The Brighton Workhouses

Police Illustrated news
Picking Oakum
The Brighton Workhouse in Elm Grove
© Peter Higginbotham. Merrick of Brighton
Brighton Church Hill workhouse, 1862.
Brighton workhouse lunatics' block from the north-west, c.1916
© Peter Higginbotham
The Workhouse Infirmary, now Brighton General Hospital
Manta Singh and English Hospitals
Workhouse Boys, 1909
© Peter Higginbotham.

We talk about poor people in this country now and of course they are poor and suffer terribly but in the early 1800’s the ‘poor people were really exceptionally poor.

They had literally nothing and so workhouses were set up whereby people had somewhere to live and three meals a day. The food was nothing like we would eat today but nevertheless it was food and kept people alive. There were no obese people around in those days.

Early poor relief in Brighton began in the early 1600’s with the erection of some almshouses on the site of the former chapel of the convent of Saint Bartholomews. By the early 1700’s these almshouses had become uninhabitable. The numbers of poor people was increasing all the time with was made worse by the fishing war with French fishermen.

‘Katchbull’s Workhouse Test’

As a result of ‘Katchbull’s Workhouse Test’ act of 1723 a new workhouse was erected as part of a new complex of buildings, on the old site of St. Bartholomews situated on the west side of Market  Street. As well as the workhouse a gable fronted Town Hall building and a dungeon which was known as ‘the black hole’ was also built. The Town Hall was where the town scales were situated. The new workhouse could accommodate up to 35 paupers and included a kitchen, workroom, pantry, brew-house, a number of bedrooms and two cellars. The inmates included the town’s sick, the aged and impoverished children. The inmates not only had to perform workhouse tasks but also had to make their own clothes and cook their food. This workhouse was dogged by escalating costs and therefore wasn’t able to open until 1730. About three years later a number of almshouses were added to the main building.

In the 1740’s inmates had to pick oakum and during the winter months had to collect oyster shells and grind them down to sell as fertilizer and to make paths in the local parks. In 1779 they were also employed in making fishing nets for sale. During the later months of that year it is said they became responsible in maintaining the highways and as a result were made in removing animal dung from the streets as well as pulling heavy water carts in order to sprinkle water on the town’s dusty roads.


19th century

The following year it was reported the workhouse could now accommodate up to 70 inmates. In the middle 1800’s the building had been further enlarged and was then able to take in 150 inmates. Around this time the inmates were wearing brown uniforms.

It was also recorded that local orphaned or deserted children could be placed with local tradesmen in order to learn the different skills within the town. In 1805 a large group of children from the Brighton Workhouse were dispatched to Lancashire in order to work in the cotton mills there.

In 1818 it was decided a new workhouse was needed as the numbers of poor people was increasing alarmingly. A nine-acre site was purchased in 1820 for £1,400 at the intersection of Church Hill and a minor road which led over Devils Dyke to join the road to Henfield and Horsham. A further sum of £10,000 was allocated for the new building. This was a colossal sum of money. The building was designed, after fierce competion by London architect William Mackie. The actual building was build by a local firm of builders. The rather crude foundation stone was laid by Revd Carr, the Bishop of Chichester. The stone was provided by the builders which measured about 24 inches by 18 inches by 10 inches which had been recently dug up on the site.

In September 1822 27 inmates from the Market Street Workhouse were transferred to this new workhouse and over the next couple of weeks or so a further 70 were also transferred.

The sort of diet would probably make people wretch today, for example on a Monday morning for breakfast it would be gruel (a mixture of flour and oatmeal.) For dinner they would get beef and mutton pudding with a pint of beer for the men and women and half pint for the boys. Supper, they would get bread, butter and cheese with a pint of tea for the women. The men and boys got bread and cheese with a  pint of beer or tea while the girls and small children received bread and butter and a drink of milk and water.

In 1834 the master was a Mr. Collington who held the post for about 2 years. He received a huge salary of some £160 a year. His previous job was a superintendent of pauper labour.

In 1839 two young girls appeared in court charged with the theft of Brighton workhouse uniform. These were the clothes they were actually wearing. The two girls were named as Sophia Clifton aged 17 and Olive King 16 years. They were also charged with the theft of alternate clothing valued at seven shillings. They were quickly found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. The magistrate described it as a ‘wicked’ crime. This was a huge punishment but many cases of theft often resulted in transportation. Many of these young girls when transported were hoped that they would become brides and stay there to raise families.

In Sophia’s case she was married within 6 months of arriving there in New South Wales. In October 1854 a new couple were appointed, they were a Mr. and Mrs. Passmore who took over the job of Governor and matron.

In 1853, the power of running these workhouses passed to the local councils. A decision was quickly made by the Town Council to dispose of the existing workhouse and its grounds in favour of building a new workhouse to a design they favoured.

