The Nunney workhouse

Eventide: A scene in the Westminster Union Workhouse, Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1878
Eventide: A scene in the Westminster Union Workhouse, Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1878

Until 1837 Nunney had a workhouse, located next to the Theobald Arms at Nunney Catch.

Nunney workhouse
The Nunney workhouse on a map made for lord of the manor James Theobald in 1786. Catch Road, leading in to Nunney, runs to the left; Nunney Catch is at the bottom left. The Ridgeway, at the top, was the main road until the modern-day A361. The Theobald Arms is at the top of the two buildings shown, next to the toll turnstile.

Giving alms to a beggar, 16th century woodcut

English Poor Laws can be tracked back as far as 1536, although earlier Tudor legislation dealt with problems caused by beggars and vagrants. Wealthy Nunney residents had donated money to help the poor in previous centuries, even outside the village.

According to the antiquary John Leland (1503-1552), Roger Magdalens of Nunney apparently founded an almshouse in Bristol. It was rebuilt in 1675 and in 1793 had 16 occupants. It was described as ‘just outside Temple Gate’ and is probably to be identified as ‘Redcliff Hospital’ on maps of the period. An 1803 guide appears to refer to it as a ‘Poor House without Temple Gate’.

A compulsory poor rate was levied by the parish from 1563, a tax to help the poor, sick and disabled. In 1569 it was made illegal to build any cottage unless it included four acres of land for the upkeep of the inhabitants.

Overseers of the Poor

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I in 1601 passed what is usually called the Old Poor Law, placing responsibility for poor relief at a local parish level. Responsibility for looking after the poor and needy in the village lay with the Overseers of the Poor, established in 1601 and appointed by the Vestry. The parish clerk was the only paid official, but an important individual.

There were two classes of poor. The sick, disabled and elderly received help in their own homes; they were known as ‘out-poor’. Help usually consisted of food, clothes, fuel or money.

Those in the workhouse were known as the ‘in-poor’. Though they were called ‘workhouses’ from the 1620s, the early institutions that provided poor relief were, more often than not, non-residential, offering handouts in return for work.

In Nunney anyone able to work but unable to find work was made to work in Nunney Quarry or at the local silk mill in return for support.

Parishes made certain that they would only look after those who had the right of residence. You were only allowed to stay in your own parish, unless you had a very good reason.

Good reasons for staying outside your own parish included owning or renting property above a certain value or paying parish rates, but also by completing a legal apprenticeship or a one-year service while unmarried, or by serving a public office for a year.

The organised emigration of the poor to the colonies started with 100 orphans being shipped to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Demand for cheap labour and soldiers in the colonies was such at from the mid 16th to the mid 17th century hundreds of vagrant children were kidnapped and put on a ship.

Child labour

English children working in a mill

This encouraged children to work through an apprenticeship. By the end of the 18th century, however, the situation changed as masters became less willing to employ children in apprenticeships.

Factory owners then set about employing them to keep wages down. The children were sent to Frome to work in the factories from the age of eight, sleeping on the premises and working from 6am till 8pm with two hours off for meals.

Because of this employment in factories of children, there were not many jobs for adult labourers. The Poor Laws also encouraged industry to create short contracts (e.g. 364 days) so that an employee could not become eligible for poor relief.

For those who could not find work there was the local workhouse as a means of sustenance.


eviction order Nunney
There are countless eviction orders in the archives, such as this one involving Nunney (Somerset Record Office)

Parishes responsible for their own community caused problems because some were more generous than others. This caused the poor to migrate to other parishes that were not their own. The records show that many removal orders were issued, both in and out of Nunney. Sometimes Nunney was ordered to accept people who could establish the right to live here.

Between 1601 and 1660 regional magistrates also had the power to levy a rate in one parish to help another, which must have caused some frictions.

Anyone receiving Poor Relief had to wear a pauper’s badge on the right shoulder.

