Stoke-on-Trent Local History



 Stoke-upon-Trent Union Workhouse (The Spittals)


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 Stoke-upon-Trent Union Workhouse (The Spittals)

Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton formed the area covered by the Stoke-upon-Trent Union in 1836. Stoke was the first manufacturing area to be placed under a board of guardians according to the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), and the reason was that there was something of a crisis. Two of the officers were convicted of embezzlement the cashier absconded and thirty percent of the rates collected were lost. At the same time the potter union declared its intention to take over the administration of relief and use rates to support industrial action.

It became impossible for the vestry to make decisions and in December 1835 a public meeting passed a resolution asking the Poor Law Commission to send an investigator, to which both local manufacturers like Ridgeway and working class ratepayers agreed. Rather than campaign against the principles of the 1834 Act, the union was trying to gain control on the new board. The poor law assistant commissioner arrived in March 1836 and by the end of the month the Stoke-upon-Trent Union had adopted the new Act.

However while the union urged a 6 qualification for membership of the board of guardians, the assistant commissioner instead recommended a 20 qualification. The subsequent election resulted in only one guardian sympathetic to the union  being elected and when the union's funds were exhausted in the long strike of 1836-7, strikers could not receive relief from the guardians and the strike was defeated.


The workhouse grew enormously from the original two blocks of 1832.  In 1842 a school house, hospital and vagrants wards were added; a new school block and chapel in 1866, with further additions through into the early twentieth century.

From the end of the 1830's, work was to be provided within the premises, which was part of the aim to make the workhouses repellent tot he poor. They became self-sufficient, even to having a wharf on the canal over the road to bring in stone for the vagrants to break.

As numbers increased so the facilities to supply all aspects of life also increase. Capacity was increased to 500 people after 1836 and to 800 people by 1855.

A new Stoke-upon-Trent Poor Law Parish was formed on 30th April 1836, governed by an elected Board of 24 Guardians. The new Union had had a population of 37,220 in the 1831 census, and a poor-relief expenditure of 11,550 for the period 1833-5. The existing parish workhouse was taken over by the new administration.

Peter Higginbotham

"The first step taken, when it was found that the old place was no longer suitable, was in 1832, when the building, now known as the "House" was erected. It was planned to accommodate about 270 inmates, and consisted of one large block; one wing being for men, and another for women, the two departments being separated by Master's and Officers' quarters, and the dining hall. In front of this main building were two smaller ones devoted to the use of boys on one side, and girls on the other. At the back were two ranges of buildings, the first one fitted up for old men, the bakehouse, and the nursery; and the second (an old factory that had been purchased as it stood, with the land) which was used as stables, laundry, workshops, and coal store. Down the west side of the buildings was another department, containing the well, cells, female receiving ward, female tramps, bath, male tramps, male receiving, ward, and lodge."

workhouse's history - from an Almanac of 1902

Former school at Stoke-on-Trent Union Workhouse
Former school at Stoke-on-Trent Union Workhouse
(now a listed building)

photos: Peter Higginbotham  2001

A new Stoke-upon-Trent Poor Law Parish was formed on 30th April 1836, governed by an elected Board of 24 Guardians. The new Union had had a population of 37,220 in the 1831 census, and a poor-relief expenditure of 11,550 for the period 1833-5. The existing parish workhouse was taken over by the new administration.

It was found that many of the people who sought admission were in a bad state of health, and from that cause unable to work to keep themselves; and then again, many of the inmates, being aged and infirm, sickness was a common occurrence with them; so it was found necessary to have a separate place for dealing with this particular branch of the Guardians' work. In 1842, east of the standing structure was built the Parish Hospital.

This was arranged to hold about 80 patients, and was found a very valuable addition to the Workhouse.

Peter Higginbotham

Former parish hospital at Stoke-on-Trent Union Workhouse
(now a listed building)


"Stoke-on-Trent Parish Hospital erected AD 1842"
In the entablature of the entrance architrave, an inscription:
"Stoke-on-Trent Parish Hospital erected AD 1842"

photos: Peter Higginbotham  2001

Chapel at North Staffordshire Hospital
Chapel at North Staffordshire Hospital
(now a listed building)

photo:  Brian Peach  August 2000

Former Workhouse chapel, now used as hospital chapel. 1866, with mid and late C20 alterations. By Charles Lynam of Stoke-on-Trent.
Provision of a detached chapel for Christian worship was a significant step in C19 social policy. This is an early example of such a workhouse chapel.



Parish of Stoke-upon-Trent

The Guardians of the above parish will be ready, at a Meeting of the Board to be held on Wednesday, the 23rd instant, to receive Tenders for the supply of the under-mentioned Articles from the 29th instant to the 25th day of December next.

Best Seconds Flour, at per sack of 16 stones net.
Oatmeal, at per load of 240 lbs. net.
Good Beef - consisting of Beds, Rounds and Sticking Pieces, or in Sides, at per stone of 14 lbs. net.
Tea, Coffee, Moist Sugar, Rice, Pepper, Starch, Blue, Treacle, Candles, Brown Soap, each at per lb.
Soft Soap, at per firkin of 64 lbs. net.
Peas, at per bushel of 60 lbs. net.

Coffins, made of inch elm, well pitched and ribbed inside, for persons above 14 years or age.
- ditto - under 14 years of age.
- ditto - for infants.

Tenders will be received for the under-mentioned Articles until the 25th day of March, 1841.

