To the workhouse! Bed sharing and the ‘itch’ in Victorian Preston

Posted on - 4th July, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston City Centre, Preston News
The prison like workhouse system Pic: ILN
The prison like workhouse system Pic: ILN

The workhouse was one of the most dreaded places in Victorian Britain. Consequently, many would rather starve than be admitted. Whereas care of the poor and sick had once been the duty of the Church, all that was about to change.


Grim reports

“Many of the infirm people, men as well as women, are sleeping together two in a bed. The sick have not all of them a separate bed to lie upon.”

So read the grim report on the conditions in Preston Workhouse. The year was 1866 and the Poor Law inspector had just given his verdict.

Preston Workhouse

Originally, Preston Workhouse was off Deepdale Road. It could accommodate 480 poor wretches.

By the 1830s pauperism was putting a huge strain on the Church and local charities. Therefore, the government created a deterrent to being poor! This became the workhouse system.

In 1834 the Poor Law amendment act was enabled. This was resisted by many Northern towns. Workhouses were used as places of punishment rather than care. Previously, relief was given directly to the poor. Workhouses became a stain on the social conscience of the Victorians. Hence, they were often featured in fiction, for example Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

Read more: Hard Times in Preston in 1861: squalor, poverty and disease

The original Preston Workhouse with the fever hospital at the bottom
The original Preston Workhouse with the fever hospital – or House of Recovery – at the bottom

The ‘itch’ ward

The Victorian poor were usually infested with parasites. Scabies is a kind of mite that burrows under the skin. Consequently this was known as the ‘itch’. Quack doctors had some weird and wonderful cures; one even killed a workhouse child by dipping him in an acid bath.

“The ‘itch ward’ is at all times the most disagreeable to enter.” 

This was due to the use of ‘refuse bedding’, which was never washed, and the treatments used. Little was known about the causes of disease and epidemics were common, particularly cholera, from tainted water.

Preston House of Recovery

Close to the Workhouse was the fever hospital or House of Recovery. This received a good report from the inspector apart from the water closets that had ‘foul air arising in them being drawn into the wards’. The House of Recovery was closed when a new workhouse opened in 1865.

The 1865 Workhouse

The number of paupers continued to grow and in 1865, a massive new workhouse was built, off Watling Street Road. This could accommodate 1,500 inmates. The building is still in use as a rehabilitation centre.

The 1865 Workhouse Pic:
The 1865 Workhouse Pic:


Often, rich benefactors sponsored the building of orphanages. This took some children out of the workhouse. Generally these were religion based and often named after saints. St Joseph’s Orphanage was one such, and was built close to the centre of Preston. The buildings were often High Gothic in style and resembled churches rather than orphanages. Maria Holland was one such philanthropist.

St Joseph’s institute for the sick poor

The Maria Holland and St Joseph’s Charity still exists to help young people, they state:

“In the days before the Welfare State, Maria Holland funded the opening of ‘St Joseph’s Hospital for the Sick Poor’ in Preston which came to be known as Mount St. Hospital. Nearby was an orphanage for Catholic girls. Both were run by the same order of nuns.”

A recent plan to redevelop this site, by demolishing most of the buildings, has stalled. Hopefully a more imaginative solution will be forthcoming.

The care of ‘lunatics’ was even more brutal – coming next Whittingham Hospital and its railway.

Does anyone have any information about Maria Holland?

The St Joseph’s buildings in 2021

St Joseph's Orphanage with tree in roof Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
Gothic, Church like, features, yes the tree is growing out of the roof! Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
St Joseph's Orphanage Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
St Joseph’s Orphanage today Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker

More images of this building and Preston can be seen in the author’s Deviant Art store. You can download images for free, or buy prints.

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