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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Newington Workhouse

(later Newington Lodge)

Newington Workhouse on Westmoreland Road, latterly called Newington Lodge, was flattened in the late 1960s to make way for a part of the Aylesbury Estate.  Its demolition was long overdue and the imposing, gloomy building that had bad memories and misery ingrained in every brick was missed by no one.


There had been a workhouse in St Mary Newington since about 1734 which was reported to have 200 inmates in 1777.  The population of St Mary Newington and Walworth had increased rapidly as streets of small and insanitary houses had been built which attracted the poorest of tenants who often looked to the parish for relief.  The workhouse was located on the west side of Walworth Road by the tollgate, just north of where the turning is to John Ruskin Street today, and by 1849 was considered inadequate.  The Poor Law of 1834 abolished any system of out relief, making it compulsory for poor relief only to be received within the confines of the workhouse.   The Act was devised as a deterrent for the poor to claim off the parish.


The Newington Guardians of the Poor were advised that the Walworth Villa estate, built on Walworth Common which had been enclosed to raise money for the “numerous and expensive poor” was for sale.  The land consisting of 2 acres was purchased by the Guardians for £440 but the Poor Law Board believed the site was too small for a workhouse which they considered needed ten acres.  As a result, the Guardians amended their plans for the new facility to become a “House for Pauper Infants”, that is an orphanage.  The foundation stone for the new facility was laid on 1 July 1850 and the ceremony included a procession of poor children from the old workhouse to the new Westmoreland Road site.  The new building was intended for 300 children but by March 1851, perhaps because of the ever increasing numbers who needed to be admitted to the workhouse, the Guardians revised the plans to accommodate up to 100 adult sick poor and 460 adult paupers.  The children would be sent to the new district school in Anerley.  The Poor Law Board approved the revised plans in August the same year.  


The first 30 inmates were admitted in February 1852.  The main block was 280 ft long, described as a simple and dignified building of three storeys with bays at either end.  The block was aligned roughly east to west with the women’s quarters situated in the eastern half and the men’s quarters in the western half.  The infirmary was built behind the main building and aligned north to south. Described as built in the late Georgian utilitarian style, it was three storeys high with an additional two storey block to the rear which was thought to accommodate lunatics and maternity cases until the 1930s.  A dining hall with chapel above was a later addition opened in 1862 and set at right a angle to the front of the main building. There were also various outbuildings such as a mortuary, wash-house and bakehouse.




















Additionally, there were separate casual wards behind the infirmary to accommodate vagrants, the itinerant poor.  In 1866 an additional storey and a two-storey female vagrant ward added. In return for food and shelter, male casuals had to break up two bushels of stone or cut up enough wood to make 300 bundles. Women had to pick 1 lb of oakum, a loose fibre obtained by manually shredding old rope


Life in the workhouse was severe, harsh and oppressive, bordering on the cruel. The diet consisted mainly of gruel and bread with rations barely more than subsistence level.  In 1862, a letter appeared in a newspaper from an inmate in the Newington Workshouse which described the appalling treatment endured by the inmates.


The letter said that on admission the inmates were inspected by the Medical Officer and all were bathed, prior to being dressed in “house clothes” regardless of whether they were dirty or clean but all were bathed in the same water and “this to a clean person is most disgusting.”  Only three towels per week were provided for 150 men, unsurprising they were riddled with vermin.  The wash-house was only open for ten minutes each morning so little used.   There were 40 beds for the “outdoor” poor and not enough for the inmates.  The letter said those inmates who were ill had to lie about in the damp day halls because there was no room for them in the sick wards. Those suffering from rheumatic bronchitis or who had bad legs were sent to a shed which was on the edge of an open sewer with a floor of damp earth, cold in winter and putrid in summer with smells from the ditch and privy.  The letter concludes:  “and in order that we may be made to feel where we are, the Master has threatened everyone found smoking in any place in the building to punish them and it is too cold this either for old men to smoke in the yard, this being the only comfort we poor creatures have here; and we little thought in our days of prosperity when we paid rates, that we should ever be subject to such treatment in our old days, our only crime being poverty:  and there is no wonder that many prefer a prison to such a place as this.”


In 1869 the parishes of St Mary Newington and St George the Martyr joined the St Saviour’s Poor Law Union which previously had consisted of the parishes of St Saviour’s and Christ Church.  The Union now had three workhouses:  the Christ Church workhouse in Marlborough Street, the St George the Martyr workhouse in Mint Street and now the one in Newington.  It was decided that each workhouse should be used to accommodate a specific class, in Newington’s case it admitted the sick and infirm of both sexes, aged married couples and able bodied women.  


