Lambeth Workhouse

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Above: Some of the remaining buildings from Lambeth Workhouse. Part of the gatehouse (left) and the Master’s House (centre).

Lambeth Workhouse was a short distance SW of the Elephant and Castle Interchange. Its entrance was on the east side of Renfrew Road, a turning off the north side of Newington Butts. The entrance lodges still remain to this day. The old workhouse was just inside the boundary of the Parish of Lambeth, which in 1965 became the larger London Borough of Lambeth.

Buildings from theses days, like the Master’s House, have been retained for their architectural merit. The buildings remain in part on a large site which has been redeveloped with modern houses. The original workhouse opened in 1726 in Princes Road (later Black Prince Road). A new building was constructed 1871-1873 on a new site in Renfrew Road. The foundation stone was laid on 3 April 1871 by John Doulton who was Chairman of the Board of Guardians. His famous factory was, of course, just a short distance away. It is the remaining building that is seen in these pictures. The buildings eventually became part of the larger Lambeth Hospital.

The hospital closed down many years ago but some of the old workhouse buildings were retained and have since been put to other uses. The central block – originally the Master’s House – has been retained and converted for use as a small private cinema. Known as the ‘Cinema Museum’ it houses a large collection of films assembled by Robert Grant. It grew far beyond its origins as an enthusiast’s treasure trove to become an extensive archive of historical and social importance. Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries established the Cinema Museum in 1986 to safeguard its future. It is still going strong.

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Above: Ornate front wall of the Master’s House, now in use as a museum.

When the buildings were erected for a workhouse there must have been very grim conditions. Every parish had a workhouse to which those who could not afford to keep themselves were sent. Times were hard and people feared ending up in such a grim institution. A contemporary report about Lambeth Workhouse stated ‘A system of rigid classification has been carried out … the several classes in each sex are for aged, able-bodied of good character, and two subdivisions of able-bodied of bad character, together with accommodation for a limited number of boys and girls.’ The out-door poor department had sheds where the inmates carried out oakum and wood picking. There were also sheds with hand corn-mills.

Some workhouses also had large yards where the inmates were required to break up large rocks (large enough to be carried but still quite a size) into smaller stones – mainly to be used in road-building or ballast for railway tracks. Everyone entering a workhouse was required to work – hence the name – and the work was arduous and very boring. If an inmate became too weak he or she was sent to the infirmary. People slept in dormitories and, if a married couple was admitted, they were split up and hardly ever saw each other because one section of the institution was for males and the other was for females.

This grim way of life in England continued into the 20th century. As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new title of ‘Public Assistance Institutions’ under the control of local authorities. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared and, with them, the workhouses.

Many of the buildings were taken over in 1948 by the newly-formed National Health Service (NHS) and were still being used in some cases as hospital wards until the 1970s. Gradually the old hospital sites were cleared and new premises built for more modern hospital wards.

Lambeth Hospital was closed completely. Much if the site was cleared but just a select few of the buildings remain because of their architectural merit. At the same time they are also a reminder of the harsher days of the old Victorian workhouses, with heartless administrators and Dickensian conditions.

While on the subject, Lewisham Hospital, in Rushey Green, started as a workhouse. The old brick buildings near the pavement remain from those days although all of the rest of the site has been rebuilt with modern blocks. St Olave’s Hospital, that used to stand beside Lower Road, was another workhouse originally. That was still a hospital in the 1970s but has since been completely demolished. The old St Alfege’s Hospital, near Maze Hill, kept many of its original buildings as wards and long corridors until it was rebuilt in the 1960s. The hospital was closed in 2001 and its services were moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich. There are probably additional old workhouse buildings to add to this list.


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One Response to Lambeth Workhouse

  1. Terence ratcliffe says:

    Thank you for the explanation on the use of and history of the work house. I would think that the ornate brick work quickly disappeared beneath the grime of coal smoke in our forefathers days and am glad that cleaned up samples are ours to appreciate.


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