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Witheridge and the Workhouse

Until 1834, distribution of help in money or kind to the needy, sick and elderly was the responsibility of the Parish where a person had a legal settlement. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, An "Act for the Amendment and better Administration of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales" is one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in British history. At a stroke, it swept away an accumulation of poor laws going back nearly five hundred years, and replaced them with a national system for dealing with poverty and its relief based around the Union workhouse. All parishes became part of larger unions, each union supervising a workhouse. A Board of Guardians administered the unions themselves, though parish vestries remained responsible for levying poor rates for the upkeep of workhouses. The harsh measures introduced by the Poor Law Amendment Act made confinement to the workhouse the central mechanism of poor relief. Furthermore, it directed administrators to discourage paupers from seeking relief by making workhouses as unpleasant as possible. From now on, married couples entering the workhouse were separated and children taken away from their parents. The Act also completed the work of Gilbert's Act in the formation of Poor Law Unions.

The first Workhouse in South Molton was opened in 1735 in premises situated in North Street, and which were rented from a Mr Richard Gay at £11.10.0d per annum. They were opened "for receiving all the poor who had pay of the parish", some 104 in numbers. This was replaced in 1838 by a new building, built of stone, and designed by Sampson Kempthorne, at a total cost of £4379, and which could accommodate 230 inmates.

Around the same time, Witheridge, one of the parishes later to form part of the South Molton Union, also had its own village poorhouses. Just prior to the results of the Turnpike Act taking effect on the ground, the 1840 Tithe Map was issued, and one can clearly see the eight houses in Church Lane in the personal ownership of The Rev. W P Thomas. The Churchwarden's Accounts of the time show them as "The Church House" or "Poor Houses", and that they provided accommodation for the elderly poor of the parish.

They were not a charitable foundation, and no mention of them appears in the Charity Commissioners Reports of the period. However, their charitable use was recognised by the inclusion of an annual sum of one shilling in the Churchwarden's Accounts for "sweeping poorhouse chimneys" and by the reference in the Accounts of 1826 to the payments of sums of £2.12s.6d for "reed for poorhouses" and of £1.7s.9d for William Crooke's bill for Thatching, Spars, etc. There is no mention of the poorhouse in these accounts after 1837. The poor houses needed to be re-thatched regularly; on one occasion, the reed and spars cost £3.9s, and the work cost £3.4s. The church also made regular payments to masons, carpenters, and glaziers.

They were demolished sometime after 1840 when the South Molton Turnpike Act came into being, to make way for the then new turnpike road to enter the village. Records of the time show the occupiers of the Witheridge poorhouses at this time were: Thomas Smale, Francis Western, James Fuins, Sarah Hepper, William Clapp, William Davey, George Mortimer, William Western, Francis Western, and William Blackmore.

An elected Board of Guardians, 36 in number, representing its 29 constituent parishes as listed below, administered South Molton Poor Law Union, which formally came into existence on 28th November 1835: Bishop's Nympton, Burrington, Charles, Cheldon, Chittlehampton, Chulmleigh, Creacombe, East Anstey, East Buckland, East Worlington, Filleigh, George Nympton, King's Nympton, Knowstone, Molland, Mariansleigh, Meshaw, Molland, North Molton, Rackenford, Romansleigh, Rose Ash(e), Satterleigh, South Molton, Twitchen, Warkleigh, West Anstey, West Buckland, Witheridge, West Worlington. Later additions: Chittlehamholt (from 1866), Queensnympton (from 1894)

The population falling within the union at the 1831 census had been 18,873, ranging from Creacombe with a population 43 to South Molton itself with a population of 3,826. The average annual poor rate expenditure for the period 1833-35 had been £8,619 or 9s.2d per head.

The Poor Law Amendment Act placed emphasis on workhouses for work rather than caring for the elderly. There was no classification of the sick, and the chronically disabled were classed with the insane. Aged paupers gradually formed an increasing percentage of the occupants, 70% by the 1870s countrywide. From the 1840s, workhouses could provide surgical and medical attendance and in 1843, the addition of a further storey to the South Molton workhouse enabled the provision of a sick ward.

When the Local Government Act 1929 came into force, the South Molton Board of Guardians (Guardians of the Poor) handed the building over to Devon County Council. At this time, the building housed the aged, the aged sick, mental defectives, de-certified mental defectives, vagrants and casuals ("tramps"), persons of sub-normal mentality, the poor, the outcast and the unwanted. The "Infirmary" part of the "Poor Law Institution" provided a chronic sick hospital for both sexes. The old Workhouse fell into disuse in the mid 1970s, when Devon County Council built a new purpose built residential home for the elderly, situated to the left of the old Workhouse in North Road, and this retained the name of Beech House. George Wallace purchased the old buildings in 1978 and converted them into what are now the Quince Honey Farm, and one of the top tourist attractions in the area. The former chapel is now a shop for selling souvenirs and products produced at the honey farm.

At the time of the 1881 census, out of a total population of 102 persons, 10 residents came from Witheridge.

Mary CROOK - Inmate - Formerly Domestic Servant
Mary Ann DAVEY - Inmate - Idiot
Henry DUNN - Inmate - Scholar
John EDWORTHY - Inmate - Idiot
John HAWKES - Inmate - Farmers Labourer
William LAVERCOMBE - Inmate - Farmers Labourer
William SHORT - Inmate - Farmers Labourer
John TUCKER - Inmate - Scholar
Sidney J. TUCKER - Inmate - Scholar
Robert TURNER - Inmate - Farm Labourer (Dom)
 Molton Union speaking on the apprentice system in a Report of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners and the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture 1843 stated that:

We now have in this union one parish, Witheridge, where apprenticing has been discontinued for years, the parish authorities being opposed to the system. The number of boys above nine years old, in the house from that parish, exceeds that from the rest of the union. The population of Witheridge is not more than 2000, whilst that of the union is 30,000.


History of South Molton J. Mills, 1892
Records of the Ancient Borough of South Molton John Cock, 1893
Health in a North Devon Parish in the 19th Century (paper by John Usmar)

Workhouse Records

The North Devon Record Office holds some documents relating to the South Molton Union workhouse (Ref. B264/7), but few local records survive. Those that do include Guardians minute books for the period 1895-8, and 1911-20 along with Committee minutes for the period 1888-1927.

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Last Edited 14/09/2008    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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