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Leighton Buzzard Parish Workhouse

Site of the parish workhouse in Baker Street December 2008
Site of the parish workhouse in Baker Street December 2008

When the word workhouse is used people normally think of the large, grim 19th century institutions housing hundreds of people in ways not dissimilar to a prison. Such institutions were created by the Poor Amendment Act of 1834. Before this some parishes had their own workhouses, these were, no doubt, grim but were usually not large.

There was some statutory provision for parish poor relief as far back as 1391 when the Statute of Mortmain ordered ecclesiastical institutions such as abbeys holding the Great or Rectorial Tithes in a parish to provide a proportion of the income for poor relief. The idea of workhouses probably goes back to 1597/8 when parishes were first allowed to levy a poor rate and this encouraged some to build poorhouses.

Knatchbull's General Workhouse Act of 1723 allowed parishes to erect workhouses, smaller parishes forming a union with neighbours to do so. By 1776 about two thousand workhouses existed in England. Gilbert's Act of 1782 encouraged parishes to create unions with their neighbours and have a workhouse in one of the parishes of the union.

It is not known when Leighton Buzzard's workhouse was established but it was certainly in existence by 1759 as Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has the conveyance of a property in a street called Workhouse Lane in that year [BO423]. Workhouse Lane was later renamed Baker Street.

At a vestry meeting  held at the Eagle and Child in 1799 it was agreed [CRT130Lei5] “that William Kempster in Consideration of receiving for the year, One Guinea, for shaving and cutting the Hair of the Paupers resident in the Workhous [sic]…”. At a vestry meeting in the same year at the George it was agreed: “That the Management of the Poor of the Workhouse of the said Parish, be under the Direction of the Church Wardens and Overseers of the Poor – and that Charles Tester and Wife, Woolcomber of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, be appointed to superintend the same at the Salary of Twenty Shillings per Month – And also that he the said Charles Tester is to receive two Shillings and Sixpence in the Pound out of the Earnings of the said Poor, exclusive to the Twenty Shillings per Month Salary. And that he the said Charles tester do keep no Hoggs but for the benefit of the Workhouse, under the Direction of the said Parish Officers. And that the Poor are not to be employed in the making of Lace, without the consent of the said Officers. And he the said Charles tester having a son of the Age of ten years, if the said Son continues in the House after one Week, his father is to pay two shillings per Week for the said Son’s Board in the said Workhouse. Also one month’s notice to be given”.

At a vestry meeting at the Eagle and Child in 1801 it was agreed “that George Hart do continue the Management of the Workhouse in the same manner and on the usual terms as last year”. The parish workhouse is identified on Benjamin Bevan's map of Leighton Buzzard of 1819 and the accompanying reference book of 1821. The old parish workhouse was, presumably, sold soon after completion of the new Union Workhouse in Grovebury Road in October 1836. Certainly by the time of the Tithe Award of 1840 the house is shown in private hands - John Grant, who leased it out to a number of people [CRT130LB9].