But all the workhouses within the Union suffered chronic overcrowding and when the Local Government Board replaced the Poor Law Board in 1877, they ordered that there should be separate premises for the infirm.  As a consequence, St Saviour’s Infirmary was built near Champion Hill in Dulwich and, when this facility was opened in 1887, Newington workhouse reverted to general admissions.  In the same year, the Local Government Board fixed capacity at 1236.  Nevertheless, overcrowding remained a constant issue and various changes and additions were made to increase capacity and buildings adjacent buildings acquired.  


The admittance registers for Newington Workhouse show that Charlie Chaplin and his elder brother Sydney were admitted on 30 May 1896 until the middle of June when they were transferred to the Hanwell Residential School which was run jointly by St Saviour’s Union and the City of London Guardians.  Sadly two years later they were admitted to the Lambeth Workhouse in Renfrew Road (now the Cinema Museum) before being transferred to Norwood Schools.


In 1900, alterations and additions were made to the workhouse that included nurses’ quarters, married couples’ quarters, infants’ wards and a new mortuary. The stricture within the Poor Law that relief was to be given only to those who were inmates of a workhouse was relaxed and out relief offices built.   “Older residents of Southwark remember well the long queues of poor people filing into the out-relief entrance to collect their tea, sugar, flour and so on, in the gloomy hall.” (B G Morley, 1969 – see below).


Just before the First World War, the name “workhouse” officially disappeared and throughout the country all workhouses were renamed “Institutions” but this did not change the harshness of life experienced by the inmates.  By as late as the 1920s, there were no curtains at ward windows or rugs for day rooms,   All chairs were made from wood without upholstery.  Inmates were not free not come and go as they pleased:  men under the age of 60 could only leave the workhouse on the first Friday of the month from noon until 7 pm and alternate Sunday from 11 am to 7 pm, women could leave for the first Wednesday of the month and alternate Sundays.  Those over 60 were allowed more frequent leave.  Inmates still had to wear “house clothes” and their own clothing and small possessions were kept in store for them while they were resident.


Workhouses were renamed Public Assistance Institutions under the Local Government Act in 1929 which made the local authority responsible for public hospitals, out-relief and the operation of the Poor Law and a year later the London County Council became responsible for the Newington Workhouse.  The former Poor Law Unions of St Saviour’s and St Giles’ Camberwell amalgamated.  The Institution in Mint Street had closed a few years earlier leaving the Newington Institution with a capacity of 1078, the Christ Church Institution with a capacity 330 and the Gordon Road Institution with a capacity of 791.  The Christ Church Institution  in Marlborough Street  appears to have closed in the mid 1930s. By June 1936, the places at Newington were only for the aged, both healthy and infirm while the younger able bodied were admitted to the Institution in Gordon Road.  


The Institution suffered damage during the Second World War and both the Board Room and the Roman Catholic Chapel were destroyed.  There was damage to the women’s block and minor damage to the Master’s House, kitchen and laundry.  


With the introduction of the welfare state after the end of the Second World War, Newington and all the other Institutions within London came within the remit of the newly formed Welfare Committee of the London County Council.  The 1948 National Assistance Act provided for local authorities to provide the care of those unable to take care of themselves and for the provision of the homeless.  Inmates were now called Residents , the Master now became the Warden, and the Newington Institution was renamed Newington Lodge.  Residents were to be made to feel as much as possible they were living in their own home and provided with all reasonable comforts and amenities.  


There were large numbers of people made homeless after the second world war and as many as possible were accommodated at Newington Lodge.   Things were improving for old people now resident as curtains, rugs and upholstered chairs were provided together with new furniture and linen.  A shop opened where residents could buy items like cakes and fruit and the first television set was presented by the Southwark ‘20’ Club in 1950.  Nevertheless, the building was old, forbidding and totally unsuitable for the evolving needs of the newly formed welfare state.


When the newly enlarged London Borough of Southwark was formed in 1965 it took over the care of Newington Lodge which was now used by other London Councils.  There were 618 beds for old people, of these Southwark used 208, Westminster 329 and Lambeth 81.


Gradually as new housing was built the number of homeless at Newington Lodge decreased.  In 1950 there were 250 homeless families but eight years later there was half that number and by April 1965 only 15.   The number of old people gradually declined also as transfers to other facilities took place and by the beginning of 1969 the population of Newington Lodge was totally running down. At this time there were 272 elderly residents and by May numbers had decreased to 73.  The last 19 elderly men were transferred by Westminster City Council on 17 June 1969 and the last homeless family had moved out on 12 June.  The empty building would soon be demolished and an extension to the Aylesbury Estate built. As Mr Morley wrote at this time:  “in a short time … the last of Newington Workhouse, a sad, rambling anachronism, will have gone at last".




I am indebted to Mr B G Morley of the Welfare Department, London Borough of Southwark, who researched and wrote an unpublished typescript dated 1969 “A history of Newington Lodge 1849-1969”.  There are copies available at the Guildhall Library and the Southwark Local Studies Library.

Newington Workhouse

Photo licensed from the Collage image database, London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Corporation.