The Council wanted the workhouse out of town instead of being right in the centre of town. The place selected was at the top of Elm Grove by the Race course.

The land was purchased for £325 an acre and then later a further 20 acres of land was bought at Woodingdean for an industrial school at Warren Farm, this land was purchased for £100 an acre. Work was held up as a row developed as the cost of piped water from the local pumping station which was needed for the two buildings.

This problem was overcome by using workhouse labour to dig a new well at the Warren Farm site. Progress was very slow and resulted in the postponement of the new buildings.

In 1859 Mr. and Mrs. Passmore who was the superintendent and his wife absconded and the local council dismissed them. The two posts were taken over by Mr. and Mrs Edward and Emma Stattin who stayed for a number of years. In fact they took over the new workhouse at the top of Elm Grove. In 1891 a plague was erected to acknowledge that Edward Stattin had spent 32 years there as the workhouse master. An incredible record for those days as no one stayed that long in any form of employment.

In 1862 there was still no work on the new workhouse in Elm Grove putting the Council in a serious position. There was little better at Warren Farm. However the workhouse inmates had by then been digging the well for almost 4 years and had dug down to a depth of some 1,285 feet. It beggars belief that in those days it was a world record depth then but on Sunday 16th March 1862 they reached the water.

Church bells were rung and that coincided with a local celebration. A parade followed with medals being presented at a huge banquet but this was only for they engineers who worked on the well and certainly not for the workhouse inmates, the paupers. It is said that digging the well cost one man’s life during the digging and his wife was paid the princely sum of £6 for the loss of her husband.

At last the foundation stone was laid on the 11th April 1865. It then took two and a half years for the Workhouse to be built. It was fully completed on 12th September 1867 and cost a total of £41,000.

Over the next few weeks all the inmates from the Church Hill workhouse were transferred to Elm Grove. Soon after all the inmates had left, the old building was demolished.

The site was then sold off and a number of prestige houses were built. The site had been sold for £42,000 which gave the guardians a profit of £1,000, still a lot of money to bank.


In 1881 the workhouse was run by the Stattin family as follows:

Edward Stattin                                   55 years           Master             born in Brighton.

Emma Stattin                          47 years           Matron                        born in Bickly, Devon.

Edward James Stattin             21 years           Carpenter        born in Brighton.

Arthur Stattin                          17 years           Assistant         born in Brighton

                                                                        to Master.

Edith Dora Stattin                  16 years           Assistant         born in Brighton.

                                                                        to the Matron.

Beatrice Mabel Stattin                        14 years           was at School. Born in Brighton.


During 1881 there were over 1.000 inmates and a large staff were required to look after the inmates as well as running the workhouse. The Stattin family were known for their kindness to the inmates but could ‘dish out’ severe punishments if it was necessary.


20th Century

Now most local people would probably know the building better as ‘The General Hospital. In the 1930’s it housed the maternity hospital and many thousands of babies were born there. (and that included me)

During ‘World War I’ it was taken over by the Military and used as a hospital for Indian soldiers who had been wounded in France or were sick and needed treatment.

In 1921 it reverted back to its old use as a workhouse for the next nine years but in 1930 it ceased to be a workhouse and became the Municipal Hospital. However, in 1948 it came under the new National Health Service and was renamed the Brighton General Hospital treating the general public.

About 1950 a new set of rooms were converted at the side of the entrance to the hospital. It was people on the roads to rest and have a bed for the night. They ‘Paid’ for their night’s rest by doing some sort of small chores the following morning.

A night porter was on duty to care for their safety and on arrival at 6pm the inmates had to furnish the porter with their personal details including date of birth.

Then just after 10pm the Police GP car would go to the building and collect the list of inmates from the night porter. This was taken down to the Police Station and each inmate’s details were checked. Quite often this would turn up people who were wanted by the police in different parts of the country.

When the early turn shift started at 6am the car crew would call at the building again and arrest those inmates who were wanted by the Police. This building was affectionately known as ‘the Lump.’ When you entered the bedroom which was a dormitory like room with about 16 – 20 people inside and had been locked all night. The smell coming from the sleeping bodies wasn’t very nice and was almost overpowering. You were just so glad to get out of there with your prisoner, in fact there were times when you got the prisoner to put his socks and shoes on in the outer room.

Warren Farm School. 

Warren Farm School was built in 1861/62 in Woodingdean adjacent to the Warren Road. The building of the school had to wait until the water supply was in use from the very deep well that had been dug. (as mentioned earlier) It was opened on the 14th August 1862 when 75 boys and 65 girls marched there in procession from the Dyke Road workhouse. The building was in the shape of an ‘H’ with boys on one side, girls on the other. An infirmary was built just to the south of the school. There was a high wall around the building with cut glass on top to deter anyone climbing over. At this time Woodingdean had very few houses just a few old ramshackle places and was in the middle of nowhere DavidRowland

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *