Berkhamsted Workhouse

Under the new Poor Law in 1834, conditions in the workhouse were deliberately harsh to ensure it was used only as a last resort for those in desperate need. The way the Berkhamsted Union was perceived must have depended, at least in part, on the calibre of those in charge. Who was on the Board of Governors? Who were the masters? Were they the heartless men depicted in Oliver Twist? Or can they be credited with saving hundreds of people from starvation? Considering the grim Dickensian portrayal of orphans and Victorian workhouses, it may be true to say that the local community generally accepted its responsibility for the welfare of the poor.

Near the Sayer alms houses stood the old parish workhouse, on land occupied by dilapidated cottages known as “Ragged Row”. It “…was one of the most wretched hovels in the town, and sad must have been the condition of those whose misfortune had compelled them to take refuge there. It stood on land known as Salter’s Charity… its tumble-down condition must have awakened the sympathy of right-minded people as they gazed upon the miserable home of the aged poor” (Nash, H., Reminiscences of Berkhamsted, 1890, p.19).

Rev. George Nugent (1750-1830) of the Red House, bequeathed £1,000 to build a house “where the poor could be more comfortably cared for”. When the new poor law came into force shortly after, guardians of the Union purchased Berkhamsted workhouse for use not just of the local poor but by those in surrounding parishes. The balance of the bequest was invested, and proceeds credited to the parish in aid of the poor rate. Nash comments: “Thus, contrary to the intention of the benevolent donor, the ratepayers, and not the poor, derive the benefit from his bequest” (Nash, Reminiscences, p.20).


Following an analysis of boards of guardians, Karen Rothery concluded that “Hertfordshire boards were regionally and locally diverse in their composition and were not – as it often claimed – made up of farmers and shopkeepers… a small cohort of middle-aged elite men was managing each union”. Hatfield, St Albans, Hitchin and Watford were the subjects of Rothery’s closer scrutiny in the broader picture of Hertfordshire. (Rothery, K., ‘Who Do They Think They Are?’ An Analysis of the Boards of Guardians in Hertfordshire, Local Population Studies, No.99, Autumn 2017).


Berkhamsted Union Workhouse
Source: BLH&MS (DACHT : BK7918)

Although centrally controlled through the Poor Law Board, each workhouse was administered locally. In the Berkhamsted Union, 18 guardians were elected on an annual basis to represent St Peter’s Berkhamsted (4), Northchurch (2), Tring Urban (3), Tring Rural (3) and one each for Aldbury, Little Gaddesden, Marsworth, Nettleden, Pitstone and Puttenham.

By researching census records, trade directories and newspaper accounts from 1831 to 1916, 86 names of guardians in the Berkhamsted Union have been identified, with clues as to occupation for 59 of them. In contrast to Rothery’s findings, 14 of them were farmers representing their rural communities, but there was just one shopkeeper (a grocer, Mr Cheeld). The Lane family of nurserymen kept a connection with the workhouse via John Edward Lane from 1872 to 1885 (four years before he died) and thereafter via his son Frederick Quincey Lane until 1902 when he was chairman of the governors. Reuben Bedford, watercress grower of Gossoms Cottages, attended one meeting before he died. The clergy were well represented on the board; a dozen names of Reverends cropped up in the records. Over the years, working alongside the governors were five magistrates or JPs, three clerks, three relieving officers or collectors, three medical officers and a Superintendent Registrar. Mrs Adelaide Bald was the only woman to appear at guardian’s meetings, widow of a corn merchant. Professions such as land agent, estate agent, insurance agent, banker and auctioneer appeared along with dealers in corn, coal and timber.

It was incumbent on the Guardians to provide food and fuel for the workhouse and there was a system of tenders to get the best deal, so perhaps the attendance of dealers was to aid this process, although:

The Guardians of [Berkhampstead] Union invite tenders for the supply of bread, flour, oatmeal, meat, groceries, and provisions, milk, ale, stout, and spirits, potatoes, coal and coke, to the Workhouse, at Berkhamsted for the half-year ending March 25th, 1905. The Guardians do not bind themselves to accept the lowest or any tender. By order of the Board, A.W. Vaisey, Clerk.
(Watford Observer (31 Aug 1904).

In a pleasant and agreeable testimonial meeting on 9 Jun 1879, in recognition of 35 years as Chairman of the Board of Guardians, Mr Frank John Moore, Esq., magistrate, of Woodcock Hill was presented with a gift and responded with some emotion:

Mr. Moore… alluded to the experience of bygone years when, under the old system, the reckless and improvident expenditure of the rates pauperised the community at large, and drew a contrast with the present times, in which the relief is administered with justice alike to the ratepayers and the poor ; and tendered to his brother guardians his hearty thanks for their cordial co-operation with him at all times in the discharge of his duty.
(Bucks Herald, 14 Jun 1875).

