Stoke-on-Trent Local History



The poor law in North Staffordshire


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The Poor Law in North Staffordshire

In the early 19th C. workhouses were still small in scale and basic in facilities. As attitudes hardened, especially after the Poor law Amendment Act of 1834, they were replaced by large institutions forming isolated communities for people from a number of parishes.

Of the pre-1834 workhouses…


Victoria Buildings, Penkhull
Victoria Buildings, Penkhull
The three storey houses were once the workhouse
- demolished 25th January 1967 - 

a) Penkhull was built in 1735, for the parish of Stoke, and it could accommodate 80 paupers. It was described in the following way in 1829 by Simeon Shaw: it "will be inspected with pleasure by the philanthropist for cleanliness and comfort afforded to the aged and infirm, the weak-minded and the destitute; in fact all the attentions of humanity are supplied to them."

This building was opposite St. Thomas's Church, near to the Greyhound inn. 


b) The workhouse in Hanley was apparently around Canon Street.


formerly the Parish workhouse, Norton
formerly the Parish workhouse, Norton
(now a listed building)

photo:  © Clive Shenton  July 2001


c) Norton-in-the-Moors workhouse was built about 1798 almost opposite Norton Hall. Before extension in 1824-5, there was a single large room on both floors, with a central stove and so master and mistress probably shared the same space as the paupers. Numbers could fluctuate: there were 10 in 1814 and only 2 in 1815.

The inmates were mainly the old, sick, unmarried mothers, temporarily unemployed or disabled men, some children and a flow of vagrants. After the Poor law Amendment Act, Norton-in-the-moors became part of the Leek Union, and a new workhouse built there in 1839.


 d) Trentham Parish workhouse was built in 1809-10 off Trentham Road and is still standing (2000). It had 56 inmates in 1813. After the poor Law Amendment Act, Trentham became part of the Stone Union and the redundant workhouse sold to the Duke of Sutherland.


e) Wolstanton workhouse was at the north-east end of the Marsh, near the church and village and could accommodate 102 people in 1814.


January 1813 report on the state of the poor in Burslem
January 1813 report on the state of the poor in Burslem
172 were in the poor house

© Staffordshire Past Tracks

f) Burslem's workhouse was built in the 1780's at Greenhead and extended in 1835 to hold 300 people. Paupers were employed in local factories and brought in an income of £100 per year and the parish was reluctant to lose this. It was, nevertheless, joined with Wolstanton after the Poor Law Amendment Act and a new joint workhouse built.


g) Stoke replaced the Penkhull workhouse in 1832 with a new and remote one on London Road, where it was hoped that the plan "would prove beneficial to the industrious poor, operate as a check on those who only used relief because they were too idle to work, and, at the same time be the means of greatly reducing the rates." In the 1832-5 period 5 rates had to be levied to meet the costs of poor relief - £8,000 on out-relief and £1,200 on workhouse relief.


h) Newcastle took over some houses in Higherland in 1731. After the Poor Law Amendment Act, 9 parishes were brought into one union and a new workhouse built between 1838-40 in Keele Road to contain 300 beds. It continued to function until closure and demolition in 1938.

This new building replaced the smaller ones in the 9 parishes. E.g. Workhouse Farm in Alsager Road, Audley, was built in 1733 by the parish for £500, apparently replacing an earlier one.



Writing about 1840, Ward in the 'History of the Borough of Stoke-on-Trent', said of the new workhouse:

"now proceeding on a very large scale near to Chell, the situation being distant above three miles from Wolstanton and two from Burslem, and certainly not very convenient for the Guardians to assemble at their meetings; but it may perhaps answer the design of the legislature, to suppress indiscriminate pauperism, by throwing the utmost difficulty in the way of applicants for relief by dealing it out with niggard hand and by prison like discipline to which claimants must submit, whose necessities oblige them to avail themselves on the House of Refuge.

We are informed that the cost on this palatial structure, for such it seems, with the site and furniture, will not be less than ten thousand pounds, an amount that must preclude any mitigation of the parish-burdens for many years."


The workhouse was built to contain 400 people, but could hold 700 by 1861.

But Charles Shaw's view of the workhouse when he entered as a child in the 1840's was quite different from Wards.


"When I was a Child"

 the ".. individual bent his head a few seconds and mumbled something. I suppose it was grace he was saying before the meat, but as far as I could see there was no grace in anything he did. I noticed he did not join us in our repast, and I know now he was a wise man for not doing so. He had asked God's blessing on what we were to eat; but he would have cursed it had he had to eat it himself. It as a fine piece of mockery, though I did not know it then, or I should have admired his acting. I was hungry, but that bread!
That greasy water! Those few lumps of something which would have made a tiger's teeth ache to break the fibres of! The strangeness, the repulsiveness, and the loneliness, made my heart turn over, and I turned over what I could not eat to those near me, who devoured voraciously all I could spare……

In the afternoon we had our school work to do, and as I could read well I had no trouble with such lessons as were given. But if some of the other lads had had heads made of leather stuffed with hay they could have not got more knocks. It was a brutal place for the 'dull boy.' However hard he worked, and however patiently he strove, he got nothing but blows. If the devil had kept a school to teach boys how not to learn, he could not have succeeded better than that schoolmaster who asked God's blessing on the dinner he didn't share.

Tea and supper by a wise economy were joined together. The New Poor Law was to be economical if anything, even to the least quantity of food a growing boy's stomach could do with. But supper time came. What would it bring? That was the question for me. It brought a hunch of bread and a jug of skilly. I had heard of workhouse skilly but had never before seen it. I had had poor food before this, but never any so offensively poor as this. By what rare culinary-making nausea and bottomless fatuousness it could be made so sickening I never could make out. Simple meal and water, however small the amount of meal, honestly boiled, would be palatable. But this decoction of meal and water and mustiness and fustiness was most revolting to any healthy taste…. That workhouse skilly was the vilest compound I ever tasted…"



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Updated 30 Nov 2008