the effects it might have on sales. Richard Morton doesn’t know why they were worried, “The lady who bought the flat found it amusing that, after all, she had ended up in the Workhouse!”

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772 – 1834, poet, literary critic and philosopher, one of the founders of the Romantic movement in England, and writer of Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Article published in a Listed Heritage Magazine, March/April 2013