Most people visiting Princess Royal University Hospital  have no idea what used to stand on the same spot. Some may have heard that the modern building stands where once there was a workhouse, but even fewer visitors know its eventful past. Readers familiar with workhouse horrors know the stories of the Andover scandal and Dickens’ saga of Oliver Twist. Not many have heard the fascinating story of Bromley’s Farnborough workhouse.

From scandal to modern hospital: Kate Hollis here tells the full story of Bromley’s Farnborough workhouse, which witnessed sweeping changes in Victorian society

Kate Hollis has completed her Masters in History with the Open University. 'Lifecycle Poverty and Women’s Experience of the Farnborough Workhouse (Bromley, Kent), 1845-1881'  Read it Here

The content below is based on her research. Kate lives in Bromley

Click Images to enlarge

Changing Society

In 1830s the domestic spending on poor relief accounted for one-fifth of the national expenditure. Additionally between 1801 and 1830 the British population increased by two thirds to 15 million and this rapid growth meant that the soaring costs alarmed the government. The welfare system needed a major reshaping and the government had a plan. The Poor Law Amendment Act (also known as the New Poor Law) was signed on 14 August 1834 and it marked a radical new change, in which the poor relief was to be allocated.

The key idea was to forbid cash payments to encourage able-bodied men to find work instead of depending on state charity. Assistance to others was to be given only within purpose-built workhouses, boarding schools or in asylums. To cut costs and minimise the requirements for places, workhouses were to be made unattractive, so inmates would treat them as a last resort. All workhouses were required to offer harsh living conditions by separating families, serving small food portions, offering hard beds in cold rooms and making inmates do meaningless tasks to earn their place.

The public was outraged. In 1835 there were 93 reported incidents of protest in Kent and Sussex ‘people marched and demonstrated against the law in dozen of villages and market towns. Hated poor law officials were forced into wagons and carted out… people attacked guardian’s meetings, torched workhouses, or went after the property of relieving officers and guardians’ (J. Lowerson quoted in HL Lees’ The Solidarities of Strangers, 1998).

Bromley Union

Located a dozen miles south-east of central London, in the 19th century Bromley, then in in Kent, grew from a small village to become a popular suburb of London.

The chapel is the only remaining building from the original workhouse
  At the 1831 census the population of Bromley was 4,002 and this grew to over 27,200 by Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.

Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) was a social reformer responsible for the operation of the New Poor Law in England and he was also personally responsible for supervising the laws in East London and Bromley. On his order, the task of looking after the rapidly growing Bromley population fell upon Bromley Poor Law Union, which was formed in May 1836.

Almost immediately when Bromley Union opened the purpose-built Farnborough Workhouse in March 1845 there were problems. In line with the national policy, the workhouse was designed to be of a lower standard than homes of the poorest labourers in Bromley. Those government requirements led to problems with cost-cutting and the initial construction process. George Warde-Norman, who was a Bromley Union Guardian and also a director of the Bank of England complained that ‘Bromley workhouses were unfit for the proper accommodation of their inmates’. The opening of the workhouse didn’t go well; however, a much bigger, national scandal was brewing. Within few years the press, public and parliament all became heavily involved.

The Scandal Reaches the Press

The dispute was first brought to the public attention by the Morning Post, which on 10 August 1846 published a series of letters between local concerned parties and the Royal Commissioners, who were based in London’s Somerset House. The first letter was from a surgeon Thomas H Smith who, on 10 December 1845, had highlighted that the current workhouse food portions in Farnborough workhouse were insufficient. Smith argued that the diet, which included bread and cheese with cold water to be given three times a week, caused starvation and suffering, stressing that ‘the above is equally or more applicable to children’. Based on his medical experience, Smith proposed a change to the diet. The Guardians of Bromley Union asked for an increase of funds to supply additional twice-a-week soup portions and meat pudding once a week to the starved paupers. By 12 February Chadwick had decided to reject the increase of diet. By 20 July other Poor Law assistants had written to Bromley Union in support of Chadwick’s decision, arguing that in many other Kentish unions, the dietary regime ‘has been maintained without alternation, and no bad effects have arisen from it’ adding that ‘until actual evil is found to arise from it, the committee can see no sufficient reason for altering it’. The refusal infuriated Bromley Guardians and the whole correspondence, as mentioned above, was published in the press, which received angry letters from the public on both sides of the debate.

Anger in Parliament

As the scandal grew, the House of Commons became involved in the matter. Among the most vocal critics of Chadwick’s administration was doctor Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), MP for Finsbury and a founding member of The Lancet magazine. In a debate on 13 July 1846, Wakley called Bromley workhouse ‘a place of misery and torture’ adding that ‘it was impossible to overstate or exaggerate the amount of the evils which had been inflicted on the country by the present Poor Law Commissioners’. In his attack on the Poor Law system, Wakley asked fellow ministers, ‘What would hon. Members think of the administration of Poor Laws when they were informed that in the Bromley Union … the allowance of animal food for the able-bodied paupers, men of strong constitution and vigorous health, was only four ounces in the course of the entire week?’

In 1907 Bromley Farnborough Workhouse (left) was demolished and turned into Farnborough Hospital (right).  This gave way in turn to the Princess Royal University Hospital on the same site, opened 2003.

Thomas Wakley referred in his speech to another scandal that had exposed failures in the workhouse system. Driven by hunger, the paupers in Andover, Hampshire, ate the marrow and gristle off putrid bones, which they were supposed to crush to make fertiliser. Children had been slapped for eating raw potatoes meant for the pigs and their milk had been heavily diluted with dirty water. Inspection of the Andover workhouse death records has revealed that out of 50 infants 46 were buried unbaptised and this shocked Victorian society.