In 1697 the government passed legislation that paupers were to be branded on their clothing. Nunney Vestry ordered ‘the Master & Mistress of the Poor House to put on the badge of NP (Nunney Parish) on the right arm of each Pauper in the House on their upper Garment’. Although this practice soon fell into disuse, the legislation was not repealed until 1810.

Riots in Nunney

Rioters smash a power loom (1812)
Rioters smash a power loom (1812)

Nunney had a fairly prosperous time around the middle of the 18th century, when many stone cottages were built. Most weaving was done in the weavers’ houses. Farm workers would typically supplement their income through weaving, with their wife and children working hard to assist.

The mother would spin during the day, helped by the children sorting wool. The father would would weave at night after working all day in the fields or some other job, if he could get it.

In the second half of the 18th century the rise of factories in Frome put many homeworkers in the Nunney cloth industry below the poverty line. The introduction of machinery also led to riots in Nunney.

A wanted poster issued by Nottinghamshire local government in 1812
A wanted poster issued by Nottinghamshire local government in 1812

On 20 December 1797 the Rev. John Bowen, a Somerset magistrate, wrote to the Home Office and gave an account. He wrote that a few days earlier between 200 and 300 men with faces blackened and armed with bludgeons entered the house of a sheargrinder in Nunney.

They demolished about £30 worth of shears belonging to the factory of Messrs Bamford, Cook and Co., of Twerton near Bath. A crowd of around 800 to 900 proceeded to Twerton with a supposed view to hanging Bamford and two of his men and burning down Bamford’s work and those of Culliford and Co., across the river.

Bamford had been warned of the planned attack and had called in the help of the cavalry. The Rev. Bowen went with the cavalry to face the crowd at Midsomer Norton. By now, there were some 1,500 people with 2,000 more expected to join them.

Luddite riotsPatrols were deployed, men were detached at Culliford’s mill and 200 infantry plus a field gun were kept in readiness.

Riots were a recurring feature in Nunney, it seems, for in 1829 the Bath Chronicle reported, “Great distress still prevails in the manufacturing districts, particularly at Manchester, Barnsley, and Coventry. In the vicinity of the latter town, and at Nunney, serious riots and various depredations were committed last week.”


Nunney map 1786
1786 map of Nunney made for lord of the manor James Theobald (Somerset Record Office)

Other work was not readily available. The Overseers were sometimes prepared to assist. In 1772 ‘Thomas Hillier borrowed of Morris Pyke and Rich Barber, overseers, machine to grind knives and razors’, according to the records. In 1821 Job Hurd was assisted by the parish by hiring a loom for him.

The Overseers had considerable power. The records show that Edward Yeoman was sent to work in the quarry in 1829. E. Sharp had her pay stopped in 1830 unless she agreed to work at the silk mill.

The silk mill – or ‘silk house’ – was owned by Mrs Hodinott, one of several cloth workers who changed to silk manufacture when the cloth industry was in trouble.

The Overseers also provided real help where needed sometimes, however. In 1820 Sam Meese received assistance after an accident with a grinding stone left him unable to work. Help could also be practical. In 1788 a resident of Nunney was given straw to thatch his cottage.


Poor house

Frome workhouse
Frome union workhouse, later Selwood Hospital, now converted into modern flats, the present building at Ecos Court still maintains the original hexagonal shape as shown on the 1900 ordinance survey

The workhouse movement began at the end of the 17th century with the establishment of the Bristol Corporation of the Poor, founded by Act of Parliament in 1696. The corporation established a workhouse which combined housing and care of the poor with a house of correction for petty offenders.

Following the example of Bristol, some twelve further towns and cities established similar corporations in the next two decades. As these corporations required a private Act, they were not suitable for smaller towns and individual parishes.

Starting with the parish of Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1714 several dozen small towns and individual parishes established their own institutions without any specific legal authorisation.

Nunney Poor BookThe Work House Test Act of 1723 gave legislative authority for the establishment of parochial workhouses. The ‘workhouse test’ was that a person who wanted to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. The test was intended to prevent irresponsible claims on a parish’s poor rate.

