Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
By the end of the 19th century, workhouse accommodation provided by the Camberwell Poor Law Union was becoming critical, both the workhouse in Gordon Road for the able bodied destitute and Havil Street for the aged and infirm destitute were often at full capacity. The population of Camberwell had increased over three times in the period from 1851 to 1881 and was to increase over four times from the period 1851 to 1891. As a result the call upon the Poor Law Union for relief had grown enormously. Pressure on the workhouses had also increased when the Local Government Board had reduced the numbers that could be admitted.
Many who served on the Board of Guardians felt strongly that land should be found and a further workhouse built but they were outnumbered by members on the Board who were resistant to a new workhouse as it would become an additional burden on the rates. After a meeting of the Board of Guardians in 1888, it was decided to investigate if it was possible in any way to increase capacity in the existing workhouses by further building on the land. This was at a time when the whole workhouse system was attracting a great deal of criticism, not just for the economic implications but also for the inhumane way inmates were treated and the way they were stigmatised. Many believed a greater use of outdoor relief would provide a better solution on both counts.
Increasing capacity in the existing workhouses proved impossible and it was decided that a new workhouse should be built. Land was acquired at the bottom of Champion Hill located on the other side of the railway tracks to St Saviour’s Union Infirmary built a few years earlier. Constance Road (now St Francis Road), leading from Dog Kennel Hill, was built about the same time and gave its name to the new workhouse. The foundation stone was laid in July 1892 and a wooden structure, decorated with flags and lined with crimson, was especially built for the ceremony. The foundation stone was laid by Mr Lyon, the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, who said he “hardly knew if this was an occasion for congratulation or regret.” He pointed to the rapid increase in admissions to the workhouse which had led to the building of this new facility: the number in the workhouse in 1878 was 672 which had increased (in 1892) to 1321; the number of “lunatics and imbeciles” who were accommodated in other institutions had been 342 in 1878 but in 1892 was 849.
The new workhouse was built to provide accommodation for 900 inmates who fell into the categories of the aged and infirm, and “imbeciles and lunatics” who were moved from the Havil Street Workhouse, leaving that facility for the sick and invalided. The new workhouse was opened in December 1894 and again the opening ceremony strived not to be too self-congratulatory. The South London Press reported that “were the workhouse not indicative of a painful state of affairs socially, we should be inclined to congratulate Camberwell on the possession of such a stately pile of buildings. As it is, we are content with the remark that Constance Road Workhouse is the most thoroughgoing, up to date and convenient Poor Law establishment yet built.”
It was built on the block system which provided the most light and air and covered an area of nine and a half acres. There was a two-storey central administration block with four four-storey blocks on each side, one side reserved for women and the other for men. Of the four blocks each side, one was reserved for the “imbeciles and lunatics”, the other for general body of the aged and infirm. The top two storeys of each block were set aside as dormitories with beds that had a “comfortable look”. It was said “no stint” had been made in bathing arrangements – there was one white porcelain bath on each floor. The first floor in the men’s blocks was set aside for a smoking room and it was possible to enjoy a quiet pipe in a glass covered verandah. The equivalent room on the women’s side was used as a needlework room and “that other feminine delight – the tete a tete.”
The administration block included a committee room, the master’s office and living quarters for the master and matron and the medical officer. On the first floor there was accommodation for a dozen married couples, an innovation in the provision of workhouse accommodation. The kitchen “a veritable beehive” was also located in the central block with storerooms.
Separate from the main workhouse blocks was a lying in ward and close by a tall industrial looking chimney that was attached to a steam bakery, the steam laundry and the pumping stations. The bread produced in the bakery was said to be of excellent quality and, the whole process from when the flour was delivered to the bakery to the time the bread was put on the workhouse tables, it was untouched by hand, machinery carrying out all stages including the arduous kneading. The laundry was equipped with four of the largest steam washers, hydros (?), wringers and 38 hot air drying boxes.
Just before the First World War, the name “workhouse” was dispensed with and throughout the country all workhouses were renamed “Institutions” when the workhouse in East Dulwich became known as the Constance Road Institution. In 1929 the running of the Poor Law Hospitals was transferred to local county councils and London County Council took over the responsibility for those in Camberwell. The Constance Road Institution became known as St Francis Hospital in 1937 and Constance Road became known as St Francis Road. The hospital became part of the NHS in 1948, administratively moving between different hospital groups and authorities until 1984 when it became the north wing of Dulwich Hospital (the former St Saviour’s Union Infirmary). The hospital closed in 1991 and the former workhouse buildings flattened two years later. A low rise, private housing estate was built on the site. One of the roads on the new estate has been called St Francis Road and an adjacent park named St Francis Park.
South London Press 30 June 1888, 29 December 1894
South London Chronicle, 30 July 1892