Before 1834 many parishes maintained their own workhouses – places where the infirm and destitute of the parish could go to be housed in exchange for doing light work. The workhouse at Caddington was a very early example, pre-dating The Poor Relief Act of 1576 and Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601
Horace Montagu Prescott, son of a Vicar of Caddington, published a book in 1937 called Notes on Caddington Church which is available in the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service Searchroom. He states that the first description of the vicarage is in 1546 when vicar George Rotherham died leaving, in his will, a messuage or cottage called The Parsonage with an acre and a half of land to two trustees. This shows that the house was no longer the residence of the vicar, otherwise Rotherham would not have been able to dispose of it.
The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The HER states that the parish workhouse was to the east of the churchyard [HER 13588] and that it was the old parsonage, demised by George Rotherham. The entry goes on: “By 1742 it had become a workhouse for the Bedfordshire part of the parish. In 1769 Hertfordshire agreed to come together with Bedfordshire and the poor and goods were moved to the workhouse. This lasted until 1774 when they decided to separate again. The Bedfordshire workhouse closed in 1835 and the goods and furniture were sold off, the poor were sent to the Union Workhouse in Luton. The site is now part of the extended churchyard”.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 introduced a new system of Poor Law Unions. The union comprised a number of parishes which pooled their resources to build a large workhouse (usually in the largest town in the union) to which the poor and infirm of the union would all be sent, divided by sex and put to work to earn their keep: these are the Victorian workhouses of popular memory though, in fact, they lasted until just after the Second World War and the introduction of the modern Welfare State.