Workhouses came about in this country as a result of the Poor Laws. The Henfield vestry minutes for the year 1738, mention £300 paid to Richard Woolven for the building of a Parish Workhouse. This building still stands, but is now divided into cottages, that can be seen in Nep Town on the western side of the Rothery Field. Some of the materials apparently came from the Mockbridge workhouse for which the contractor Richard Woolven paid £55 to Mr Wickes, this was possibly the earlier poorhouse, for there is an item of 6s 8d, “for moving ye poor to new workhouse”. Perhaps this was the Malthouse which was pulled down at a cost of £2 18s 9d, and 12 loads of its materials carried to the new site for £2 8s. The vestry minutes give an account of all the materials and suppliers used in the building and the Vestry entered into a bond with Richard Woolven for the repayment of the £300.

On December 27th 1742 the Vestry minutes gives a list of incumbents of the workhouse. There are sixteen persons listed, five are widows, five are children, two of which are described as ‘West Country Children’. It would seem that most of the poor children who were not eligible for apprenticeships were fostered out to local families. There are lists from 1736 – 1748 of “Persons who have Parish Children and when taken”. The Vestry would rather foster children out in the community than pay for their keep in the workhouse.

In April 1788, a public Vestry meeting was held at the Hare and Hounds in Partridge Green, presided over by John Nailand and James Hoasman churchwardens, and William Robinson and Edward Dotting overseers and attended by several principle inhabitants. Thomas Fillmar of Lewes was also there, and agreed to take the poor of Henfield for the sum of 2s 3d per head, to be paid monthly. He was to provide all provisions, clothing, washing, and ironing and to instruct them in all aspects of the spinning trade, which according to the minutes would be, “spinning of linen and woollen yarn, picking, combing, sorting of wool and knitting of hose”. He also had to look after the educational and moral needs of his charges. He had to teach the children to read; send them to church and make them say their prayers at night and morning; and was responsible for providing a doctor or midwife.

The Parish agreed to find all the necessary household goods, spinning wheels and woollen looms and to supply the children with both stock and hand cards. “If any person in the poorhouse should die, the Parish is to find shroud and burial, and if any pregnant woman should be brought into the house, Thomas Fillmar is to provide everything necessary for the mother and child and be paid for the child as soon as it is born, the same as the other poor people the Parish is to find”.
The agreement was to run for one year and the Parish had to put a minimum of 30 persons in the poorhouse, and inventory was made of all the goods and chattels in the poorhouse prior to Thomas Fillmar’s occupation. All the clothes of the poor people had to be valued and amounted to £110 11s 6d.

After 1834 parishes were grouped together to form Unions, each run by a board of guardians. Henfield joined Steyning and 21 other parishes to form the Steyning Union Workhouse in 1835. The first union workhouse was built on a 2 acre site at Ham Road, Shoreham-by-Sea. Upon entering the workhouse, strict segregation was applied, men, women and children were separated (even married couples were separated, and children taken from their mothers.) Children were up before 7am to do household chores and breakfast was at 8am. Bed time was 8pm, though young children were woken at 9pm to go to the toilet. Anyone wetting the bed was paraded around with the wet soiled sheet around their head and given a cold shower!

Parents who were in the main workhouse could visit their children once every 6 weeks, mothers on Saturday afternoons and fathers on Sundays. The Steyning Union Workhouse became Southlands Hospital.

Within 100 years, the way we looked after our poor changed from friendly benevolent care in the home village, to one that treated the poor as law breakers who were put away from society to punish them, and given hard labour breaking rocks. It is no wonder that people of my grandparents generation feared the workhouse!

Steve Robotham, Assistant Curator), Henfield Museum