Under the act parishes could provide relief as an individual parish, combine with other parishes or poor relief could be sub-contracted out to those that would feed, clothe and house the poor in return for a weekly rate from the parish.

By 1776 some 1,912 parish and corporation workhouses had been established in England and Wales, housing almost 100,000 paupers.

Nunney quarry workers
In Nunney anyone able to work but unable to find work was made to work in Nunney Quarry or at the local silk mill in return for support.

Job ad

The Nunney poor house
From The Bath Chronicle, 28 December 1780

We don’t know exactly when the Nunney poor house – or ‘workhouse’ – was started, although the above reference to the Nunney Poor House badges shows that our village already appears to have had one early on.

A parliamentary report of 1777 recorded parish workhouses in operation at Frome Selwood (for up to 54 people), Berkley (60), Mells (80), Nunney (60), and Road (30).

The Bath Chronicle of 28 December 1780 contained a job ad for a childless couple to manage the Nunney workhouse. It sets out the responsibilities and perks of the job.

“They must understand something of the Woollen Manufacture. They are to receive the profits of the labour of all in the house, and are to find them in meat, drink, and washing, for which a sufficient weekly pay will be allowed them, as well as a yearly salary.”

Nunney workhouse
The location of the former Nunney workhouse as it is today

“The present Master and Mistress of the Work-House (who are going to leave their places next Easter for a larger house) have served the said parish of Nunney upwards of five years, with the utmost humanity, vigilance, prudence, and fidelity; beloved by the poor, and revered by the whole parish.”

“By inculcating virtuous principles into the minds of the children, [they] have been enabled to place out the greatest part of them into good families, so that the number of the poor, which above four years ago was almost forty, are now reduced to less than twenty.”

Accounts Nunney workhouse
Detailed accounts were kept of the poor relief handed out in Nunney.

A complete course of depravity and poaching

Rev. John Ireland, Nunney
Rev. John Ireland’s handwriting on a letter dated 1829

At the end of the 18th century the Frome factories were competing against Yorkshire, where coal cost half as much as that from Radstock.

In 1801 there were 919 people in Nunney, rising to 1120 in 1811. In 1803 relief in Nunney was given to 47 adults outside the workhouse, while 104 people received occasional relief. There were 14 adults and children in the workhouse, next to the Theobald Arms at Nunney Catch.

A glimpse of the level of poverty in Nunney can also be gained from reports submitted to the authorities by the local vicar in 1819. The Rev. John Ireland wrote that he was trying to establish a national school, and that a subscription has been set on foot for that purpose.

“But so great is the poverty of the inhabitants that [I fear] it will not succeed without other assistance; and no parish in the kingdom is more in want of the means of education; the poor being brought up in a complete course of depravity and poaching.”


Royal Commission

account workhousesThe system of local workhouses was very expensive to run. In 1829 the Nunney parish authorities decreed ‘the Catch garden to be let to the poor at 9d. per perch’.

The letting of gardens to the poor was an experiment on a small scale. In 1820, the Marquess of Bath granted about six acres of excellent pasture to Frome. It was divided in small portions, to the poor, who had seed potatoes given them, on condition of their relinquishing, some parts, some all, their parish pay.

“Industrious persons were selected,” according to one account. “Neither rent, poor rates, nor tithes, were paid. The letting was for one year. No manure was wanted.”

“All went pretty well during the first year, under careful management. In the second year, various complaints were heard. It was said the poor robbed each other. Some of them demanded their pay as before. Some refused to cultivate the ground, alleging that the very small portion of time at their command would be consumed in going to and from the gardens. Finally it was relinquished, as of no advantage to the parish or the paupers.”

Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London, was chairman of the Royal Commission of 1832
A Royal Commission in 1832 studied how the Poor Laws operated in practice. The Royal Commission’s findings, which had probably been predetermined, were that the old system was badly and expensively run.

