Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: June 27, 2017.
Webpage updated: June 27, 2017




The Hospital of the Poor's Portion, which was located in Catherine Street, Plymouth, was not a hospital in the modern sense.  It was in reality both a charity and a workhouse, furthering the Elizabethan principal that the best way to deal with poor people was to find them work to do.  As early as 1597 the Mayor and Aldermen of the Town are known to have induced Mr William Woulf, of Exeter, to move to Plymouth in order to instruct twenty poor children in the art of spinning worsted.  H was accused of being a wasteful and untruthful person and failed in his appointed task.

By 1611 the children had been placed with a Mr William Weekes to be trained in a similar fashion.

One of Plymouth's old accounts books, the "Widey Court Book" as it is known, has an entry under 1628-29 recording that the Corporation received 9 12s 'of Regynald Streamer one of the overseeres of the poore for Fower yeares Rent of three tenements whereon the workehowse for the setting of the poore on worke is lately built neare the Churchyard, ended at Michaellmas 1629'.

The deed of foundation was dated May 4th 1630 and was executed by Sir John Gayer, Mr Abraham Colmer and Mr Edmund Fowell, who had been appointed as trustees by the Corporation.  It was controlled by the Corporation and their coat of arms appeared over the doorway, along with the pious motto 'By God's helpe throvghe Christ'.

Funding for this venture came initially from one Mr John Berry.  In May 1589 he willed:

  • a house to Thomasine Collyn for life, charged with six shillings per annum to the relief of the poor of Plymouth;

  • lands and tenements near Plymouth Church, formerly belonging to a Mr Foster, to his kinsman Mr William Berry, of Bideford, and his wife, Jane, and upon their deaths to Mr Mark Berry, Mr Thomas Berry, and Mr Roger Berry and their male heirs.  This was also charged at six shillings per year for the poor of Plymouth.  If the descendancy should fail then it was to revert to the ownership of the Mayor and Corporation for the maintenance and relief of the poor forever;

  • lands and tenements at Southside, formerly belonging to Mr John Amadas and Mr Edmund Specott, to in succession Mr Marke Berry, Mr William Berry, Mr Thomas Berry, and Mr Roger Berry, and their male heirs, again charged with six shillings per annum for the poor and with reversion to the Mayor and Corporation.

Messrs  Mark and William Berry died without male heirs and Mr Roger Berry died without any heirs at all.  Mr Thomas Berry had one son and two daughters but the son, Mr Thomas Berry junior, died without issue.  Clearly he was not aware of the original conditions set by Mr John Berry because he willed the land in Southside Street to his wife and heirs.  In 1626 Mrs Elizabeth Berry was leasing it to Mr Robert Trelawny for a payment of 70.  Somehow the Corporation became aware of breach of the conditions of the original will and claimed the property back, adding it to that which had been left to Thomasine Collyn.

There was no record of what happened to the land and tenements near the Church but when the Hospital was built the Corporation claimed that it was built on their land so it is most likely they again acquired it by reversionary right.

The Hospital ceased to be a private charity in 1708, when an Act of Parliament transferred them to a Corporation of the Guardians of the Poor.  One of the curiosities of the Act was that the names of all the benefactors should appear in 'capital golden letters' for ever in the chief room.  All the endowments were also transferred to the Guardians to form a common fund for the relief of the poor of the Town.

From that time until 1854 it was known as the Plymouth Workhouse, under which the history continues.

Disposal of Plymouth Old Workhouse

On December 16th 1854 Messrs Eastlake, solicitors, of 15 Frankfort Lane, Plymouth, announced that the Plymouth Old Workhouse  - the Hospital of the Poor's Portion - would be sold in one lot by tender, the closing date for the receipt of which was Saturday February 3rd 1855.

The description of the premises gives a good indication of the extent of the Workhouse.  It fronted upon Catherine Street some 114 feet and on Westwell Street by approximately 99 feet.  The whole was reckoned to be some 41,533 square feet.  The buildings comprised: Board Room, Offices and Garden; Clerk's Residence and Garden; Girl's School; Men's Wards; a Yard; Kitchen and Store Rooms; Girl's Yard; Carpenter's Shop and Bath Rooms; Boy's School; Stores, etc.; Women's Wards; Hospital Buildings; more Yards; Lunatic Wards; Airing Yard; Boy's Apartments; Stables; Shed and Wash-house.  The sale notice praised the site's location as being close to the Guildhall, General Post Office, Banks, Custom House, Exchange, South Devon Railway Company's terminus, Millbay Pier and Sutton Pool and said it 'presented an excellent opportunity for the erection of Private Dwellings or Public Buildings.'

After much delay the old Hospital of the Poor's Portion was sold to Plymouth Corporation for 3,250 and some twenty years later the site was used for the eastern end of the new Guildhall.