Christmas at Weymouth Union Workhouse

Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published a hundred and seventy one years ago. The idea of Dickens’ Carol was one of the greatest influences in returning the old Christmas traditions of England but,  while it brings to the reader images of charity, happiness, warmth and life, it also brings strong and unforgettable images of poverty, anguish, sadness, and death. And it’s these despairing images that flash into my mind when I walk past the Union Buildings on Wyke Road, early one winters morning.

Wintry morning at the workhouse

Wintry morning at the workhouse

These buildings where once used as Weymouth Union Workhouse. It would have been one of the largest and most significant buildings in the local area, and the most feared. It is easy to imagine it standing aloft amongst the fields with the dirt road leading the desolate to its intimidating and daunting entrance.

Main entrance to Workhouse

Main entrance leading into the Workhouse – Wyke Road

The doors of this foreboding, austere building first opened in 1836 and stands on the site of the former Weymouth Poorhouse.

The Weymouth Union Workhouse was based on one of the Poor Law Commissioners’ model plans by Sampson Kempthorne, adapted by two members of the Weymouth Board of Guardians. It is typical of such institutions built after the Poor Law Amendments in 1834. It was built from Portland stone with slate roofs to an extended H-plan. This ‘H’ shape that divided the workhouse into sections to segregate ‘in order to class its inmates in the most regular manner’. At Weymouth males were accommodated to the left and females to the right.Each internal area had access to a yard and the central section was for the workhouse administrators.

Side entrance that would have led from the yard to the administrators area

Side entrance that would have led from the yard to the administrators

Even though there are not many existing records for Weymouth Workhouse we can piece what life would been like from other such institutions. Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off putting as possible. Inmates were fed very basic and monotonous food such as gruel, or bread and cheese. Uniforms were made of coarse cloth, and inmates slept in communal dormitories on basic bds. Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors.

The elderly at the workhouse - Hubert von Herkomer

The elderly at the workhouse – Hubert von Herkomer

Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children.

Punch Magazine Cartoon - critising the seperation of mothers from their children in the workhouses

Punch Magazine Cartoon – criticising the separating of mothers from their children in the workhouses


But there was one day better than most…..Christmas Day.

Originally in 1834 the Poor Law Commissioners ordered that no extra food was to be allowed on Christmas day (or any other feast day). The rules also stated that “no pauper shall be allowed to have or use any wine, beer, or spirituous or fermented liquors, unless by the direction in writing of the medical officer Despite the lack of festive fare, Christmas Day was a special day when no work, except the necessary household work and cooking, was performed by the workhouse inmates.

By 1840, the Poor Law Commissioners revised their rules to allow extra treats at Christmas to be provided, so long as they came from private sources and not from union funds.

It was around this time that cultured Victorians were keen to revive the yuletide celebration. Following the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1841, the celebration of Christmas took off in a big way, with the importing of German customs such as Christmas trees and the giving of presents. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol published in 1843 also raised the expectations of Christmas. Dickens placed charity at the heart of the season and along with other notable Victorians pushed this sense of social conscience

In 1847, the new Poor Law Board who succeeded the Poor Law Commissioners relented further and sanctioned the provision of Christmas treats from the rates.

By the middle of the century, Christmas Day (or more often Boxing Day, December 26th) had a became a regular occasion for the Guardians to visit the workhouse and dispense food and charity. The workhouse dining-hall would be decorated and entertainments organised.

Below is an article printed in The Southern Times 1st January 1870 which describes Christmas day in Weymouth Workhouse.

‘WEYMOUTH UNION. – The inmates of the union were, by the liberality of the guardians, on Christmas Day regaled with a bountiful supply of the seasonal fare, roast beef, plum pudding, with the necessary garnish of vegetables, and the meal was afterwards washed down by a pint of good strong beer. The present number in the house is 214, but about 180 partook of the treat, the remainder being unable to attend from illness and other causes. The whole who partook of the guardians’ hospitality greatly enjoyed themselves, the kind matron, Mrs. BRYANT, showing the greatest assiduity in attending to the comforts of the poor. After dinner the men were supplied with tobacco, and blew the cloud of peace and contentment, while the women were allowed to amuse themselves by Christmas masquerading,”Liberty Hall” being the order of the day. A very”jolly time” was spent, and all, no doubt, would have no objection for Christmas to happen once a week. We heard that there is a scarcity of toys for the pauper children. We hope, therefore, the charitably disposed will look up the superannuated stock from their own nurseries and forward them for the supply of the”infantry” at the union.

It seems reading this that a pleasant day was had by all. But even though conditions had improved over the festivities it still remained a somewhat harsh environment at other times, as these 1924 Guardian minutes show.

February 19th – “The suggestion of an evening meal being provided. It was resolved that in lieu of an extra meal, the last meal served (supper) at 5.30-6.30 p.m. be augmented by the inclusion of 4oz cake per inmate on Tuesday and Friday as well as on Sunday, varied by 1oz jam on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.”

July 8th – “Walks for aged inmates.” The subject was discussed and finally abandoned.

November 25th – The Master was authorised to allow 1oz tobacco per week to two inmates in respect of exceptional work done by them.”

When the poor Law was abolished in 1929 many workhouses, including Weymouth, where taken over by the NHS. Weymouth Union Workhouse became a maternity hospital known as Portwey.

In 1992-93, the site was redeveloped for residential use and is now called Union Court

Union Court

Union Court

Sources Used:

Maureen Roddy & John West (1983) Weymouth – An Illustrated History

Peter Higginbotham – The Workhouse


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