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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 were now made part of larger unions, each union supervising a workhouse. 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.

South Molton Union Workhouse.

Up to 1834

The first Workhouse in South Molton was opened in 1735;

"for receiving all the poor who had pay of the parish"

about 104. The second was on the site of the old Vicarage in Parsonage Lane where a disastrous fire took place in 1837. The building was destroyed but fortunately it was insured for £300 and no one is reported as having been injured. Witheridge, one of the parishes later to form part of the South Molton Union, had a village poorhouse. After the opening of the Union workhouse in South Molton, it was pulled down to make way for the then new turnpike road to enter the village.

After 1834

South Molton Poor Law Union formally came into existence on 28th November 1835. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 36 in number, representing its 29 constituent parishes as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

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, 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 (population 43) to South Molton itself (3,826). The average annual poor rate expenditure for the period 1833 to 35 had been £8,619 or 9s.2d. per head. The new South Molton Union workhouse, believed to have been designed by Sampson Kempthorne, was erected in 1837/38. Built of stone, at a total cost of £4379 (including £3,714.16.10d for the construction work) it could accommodate 230 inmates. The building was sited "in a healthy spot" on the west side of North Road (subsequently known as Union Road) at the north west of the town.

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 were allowed to provide surgical and medical attendance and in 1843 another storey was added to the South Molton workhouse in order to provide a sick ward.

J. E. Cutliffe, a Surgeon and one of the Medical Officers of the South 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."

The Workhouse was administered by the South Molton Board of Guardians. Viscount Ebrington was the Chairman of the Board during the last decade of the 19th century. At a meeting in May 1896 it was resolved on the motion of Lord Ebrington "that if a child goes out to service from the Workhouse within three months of having a new pair of Boots such child shall not have a new pair on leaving, but if after three months there, that a new pair be given in addition to the old ones."

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When the Local Government Act 1929 came into force, the South Molton Board of Guardians (Guardians of the Poor) handed the building over to the Devon County Council. The Council painted it "green and cream". At this time the building was used to house the aged, 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" was used as a chronic sick hospital for both sexes.

The old Workhouse fell into disuse in the mid 1970's when a new purpose built residential home for the elderly was built by Devon County Council. The new building of red brick has retained the name of Beech House and is situated to the left of the old Workhouse in North Road. The old Workhouse buildings were bought by George Wallace in 1978 and converted into a honey farm and it is now one of the top tourist attractions in the area. The former chapel is used as a shop for selling souvenirs and products produced at the honey farm.

1881 Census: Witheridge Residents in South Molton Union Workhouse.

  • Mary CROOK (76)-Formerly Domestic Servant;
  • Mary Ann DAVEY (34)-Idiot;
  • Henry DUNN (15)-Scholar;
  • John EDWORTHY (35)-Idiot;
  • John HAWKES (73)-Farmers Labourer;
  • William LAVERCOMBE (51)-Farmers Labourer;
  • William SHORT (73)-Farmers Labourer;
  • John TUCKER (12)-Scholar;
  • Sidney J TUCKER (11)-Scholar;
  • Robert TURNER (70)-Farmers Labourer;

Total residents: 102

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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