The tough story of Lancaster Workhouse revealed in new exhibition

“Going to East Road”, was once a euphemism used by unfortunates heading to Lancaster’s Workhouse but this summer, it’s the title of the City Museum’s new exhibition.

By Louise Bryning
Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 3:45 pm

Running until September 11, the exhibition was curated by Naomi Parsons following a decade of research into the much-dreaded place.

The story of Lancaster Workhouse unfolds across two cleverly designed rooms using memorabilia and memories to bring its history to life.

Although Lancaster’s longest established workhouse was in East Road, mainly where much of Lancaster Royal Grammar School is now located, the earliest known ‘poorhouse’ was on the later site of Springfield Barracks and Storeys, just off South Road.

Going to East Road runs at Lancaster City Museum until September 11.

But in 1787, the powers-that-be decided a larger site was needed and chose the area between Wyresdale and Quernmore Roads though this didn’t improve the poorhouse’s bad reputation.

Workhouse conditions had to be worse than the average person living in poverty outside could expect.

However, many of the people arriving at the workhouse had worked and lived in their own homes until faced with illness, accident or lack of support.

A ‘ticket’ for the workhouse was supplied by the Receiving Officer based in what is now Marks & Spencer in Penny Street.

Some of the fascinating displays in the Going to East Road exhibition at Lancaster City Museum.

On arrival, men were separated from women and children, all were bathed and given workhouse clothes.

On average, Lancaster Workhouse accommodated between 100 and 180 people.

The workhouse was largely self-sufficient, boasting a schoolroom, chapel, kitchens, infirmary, laundry and cells, workshops, woodcutting yards, a piggery and agricultural land.

Separate blocks were allocated for ‘casuals’ – vagrants or people from outside Lancaster – and those with infectious diseases.

One of the banners at the Going to East Road exhibition depicts Mabel Stretch who was convicted after giving birth in Lancaster Workhouse and abandoning her baby in a field.

In 1911, the vagrant wards saw more than 10,000 admissions.

As the name suggests, workhouses involved work. Men usually worked outdoors while women cleaned, washed the laundry and ran the kitchens. Some also helped in the

infirmary and nursery.

Food was pretty basic and had to be eaten from a tin can in silence. Breakfast and supper usually involved porridge while dinner often featured soup or stew with bread.

Site supervisor, Alex Hale in the display depicting the kind of accommodation provided to vagrants at Lancaster Workhouse.

In 1831, two inmates stole and ate a turkey from the workhouse and were transported for life.

On Sundays ‘inmates’ had to attend church, initially at their own chapel but from 1857, Anglicans attended the newly built Christ Church, nearby.

Those considered ‘deserving’ were also allowed a little recreation on Sunday afternoons and weekday evenings and by the Thirties, they could even enjoy day trips and cinema visits.

Children had a particularly tough time in the workhouse and the story of one – Isabella Hudson – is told in a short film at the exhibition.

When notorious Lancaster GP, Dr Buck Ruxton was arrested for murdering his wife and maid, his children spent time in the workhouse.

They arrived when workhouses were known as Public Assistance Institutions and with the launch of the NHS in 1948, Lancaster Workhouse became Bay View Hospital and Hostel.

Lancaster City Museum's co-manager, Rachael Bowers reading some of the documents on display in the Going to East Road exhibition.

The last patients left in the early Sixties and in 1964, the main building was demolished.

To coincide with the exhibition, there’s a free walk and talk on August 20.

Places must be booked by ringing 01524 64637.

A Very Victorian Summer of activities for children is also taking place at the City and Maritime Museums.

Details via Lancaster City Museum’s Facebook.