Strong Hurden, Linsey Brown, and striped Grey Grogram, Blankets, Cotton Counterpanes, Cotton Bed Ticks, Linen ditto, Cotton Sheeting, Linen ditto, Calico shirting, Linen ditto, Coloured Cotton for petticoats, ditto for gowns,  Fustian for jackets, &c, Moleskin, for ditto, Cotton Handkerchiefs for men, ditto for women, coarse Cambric for women's caps, Woollen Coverlids, Woollen Cloth, Flannel, Stockings, Hats and Caps for men and boys, Canvass, coarse Chip or Straw Bonnets.

Samples of all the above articles, as far as practicable, to be sent with each tender.

Parties contracting will be required to enter into a bond, with two sufficient sureties, whose name, residence, and calling must be mentioned in the tender.

Tenders to be delivered to the Clerk to the Guardians not later than ten o'clock on the 23rd, free of expense.

Thomas Griffin, jun. Clerk to the Guardians. Parish Office, Stoke-upon-Trent, Sept 10th 1840.

Staffordshire Advertiser Newspaper, 19th September 1840


The vagrants were a problem for the Guardians. By 1849  2,342 passed through the workhouse.

Their reputation for criminality and for bringing disease led to an increasingly unpleasant reception for them. Eventually, new vagrants blocks were built in 1894 on London Road. Each male cell had a stone-breaking cell behind.

Typical meal time in the female section of a workhouse
Typical meal time in the female section of a workhouse



Extracts from 1914 regulations of the Spittals Workhouse:

Regulations relating to the admission and searching of inmates

Every person on admission to the Institution shall be searched by the Officer appointed for the purpose providing that a male shall only be searched by a male Officer and a female only by an Officer of that sex.

Any articles prohibited by the Regulation of the Guardians shall be taken from the inmate, and disposed of in accordance with those Regulations.

Any articles of value found upon the inmate shall at once be deposited with the Master for safe custody. Every inmate admitted shall be informed that any money or value security in his possession will, if the Guardians so direct, be taken for his maintenance in the Institution.

A careful record of the clothes and articles taken from the inmate shall be made and entered in the 'Inmates Property Register', and the entry in respect of each inmate shall, when completed, be read over to him.

The following articles are prohibited from being brought into the Institution and if found in the possession of an inmate will be immediately confiscated:
Cards or Dice, Letters, Cards, articles or written or printed matter of an obscene or improper character. Matches or other combustible articles. Spirituous or fermented liquors or any drug or poisonous matter.

Regulations regarding bathing of inmates

Every inmate shall be bathed on admission to the Institution unless the Medical Officer gives direction to the contrary.
Except in cases which the Medical Officer considers that it is undesirable, every inmate shall be bathed at least as frequently as once a week.

No inmate shall be bathed except under the direct supervision of an Officer of the same sex, excepting that children of either sex, under the care of female Officers, may be bathed under the supervision of such Officers.

A bath for each inmate shall be prepared as follows: The cold water shall be turned on first and the water shall be thoroughly mixed. The temperature shall then be taken and no inmate shall be bathed in water of less than 88 Fahrenheit and no more than 98. No additional water, hot or cold, must be added while the inmate is in the bath. In case of a thermometer being inefficient from injury etc., all bathing operations shall be suspended until another is obtained.

The inmate is to be well cleansed with soap. The head of the inmate shall not be held under water. A clean towel must be provided for each inmate and the bath towels must always be washed before being used again. Fresh water must be used for each inmate.
The keys of the hot water taps where provided, shall on no account be let out of the possession of the Officers. They shall not be used by the inmates and shall not be allowed to remain on the taps.

Regulations regarding hours and places of meals and work, and the hours of rising and going to bed

Meals shall be taken in the Dining Hall by all the inmates except the sick, the children and infants, persons of unsound mind, persons too infirm, inmates of the Receiving Wards or Vagrant Wards, and save and excepting any other class of inmates in respect of whom the Guardians by resolution otherwise direct.

 Hours of Rising Etc.

                  Rise:   Breakfast:   Work:   Dinner:   Work:   Supper:   Bedtime:
April -
Sept          5:45       6:30-7       7-12       12-1       1-6       6-6:30         8

Oct -
March       6:45       7:30-8       8-12        12-1       1-6      6-6:30         8

The male inmates shall be employed in such places and at such work as the Master or the Labour Master may direct, and the female inmates in accordance with the directions of the Matron or Labour Mistress.

Only the necessary work shall be performed by inmates on Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day. An inmate who is pregnant or recently confined or suckling an infant shall only be employed at such work and for such hours as the Medical Officer may approve.

An inmate who shall refuse or neglect to work after being required to do so, shall be deemed disorderly and may be punished accordingly.

Interior of 1889 Male Vagrants Block, showing cell doors, Stoke-upon-Trent Union Workhouse
Interior of 1889 Male Vagrants Block, showing cell doors,
Stoke-upon-Trent Union Workhouse

picture: Exploring the Potteries


Life within the workhouse was meant to be harsher than normal. The workhouse itself was built to be grim and intimidating - designed to look and function like a prison. It was the belief that such an environment would act as a deterrent leaving only those in absolute poverty to enter.

As the number of inmates entering grew rapidly, the workhouse became a place of overcrowding and disease.

Admittance to the workhouse was also made a degrading experience. Initially inmates were segregated into specific groups eg. Men, Women, Girls, Boys, Elderly, Infirm, Sick. This saw families being divided, often never to be reunited or have contact with each other again. Inmates were immediately stripped, searched, washed and given a severe haircut. Their belongings and clothes were taken away. Few, if any personal possessions were permitted. Inmates were then given a uniform, it was often coarse, dull, simple and as cheap as possible. From here inmates would then be sent to their block.

With such an intimidating building and brutal routine, aversion to the 'house' became extremely strong.

from: Exploring the Potteries



Previous: The Poor Law in North Staffordshire
Next: Newcastle Workhouse


Updated 30 Nov 2008