Burnley's historic workhouse set for demolition

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OLIVER Twist was famously born in one and poverty-stricken Victorians were in fear of them – but today many people do not know that parts of Burnley General Hospital were once a workhouse.

Come autumn, the bulldozers will arrive at this oldest part of the hospital, now boarded up, and demolish the original buildings which were once places of work for the destitute and sick of Burnley.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act led to hundreds of workhouses built across the country.

Click here for historian Roger Frost's fascinating look at Burnley's past ...

Under the new Act, the threat of the Union workhouse was intended to act as a deterrent to the able-bodied pauper – poor relief would only be granted to those desperate enough to face the repugnant conditions of the workhouse.

By the 1850s, the majority of those forced into the workhouse were not the work-shy, but the old, infirm, orphaned, unmarried mothers and the physically or mentally ill.

Photographer Andrew Smith and I were given a tour of the Burnley workhouse buildings by NHS electrician Denis Bradley who has a keen interest in its history.

He tells me that Burnley's workhouse was one of the latest of these uncompromising Victorian institutions – only built in 1873 with the first inmates entering in 1876.

Still seen from Briercliffe Road, this would have housed the master and matron's accommodation as well as that of the unfortunate residents – men and women.

Long, dank corridors were originally punctuated by railings, to segregate men and women. An infirmary built around the same time, which stood on the site of the current Phase V, treated those too sick or too weak to work.

Walking down these corridors, you only have to close your eyes to imagine the streams of desperate people trudging to their chores, no doubt in fear of an unforgiving master.

Denis does not know exactly what work was done in Burnley's workhouse but he suspects the women made matches, which were later sold in Burnley by the girls. Inmates of other workhouses were known to unpick ropes, which is where the expression "money from old rope" comes from.

Several additions were built soon after including six children's cottages, a vagrants' block and an imbecile block.

The vagrants' block is particularly unsettling – tiny rooms with high windows where gruel or thin porridge would have provided the only comfort – and just one night's stay was originally allowed for vagrants.

Denis said: "The workhouse covered a 10-acre site and housed 500 inmates including men, women and children. It must have been a terribly hard and uncompromising place.

"The rooms for the inmates are relatively small, certainly compared to the master's lodgings, and we do not know how many would have shared a bedroom.

"Attitudes were a lot different in Victorian England, but I think Burnley's workhouse may have been more pleasant than many of that time. There was no courtyard for instance, and many more gardens, so I think the inmates would have been a lot freer."

However, Burnley's workhouse would still have been a very unforgiving place. Inmates had to wear uniforms and unmarried mothers were forced to wear yellow as a badge of shame. Denis recounted several stories of people who spent all their adult lives in workhouses, many of course were also born there.

Luxuries were afforded for the master, though.

A beautiful marble fireplace still survives, which the NHS is hoping to donate to Towneley Hall, as do bells from the clock tower that once rung out its forbidding chimes across industrial Burnley.