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Poor Law & Union Workhouses
Winslow's former workhouse as it is today

GOSH, I am an excited little bunny. For apparently in a couple of weeks I qualify for a free 'bus pass.'

Phew. And seemingly this is a reward from the State, for having throughout the past 42 years financially contributed to countless mismanaged government projects, cosseted the lifestyle of all manner of scroungers and chancers, and enhanced some MP's pond with a very nice duck house.

But I'm not one to be cynical, and I'm proud to have done my bit. And of course for we aged and impoverished we may also be thankful the prospect of the Workhouse no longer looms.

On the subject of which, the foundation of a national scheme of poor relief had been laid in 1601 by the Elizabethan Poor Law, whereby overseers from each parish were required to raise money by taxation to fund the welfare of the unemployed, the relief of the aged and infirm, the apprenticing of pauper children, and the building of poor houses.

However, although welcome, this system was not only somewhat inadequate but also much abused. Nevertheless, the basic principle would continue until 1834 when, by the Poor Law Amendment Act, parishes were grouped together under elected 'Boards of Guardians.'

Whilst each parish continued to be responsible for the finance of its poor, the able bodied could now only receive relief if they moved into the Union workhouse, and since these became notorious for their dirty and disease ridden state, this was often a dreaded step.

Yet this reflected no discredit on the commendable motives behind the Act, and after 1834 the necessary building programme began.

As Sir Christopher Wren had designed Winslow Hall, so another architect of national renown would be responsible for the appearance of the Winslow workhouse - Sir George Gilbert Scott. Born at Gawcott parsonage on July 13,1811, he had been responsible for the design of the local church, and in view of this his father encouraged him to become an architect.

Heeding the paternal wish, George gained an early experience by assisting the architect of the Poor Law Commissioners in the designs for the new Union Workhouses, and during 1835 he then set up in private practice.

By 'strenuous canvas' of the Guardians he duly received commissions for the workhouses of Buckingham, Towcester and Winslow, and at the latter the sale of the old poorhouse, plus a few parish owned cottages, would raise a part of the necessary £5,250.

With the Master's quarters situated in a rectangular central block, the inmates, segregated by gender, would be housed in radiating wings, and in fact some 280 persons could thus be accommodated.

Yet despite being undoubtedly grim, life in the workhouse could still be enlivened by the occasional unexpected incident, such as in July 1908 when, having sought a personal audience with the Guardians, James Rhodes, a 60-year-old inmate, proceeded to ask for a black coat, waistcoat, light trousers, bowler hat, pair of boots, and a trowel.

The clothes he supposedly needed to find work as a jobbing gardener, but there was perhaps an ulterior motive, for in a cottage near to the workhouse lived an eligible female. Being sympathetic to Jim's 'needs' the Guardians, although they could do nothing officially, duly raised the necessary sum, and respectably attired Jim won the affections of his lady.

With the beginnings of the Welfare State the last of the local workhouses closed in 1925.