Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 04, 2017.
Webpage updated: August 04, 2017




Plymouth's first Workhouse was known as The Hospital of the Poor's Portion.  This was in Catherine Street, opposite Saint Andrew's Church and where the eastern end of the present Guildhall tands.

It  had been founded in 1630 and remained a charitable organisation until Plymouth Corporation obtained an Act of Parliament in 1708 permitting them to form a Corporation of the Guardians of the Poor to take over the running of what then became the Plymouth Workhouse.  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.

Elections were held each year on the second Tuesday in May for the posts as Guardians, with the Mayor, the Recorder, six magistrates and six common councillors, serving alongside 20 inhabitants from the parish of Saint Andrew's and 18 from the parish of Charles.  By this means they were able to maintain their poor inhabitants without the interference of the Poor Law Commissioners.

The cost of maintaining the poor of the two parishes was put at 11,580 in 1838, 16,529 in 1848 and 15,014 in 1849.

In the summer of 1849 there was a major outbreak of cholera in the Town.  The Workhouse could not cope with the sudden demand placed upon it, having only one bath and very little hot water, not to mention poor ventilation.  Added to that was the scandal surrounding the undignified way in which the body of a Mrs Henrietta Beer was treated by the Workhouse.

Mrs Beer was living at the time in a squalid little back room at 13 Flora Lane, Plymouth.  Her husband, a marine, had been drowned five years before and since then she and her two young children had subsisted on the pittance she earned as a baby-minder.  Since September 1848 she had been too ill to earn a living at all and she had been living on the charity of her neighbours and doles from the Plymouth Workhouse.  However, the food and the money had to be fetched from the Workhouse and due to her poor health she only collected a single shilling and an occasional loaf of bread in the two months of October and November.  Huddled beneath one blanket, on a miserable bundle of straw, Mrs Beer died on February 15th 1849.   Apparently, during her last three days she had received no food at all.

At the inquest, it was revealed that she had in fact died from a clot of blood on the brain due to apoplexy and not from starvation, as had been expected.  There was no trace of food in her body.  This simple fact saved the Workhouse Master, Mr William Truman Harris, from a charge of manslaughter.

He, however, was unrepentant and even threatened to sue the "Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse Herald" for libel although even his closest friends were describing his management of the Workhouse as 'a little cheeseparing'.

In April 1849 the Board of Guardians declared a surplus of 2,000.  At the annual elections to the Board, William Harris was re-elected both as a member and as Governor of the Workhouse.  One of his first actions was to cancel a proposal to build a new workhouse on a four-acre field that the Board already owned at Greenbank.

So the old Workhouse continued in use, despite being overcrowded with 410 inhabitants, men, women, children and lunatics, and rampant disease.  There was only one bath but in any case there was little hot water.  When clothes were washed they had to be hung out to dry in the wards.  The men's ward was over a mortuary.  Every bed was shared.  But Mr Harris's adamant attitude was about to be changed -- by a visitation of cholera.

This had first reached the Town in February 1849 and by the summer was widespread.  Those people with money fled the Town but one notable exception was none other than our Mr William Truman Harris.  He toiled amongst the sick and dying without regard for his own life or well-being.  By the October, the disease had run its course and had killed some 1800 people.  The experience brought Mr Harris to his senses and he realised, so it was said, that his duty to human life went beyond his duty to the payers of the poor rate.

In April 1850 the Board of Guardians declared a deficit of 2,000, a complete change from just twelve months before.  But Mr Harris departed on a tour of inspection of the most up-to-date workhouses in the country and returned to Plymouth in the July to propose the erection of the much-postponed New Workhouse at Greenbank.

On December 16th 1854 Messrs Eastlake, solicitors, of 15 Frankfort Lane, Plymouth, announced that the Plymouth Old Workhouse 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 Old 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 terminus, Millbay Pier and Sutton Pool and said it 'presented an excellent opportunity for the erection of Private Dwellings or Public Buildings.'