To begin with, a workhouse was a place where those unable to support themselves could get accommodation and employment. Indeed, the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 had made it the duty of every parish to maintain its poor. There were other laws prior to this date which were more about punishment rather than anything else. However, since the first Sunderland workhouse came about in 1740, we need only concentrate on conditions around this time.
The adult residents of the workhouse (inmates) had spinning or weaving jobs. But, other work would have been available where possible. Since Sunderland was an important developing port, jobs such as sail making or repair was available. Meanwhile, the children had jobs such as making pins. With no health and safety legislation in force, then its clear that all the jobs would have dangers attached.
Boys from this workhouse, and possibly others in the area, usually went to sea, with a ‘little encouragement’ that is. Moreover, the employment of some of the elderly men were basically scavengers. In other words, they had to search the streets for anything with a little value. Likewise, some women were on the streets at night while those in charge turned a blind eye.
Obviously, there is no sign of the original Sunderland Workhouse. However, it is pretty easy to find its original location. This is because there are other buildings on the land of the old workhouse garden and yards. Indeed, Trafalgar Square in the East End of Sunderland still stands on this land and has a preservation order on the building.
A workhouse also opened in Bishopwearmouth in 1827, at the west end of Harley Street, close to Gill Bridge. However, it was damp, crowded, had little furniture and was lacking in adequate provision. It housed and employed over 300 people, but again, the workers were doing the most tedious jobs in exchange for scant conditions.
This site is where High Street Baths was, indeed, its doorway has a preservation order on it (right image). Obviously, the baths have long gone and a defunct tax office stands there now.
Another workhouse opened over the other side of the River Wear in Monkwearmouth in the early 1800’s. This building suffered much neglect and eventually became beyond repair. Of course, the site where the Monkwearmouth workhouse was is where Dame Dorothy Street is now. Although its difficult to pinpoint the exact location of that building now.
There was also another workhouse in Monkwearmouth at Portobello Lane. However, in line with those on the south of the river, similar squalid conditions were noticeable.
Hylton Road Workhouse
Due to the town’s rapidly increasing population, a larger workhouse opened in Hylton Road in 1855. Indeed, this is where the General Hospital in now (or Royal Hospital after its renaming). In this case, its design was by J.E. Oates of York at a cost of £16,415. Then by 1857, there was already a scandal over dirty and verminous conditions in this newest workhouse.
All in all, this new building could hold around 1,100 inmates at a push. Moreover, the number of officers at this workhouse was 25 of which there were 6 males and 19 females.
In order to read more about the workhouses of Houghton-le-Spring, click this link. However, most workhouses in the area at the time had similar conditions and reputations. But they obviously served a purpose at the time.
For more information about the Easington workhouse, click this link.
Sunderland Workhouse Diet From 1796
By and large, Hasty Pudding is a kind of porridge. Indeed, by stirring flour or oatmeal into boiling water or milk the result was slightly runny. Likewise, Gruel was a thin liquid soup. In contrast, Pease Soup was a thick yellow soup using peas as the main ingredient.
Bread was the staple workhouse food of course and each person got 6 ounces of bread at dinner and supper. There were also two ‘meat days’ on Sunday and Thursday where each person got 1/2lb (8 ounces) of beef.
Sunderland Poor Law Union
Legislation evolves regularly, so on the 13th of December 1836, the Sunderland Poor Law Union came into existence. As a matter of fact, this type of union would operate all over the North East. These unions would be responsible for groups of parishes rather than individual parishes looking after themselves. Each union also had an elected board of guardians which would provide relief for the residents of the workhouses.
For example, in Sunderland there were 34 guardians responsible for the two parishes. So, the following list show how many represented the individual areas within each parish:
Bishopwearmouth Parish: Sunderland (10), Bishopwearmouth (9), Bishopwearmouth Pans (1), Ford (1), Ryhope (1), Tunstall (1).
Monkwearmouth Parish: Monkwearmouth Shore (5), Monkwearmouth (2), Southwick (2), Fulwell (1), Hylton (1).
Obviously, the number of overseers responsible for each area was down to population size. For instance, in the previous census of 1831, 16,590 were living in Bishopwearmouth while in Tunstall, there were 75.
Many immigrants have came to Sunderland over the years in order to seek out employment. Since Sunderland was developing rapidly as an industrial powerhouse, this is not surprising. Immigrants came to grab an opportunity but some ended up in the workhouses. Of course, the majority of those immigrants came from Scotland or Ireland. However, pressure on the workhouses meant the appointment of a removal officer was necessary. This was in order to gently persuade those people to return back to where they came from.
To Sum Up
Although we have given an insight into the workhouses in Sunderland, we leave out some of the gory details. This is because some of the information has had a twist of exaggeration over the years. Indeed, some information may never be recoverable, possibly for the best. From the above information though, obviously life was tough in a Sunderland workhouse.