Charles Dickens portrayed the administrators of workhouses as self-satisfied and heartless men. The “man in the white waistcoat” (Mr Limbkins, chair of the Board of the workhouse) “personified the smug viciousness of the guardians” in Oliver Twist’s workhouse (Richardson, R., Oliver Twist and the workhouse, May 2014). No hint of malice can be found in the qualities the local guardians looked for in a local workhouse master. In 1840, for a salary of £60 per annum with double rations, he must be competent at accounts, and educating children in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Along with references, specimens of handwriting were required. (Hertford Mercury and Reformer, 12 Sep 1840).

James and Anne Badderly were master and matron of Berkhamsted workhouse in 1851 – they lived there with their four children. In 1871, their daughter Charlotte was assistant matron at St George Union Workhouse, Hanover Square, London where her uncle John was master, and his wife Emma was matron. In 1870, several children were taken from this workhouse as “home children” to Canada (part of Annie MacPherson’s child migration scheme). We are now aware of harrowing tales of abuse and exploitation of children “rescued from the gutter”. However, Mary Hyde seems to have settled into her new life and remembered her the former workhouse master in an affectionate letter to John Badderly at 59 Germain, St John (New Brunswick):

Dear Sir: I now write to tell you that I am quite well and happy, and that I have got a very comfortable home, and that I hope you and Matron and Miss [Charlotte] Badderly and Frank [John’s son] and Miss Bimrose and my dear Nurse are all quite well and happy.
(Letter: ‘Autumn 1870 placements’, British Home Children archives, May 2001).

In 1880, Charlotte Badderly married Alfred J Mayer in Chelsea and by 1881, they were master and matron of Berkhamsted workhouse.

James Jesty was born in 1847 in Lydlinch near Sherborne, Dorset. When he was 13, James was convicted of stealing money and sentenced to one month’s hard labour and four years in a reformatory school in Milborne Dorset, for which his father John was ordered to pay one shilling per week. (Sherborne Mercury, 16 April 1861 & 25 Jun 1861). By 1871 he had moved to St Pancras London where he was a railway policeman. Five years later, he married Augusta Caroline Dally in St Olave Southwark. In 1880 their son George was born and in 1881 James was a tea warehouseman in Holborn. On 25 Jul 1888, Mr and Mrs Jesty took over from Mr and Mrs Mayer as workhouse master and matron in Berkhamsted Union Workhouse.

Jesty may have been ideally suited as workhouse master, having experienced life in an institution from a young age, then catching criminals on the railway before putting the able-bodied poor to work and disciplining passing tramps. His tenure lasted until his death in 1899 in Berkhamsted where he was buried in Rectory Lane cemetery. The 1911 census shows that his widow Augusta had moved back to London where she still described herself as “Matron (Workhouse)” in Bermondsey and includes the sad information that of four live births, only one of her children had survived. She died in 1927 at the age of 77, back in St Olave.

It appears the workhouse was used as a local mortuary. We do not know if the Master had a financial interest in providing this service, perhaps being paid by families to release the bodies of their loved ones. The end of this practice came when, during an inquest into the death of a man alleged to have committed suicide: “The jury… proceeded to the Workhouse to view the body, which was lying in the deadhouse. (This is the last time, we are informed, that the Master of the Union will be permitted by the Guardians to allow a dead body to be placed in the workhouse).”
(Hertford Mercury and Reformer, 18 Sep 1852).

In the final act of conveying inmates to the grave, Frank Moore presided over a Board meeting where they discussed a case where “the contractor for coffins for the poor had in some instances decorated them contrary to the rules [to use the cheapest possible coffin], the Clerk was directed to write to him on the subject, and inform him that in any such case in future, payment would be refused.” (Bucks Herald, 15 Mar 1879).


Women were expected to get married and have children in the nineteenth century. Remarriage was common after the death of a spouse, especially for men with children. Where there was no surviving helpmeet, we find that workhouse inmates were mostly single, widowed or elderly men, and children. In this region, straw plaiting may have provided enough income for many women to survive outside the dreaded portals.

In 1841, under the supervision of Charles James Fox, master of Berkhamsted workhouse and his wife Susannah (who presumably acted as matron and mistress), there were 48 inmates – the majority (30) were male of which 13 were labourers, five boys were straw plaiters, one each of carpenter, farrier, shoe maker, tailor and gardener. The rest were female, mostly occupied with needlework or straw plait.