The writers of the report suggested radical changes to Britain’s poor relief system:

  • Separate workhouses for different types of paupers including aged, children, able-bodied males and able-bodied females.
  • The grouping of parishes into unions to provide workhouses
  • The banning of outdoor relief so that people had to enter workhouses in order to claim relief
  • A central authority to implement these policies and prevent the variation in practice which occurred under the old poor law.

The Commission’s recommendations were based on two principles. The first was less eligibility – conditions within workhouses should be made worse than the worst conditions outside of the workhouse so that workhouses served as a deterrent: only the most needy would consider entering them.

The other was the ‘workhouse test’, that relief should only be available in the workhouse. Migration of rural poor to the city to find work was a problem for urban ratepayers under this system, since it raised their poor rates.

When the Act was introduced in 1834, however, it had been partly watered down. The workhouse test and the idea of “less eligibility” were never mentioned, and the recommendation of the Royal Commission – that ‘outdoor relief’ (relief given outside of a workhouse) should be abolished – was never implemented.

Not until the 1840s would the only method of relief be for the poor to enter a workhouse. The workhouses were to be made little more than prisons and families were normally separated upon entry. Outdoor relief was ‘discouraged’ but not abolished.

The Frome Union workhouse

Frome workhouse tender 1836
Invitation to tender for the construction of the new Frome Union Workhouse (source: The Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 29 August 1836)

The Poor Law Amendment Act or New Poor Law, passed in 1834, significantly changed the localised system to a highly centralised one. Local parishes were grouped together into Unions, in the case of Nunney the Frome Union.

The Frome Poor Law Union formally came into being on 26 March 1836. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 36 in number, representing its 28 constituent parishes. Nunney had two representatives on the Board.

Frome Union workhouse was built in 1837-8 at a site on the south side of the Weymouth Road in Frome. The Nunney workhouse was abandoned. In 1837 the Vestry decided that the ‘poor house and gardens should be sold’. It was later demolished.

1836 relieving oifficersUnder the new system, the poor had no option but to go into the workhouse if they needed support. A relieving officer would regularly come to Nunney and other parishes in the Frome Union to visit families on the poverty line. The poor would be offered the ‘option of the workhouse’ and given an admission ticket.

Once a family made its way to the Frome Union workhouse, their clothes would be put in storage and they would be given uniforms to wear. They would also be given a bath and a medical examination. Men and women were separated, as were the able-bodied and the sick, with parents allowed to see their children briefly on a daily or weekly basis.

The Frome Union workhouse had a separate casual block where the homeless could stay for one night in every 30-day period. By 1880 many unions employed trained nurses and the poor could visit workhouse infirmaries for treatment without formally having to enter the workhouse.

The Frome Union workhouse later became Selwood Hospital which closed in around 1988. The site has now been redeveloped for housing. The system of Union workhouses remained in place until 1929, when the Local Government Act abolished them.


John Newton
John Newton (third from the left) was born in Nunney in 1836 and moved to America in 1859.

The cloth industry continued to decline in Nunney. The census for 1841 shows seven Nunney residents working in the cloth industry, but by 1851 there were only three.

Some of the cloth workers emigrated to America, Upper Canada or Australia. The parish supplied funds in 1831 for two families to go to Canada, and in 1841 for a family to go to New Zealand. But workhouse residents and those who regularly received poor relief were explicitly excluded from the scheme.

Others emigrated to escape poverty and worse. John Sylvester Hoddinott, born in 1799 in Nunney, was a baker and parish clerk, and a quite respected member of the community. The family had lived continuously in Nunney for over 300 years, and for generations had served successively as parish clerk.

It appears that John had a contract with the British army to supply bread. After several crop failures, the price of flour went up, and he was not able to fulfill the contract. Faced with debtor’s prison, he decided to emigrate to America in 1841. There is no record of him receiving financial support from Nunney’s Commissioners for the Poor for his journey.

