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1837 Union Workhouse
Built in 1837 for the relief of Destitution under ‘The Poor Law Act 1834’. Here also wayfares were lodges it became Sunnylands Elderly Persons’ Home in 1948. Demolished, 1974.

Extreme poverty was a feature of life for unskilled workers throughout the 1800 and early 1900. Prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the poor and unemployed were kept in their own homes by giving them Parish Relief. Those too old or sick to work lived in small poor houses or almshouses within their community.

In a parliamentary report of 1777 which recorded workhouses and their inmate capacity it states that at Chard (80), Chard Borough (50), Combe St. Nicholas (40), Crewkerne (80), Ilminster (90) and Winsham (40).

Then in 1834, the Government made radical changes, they took the destitute – men women and children – from a large group of parishes and held them in one central Union Workhouse. On 14th May the Chard Poor Law Union formally came into being. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of 43 Guardians, representing its 34 parishes as listed below.

Somerset: Ashill, Broadway,Buckland St. Mary, Chaffcombe, Chard, Chard Borough, Chillington, Combe St. Nicholas, Crewkerne, Cricket Malherbie, Cricket St. Thomas, Cudworth, Dinington, Donyatt, Dowlish Wake, Hinton St.George, Ilminster, Ilton, Kingstone, Knowle St. Giles, Merriot, Saevington St. Mary, Seavington St. Michael, Shepton Beachamp, Stocklinch Magdalen, Stocklinch Ottersey, Wayford, West Crewkerne, West Dowlish, Whitelackington, Whitestaunton and Winsham.

Devon: Yarcombe.

Dorset: Wambrook.

Later Addition: Misterton (from 1896)

The population within the Union at the 1831 census was 23,434 with parishes ranging in size from Cricket Malherbie (population 28), to Chard Parish and Borough (combined total 5,141). The average annual poor-rate expenditure for the period 1833 – 35 had been £10,056 or 8s 7d per head of population.

A new Chard Union workhouse was built in 1836 – on Crewkerne Road in Chard. It was designed by George Wilkinson who was the architect of many other workhouses including one for the Wincanton Union. In 1836, The Poor Law Commissioners authorized an expenditure of £5,000 to construct the building which was to accommodate 300 inmates. (1903 map). On admission inmates were stripped searched washed and had their hair cropped before being put into prison-style uniforms.

The two-story building was a variation on the popular cruciform square design and somewhat similar to Wilkinson’s design for the Devizes Union Workhouse in Wiltshire.

Chard Union Workhouse had its own chapel and mortuary and could take up to 400 inmates from the 33 surrounding parishes. Women were kept entirely separate from the men, including their husbands, children were kept apart from adults even their own parents. The regime in Chard was severe. Only 1/9d was spent per week per pauper on food and clothing.

‘Arthur Hull, Clerk to Chard Council wrote of the laboring poor in the 1840’s

:Distressing times, people half-starved for want of potatoes, and corn so dear…. They are stealing turnips nearly every night, 50 in a gang.’

Roughly half the inmates were children. The rules stated that children were to be trained to habits of usefulness, industry and virtue. A teacher was appointed by the Board to instruct children in reading, writing, sewing and knitting and in the principles of the Christian religion.

Those paupers who were reasonably fit were hired out; others stayed in the workhouse, crushing bones, pickling oakum (loosely twisted hemp or jute fibre impregnated with tar and used in caulking seams and packing joints) or working in the laundry. Workhouse boys were hired out to farmers or tradesmen from the age of seven. All wages were paid directly to the workhouse.

The 1851 census showed that there were 212 inmates at the workhouse 60% of the inmates were under 20 years of age only 13% were over 60.

The 1881 census showed that there were 7 staff and 93 inmates. 48% of the inmates were under 20 years of age and 31 % were over 60.

The most common former occupations amongst the men were general laborers, farm workers, gardeners and servants. Other trades include shoemakers, blacksmith, cotton weaver, French Polisher, stonemason, grocer, merchant and a sailor.

Amongst the women, the most common former occupations had been in domestic service such as servants, cooks and laundresses. A dressmaker and cotton weaver were amongst the trades.

The inmates, thanks to the liberality of the Guardians and the kindness of Mr and Mrs Pallin, spent a very enjoyable time on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The pretty chapel was nicely decorated with holly and over the Communion-table was a cross of Christmas berries. On the walls were the words “Emmanuel, God with us”. The inmates afterwards had cake and tea, which was much enjoyed. On Monday the usual festivities took place. The dining hall was elaborately decorated with evergreens, mottoes, gilded stars, and Prince of Wales’ plumes. …The mottoes were of the usual; festive character but one, expressive of esteem, “Long Life to Mr and Mrs Pallin” showed the feeling entertained by the inmates towards those put over them. Dinner was served at two p.m. and consisted of prime roast beef, potatoes, baked and boiled, and each adult had a pint of beer. One ounce of tobacco was given to each man, snuff to the old ladies, and oranges and sweets to the children. After tea, which comprised cake and bread and butter, a capital magic lantern display was given and was thoroughly enjoyed by young and old. Then followed some ancient ditties, sung by the old people, and those who liked tripped it merrily. Songs were sung by the Master, Porter and several friends and a very enjoyable evening came to an end. Cheers were given for those who had strived to male them happy. A report in the Western Gazette on 30th December 1887 titled:-

‘A flavor of Christmas Day in the Workhouse at Chard’

This cradle came from Chard Union Workhouse.

The bell from the workhouse is also on display at Chard Museum.

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