At that time, the workhouse had no schoolroom and according to advertisements in the press, the Master had to be competent in teaching children the basics. Presumably, he was relieved of this duty when:

In 1849, the Poor Law Board recommended that pauper children be sent to the local National School. By 1851 this had become the practice, although in 1858 the school complained about the state of children attending from the workhouse.
(Higginbotham, P., The Workhouse Encyclopedia, 2012)

By 1851, there were 61 inmates, again the majority (39) were male; of those the largest group (22) were over the age of 60. Twelve families can be identified, of which three were young unmarried women with their new-born illegitimate children. Thomas Nash was described as excavator or miner who lived in Akeman Street Tring with his family in 1841; by 1851 he was a widower in the workhouse where one of his daughters Charlotte had just given birth to a second illegitimate child (who died a few months later) and her four-year-old daughter Mary was described as “labourer”. Some families were evidently struggling because their partner had recently died, or they had an illness which carried them off soon after the census, or they were described as “idiotic”. One widow had entered the workhouse to have an illegitimate child just over a year after her husband’s death. Some inmates were evidently permanent fixtures. Matthew Gower had lived there since at least 1841; he was 77 years old and his wife Martha lived at the Northchurch Almshouses. Jesse Watley was an unmarried 34-year-old in 1851 and he was still living at the workhouse in 1871.

Some workhouses were so bad that inmates deliberately tore uniforms or broke windows to be sent to prison where accommodation and food were thought to be better. However, some tramps also had their pride. Two of them had torn up their old and ragged clothes at their previous lodging and had been given new ones branded “Aylesbury Union”. Arriving at Berkhamsted, they hoped that they would avoid public ridicule by tearing those up and receiving replacements. Unfortunately for them, the new ones were branded “Berkhamstead Union” (Hertford Mercury and Reformer, 4 Apr 1846). They were committed to the opulence of Hertford Gaol for 14 days.

On the bright side, it appears that some went out of their way for a night at Berkhamsted’s “Tramps’ Paradise”. The guardians presided over the seasonal celebrations at the workhouse, of which Sims writes in his haunting poem, with some cynicism: “To be hosts at the workhouse banquet / They’ve paid for – with the rates.” (Sims, G.R., ‘Christmas Day in the Workhouse’, The Referee, 1877).

Local philanthropists ensured that inmates received treats and a list of their names appeared with their gifts duly recorded in the local press, like this one in 1892:

As usual on Christmas Day the inmates, sixty-six in number, were treated to a good dinner of beef and plum pudding by the kindness of the guardians, and under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Jesty, the master and matron. Mrs. Dudley Ryder again sent tea and sugar, oranges, and Christmas cards. The Rev. A. Johnson, one of the guardians, sent 6lbs. of tea and 2lbs. of tobacco; Miss Proctor, cake, tobacco, and Christmas cards for the sick; Mr. Harding, nuts and oranges; Mr. C. Tompkins, oranges and apples; Mr. F.Q. Lane (a guardian), six bottles of wine and evergreens; Mr. Dickman (another old friend of the inmates), a quantity of oranges, fruits, &c.; Mr. D. Clarke and Mr. D. Pike, fruit.
(Bucks Herald, Jan 1892).

What was on the regular menu at Berkhamsted workhouse? Bread (14oz) and gruel (1.5 pints) for breakfast every day except Friday when the bread allowance was only 8oz, presumably because dinner was a 14oz suet pud! On Mon, Wed and Sat, inmates could look forward to 5oz beef and 1lb of potatoes for dinner; on Tues, Thurs and Sun, 1.5 pints of soup. Supper on beef days was 1.5 pints of broth and 2oz cheese on other days. Smaller rations were given to the aged, infirm and the sick. Women had tea made for them by the Matron in lieu of gruel or broth (May, T., Victorian Workhouse, 1997, p.23).

In more recent times, Birtchnell wrote: “This grim looking building seemed to mark the end of Berkhamsted (I always looked upon Gossoms End as a separate village), and as children we were scared of the tramps who collected outside the workhouse in the late afternoon, waiting to secure a night’s lodging. The tramps, by the way, loved to linger in St. John’s Well Lane, and here one of the richest men of the town was once mistaken for a vagrant and given a shilling by the rector of Northchurch.” (Birtchnell, P., Parochial Review, Oct 1957).

Demise of the workhouse

Officially, workhouses passed into the control of local councils in 1930. However, Berkhamsted workhouse continued in use until 1935. The building then remained empty until 1937 when the site was sold for £3,700 to make way for Kitsbury Parade shops (Higginbotham, Workhouse).

Workhouse demolished_1937_bk2145

Workhouse demolished in 1937 
Source: BLH&MS (DACHT : BK2145)

Historical records and newspaper reports of life in the workhouse convey the tragic circumstances of people in dire need. The system may have seemed pitiless, particularly on its insistence that families be segregated behind those forbidding walls, but it was unique across Europe that poor people could receive relief as a right, rather than as charity.