Nunney emigrants
An entry in the Nunney poor book of payment by the parish “for Alwoods family to go to Australia £13.10”. (Somerset Records Office)
The Bryant family grave in Melbourne, Australia
The Bryant family grave in Melbourne, Australia

Others ended up on faraway shores as convicts. John Moon was born in Nunney in 1810 as the son of a baker. Aged 25, he was convicted at the Wiltshire Quarter Sessions on 6 January 1835 of stealing oak and elm boards from his employer and sentenced to transportation for 7 years. He got married in Australia 11 years later and spent the rest of his life there. His 1891 death notice in the Melbourne newspaper described as “an old colonist”.

In the 1820s and 30s whole shiploads of people on benefits had their voyage paid for in Frome, Warminster, Corsley, Westbury, Chapmanslade, Maiden Bradley, Longbridge Deverill, Horningsham – and Nunney.

The first case of supported emigration from Frome took place in September 1819, when 25 families moved to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In the spring of 1831 85 people from Frome and surrounding area left for Canada, followed in 1832 by a further 150 people.

“The emigrants in 1831, were forwarded to Montreal at the expense of the parish, and experienced fewer difficulties than those of 1832, who were entangled seventeen days in the ice, by arriving too early, were left at Quebec, and suffered severely from Cholera.”

“Very few have returned, and these were drunken persons who could not thrive anywhere. One woman, on the second emigration, lost her husband who was to maintain the family, by the Cholera. Being a widow with young children, and expecting another, she has expressed an intention to return.”

Letters from emigrants were published in local newspapers (Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 13 June 1833)

We know more about migrants from this area than from any other region in the UK. Many wrote letters home, telling others how they had made a new living abroad and urging relatives to come too. Their new homes were often in places like… Frome and Chapmanslade, New Jersey, USA! The letters were read out in pubs and churches and quoted in newpapers.

One emigrant, James Treasure, a shoemaker from Frome, wrote home from Upper Canada in 1830, “We are a great deal better and comfortabler than we expected to be in so short a time I want to advise you all to come for here we are all free from anxiety as to getting on I should be happy to hear that two or three thousand was coming from Frome. It would be the best thing in the world for them Here would be plenty for them to do and plenty to eat and drink.”

allanlinesteamer1888“Within the last month the parish of Frome has granted fifteen months’ pay to any poor family, now receiving parish relief to assist them to emigrate to Canada, provided the whole does not exceed £600. This is double the sum last year, and has been also increased by private subscription. 156 individuals belonging to Frome left that town on Sunday evening, in 11 waggons, for Bristol.” (Plymouth Journal, April 1832)

Corsley alone shipped off no fewer than 66 people – described as “the least desirable of its inhabitants” – in 1830, half of whom were children. The Marquess of Bath’s steward wrote a memo to his boss telling him that the emigrants were “several poachers and other such characters.. of the very class we would wish to remove – men of suspected bad habits and bringing up their children to wickedness.”

Quebec1847_50The Marquess of Bath, based at Longleat, paid £100 towards the cost of the 1831 shipment and living expenses in the first few week; the Earl of Cork, at Marston House, gave £50 and other smaller donors chipped in too.

The Quebec Mercury wrote in April 1831, “Nearly 600 settlers have already arrived in the port of Quebec, almost entirely families from Wiltshire and Somerset, counties the population of which have hitherto been little prone to emigrate.”

All the emigrants were volunteers. They had good reason to start a new life. Not only was it hard to make a living in farming, the woollen-cloth industry had almost entirely collapsed around Frome. The Bath Chronicle described unemployed weavers of Frome in 1831 as “a wretched and almost famishing mass”.

Penny’s Mill

An early 20th century photo of Penny's Mill (background, with chimney) and the Miller's House
An early 20th century photo of Penny’s Mill (background, with chimney) and the Miller’s House
Bristol Mercury, 26 June 1886

Nunney Mill, still in use as a woollen mill in 1838 and employing 35 people, lost out to steam powered mills that didn’t rely on the level of the Nunney Brook. It was sold to James Penny in 1851 and by the time of his death in 1886 had been converted back to a 3-storey flour and grist mill.

Penny’s Mill is today a private residence in use as a cookery school and bed & breakfast.