Further investigations revealed that the appointed Master, Mr McDougal, had misappropriated Poor Law funds for personal needs, while the visiting Board of Andover Guardians, his friends, ignored the warnings.

The Andover and Bromley scandals uncovered workhouse horrors and welfare policies continued to be discussed in the House of Commons.

Happier Times

In response to public outcry the government replaced the Royal Commission with the Poor Law Board. Farnborough Guardians won a small battle. On 8 March 1848, a clerk, Henry Nottingham, placed a newspaper advertisement for tender to supply Bromley Union with articles for their workhouses. Among the br />
required items were: good quality bread, ‘best yellow’ soap, Gloucester cheese, Irish butter, free-from-bone beef, oatmeal, rice, salt, sugar and table beer, as well as clothing, shoes, hats and candles.

Later periods also show relatively better times. In 1850 the conditions in the workhouse improved so drastically that Guardians reported ‘a number of able-bodied paupers arrived at the house every Friday, had their clothes washed, ate a meal with meat pudding and then left on Monday’. Circular letters from the government also tell the Guardians about their obligations ‘to provide Education for the young children of the poor persons … between the ages of four and sixteen in any school. Other records show that ‘there were occasional treats for the inmates to enjoy and at Christmas 1889 Mrs Grimsby, the Matron, gave the inmates extra rations of roast and plum pudding and Sir John Lubbock, of Chislehurst, lent his grounds every year for a workhouse picnic and sports day. A year later, a visiting journalist reported on Christmas celebrations: ‘Though it may not at first sight appear the happiest of places to suggest for spending a pleasant evening, yet the modern wellmanaged workhouse of the present day, as typified by the Bromley Union Workhouse, is not by any means as uncomfortable place.’

Better Medical Care

On 11 August 1866, the Herford Mercury and Reformer reported a severe outbreak of cholera in Bromley. The Victorians also battled scarlet fever and paupers with contagious diseases were kept in the workhouse infirmary, while a small tent was kept in the grounds for smallpox cases. In the 1870s the correspondence between central office and Bromley Union focuses heavily on vaccination, prevention of illnesses and epidemics. Among many surviving letters is a request from the Government Board, which prompts Bromley Union to appoint and pay one or more Vaccination Officers.

Other medical treatments were being introduced into workhouses. In June 1897 Bromley Union clerk recorded ‘the attention of the Government has been drawn to the fact that Medical Officers in Workhouses have failed to record in their Medical Relief Body the occurrence of Ophthalmia of newborn children’. The letter explained that inflammation of the eyes in infants can cause blindness but, if caught early, it can be prevented or cured. It added that the Ophthalmological Society found that 30 per cent of inmates had such problems and reminded Bromley Union about their duty towards the paupers’ medical needs.

No More Oakum-picking

Other improvements were also introduced in workhouses across the country and Farnborough too witnessed the national changes. A letter sent by the Board Secretary John Hibbert reminds Bromley Union that by law ‘every Casual Pauper shall … be cleansed in a bath with water of suitable temperature’. There were other positive changes. In the early workhouse years, pauper jobs were designed as a deterrent and included tasks such as oakum-picking and glass-pounding. In March 1878 the Bromley Board agreed to build a woodcutting shed, bakehouse, washing room, kitchen, shoemaker’s room and tailor’s shop. This shows a shift from basic feeding of the poor towards giving the paupers useful abilities with the aim to provide the inmates with a better chance of a job and an independent life.


The Farnborough workhouse was designed for a maximum 200 inmates, yet by 1910 it housed a staggering 694 paupers. In March 1895, a Dr Fuller and Mr Davy reported to the authorities that ‘the workhouse had difficulty in providing beds and there is no provision for the treatment of sick children’, and their recommendation was to build a new ward.

The plan of Bromley’s Farnborough workhouse, with thanks to Bromley Library

Dr. Fuller’s letter was forwarded by G Mullen, a clerk of the Guardians to a secretary of the Poor Law Board, Sir Hugh Owen. On 11 July 1896 Mullen received a reply from Sir Hugh, which stated ‘we are of opinion that no fundamental alternations are needed in the existing system’. Owen not only rejected the proposal, but also reminded the union of their duty to reduce pauper numbers: ‘there is a strong feeling that in the administration of the relief there should be a greater discrimination between the respectable aged who became destitute and those whose destitution is distinctly the consequence of their own misconduct’. To avoid public criticism, Owen agreed to finance the erection of a laundry in the workhouse and in 1898 agreed to add a female ward; however, any ideas for proper expansion were firmly rejected.

The workhouse minute books, held at Bromley Library, offer rich insights into daily life and the challenges faced  

Sweeping Changes

The 1873 census shows that the Farnborough workhouse held 420 inmates, of whom only 23 were able to work. It was filled with the elderly, unwanted women and children whose families could not care for them. Government officials such as Chadwick and Oven assumed that the stable, lazy and healthy paupers were the norm, but this view did not take into account large numbers of deserted women, orphaned children, the sick or the elderly who struggled to find work. The realisation that most paupers were not lazy, ablebodied men but had medical needs or were too old to work marks a turning point in the history of workhouses and many reformers came to recognise that the system needed new, drastic solutions.

  In response to growing pressure from the public, the government began setting up pension schemes and less stigmatising forms of welfare. In the early 20th century this led to the introduction of free school meals for the poorest children (1906), minimal pensions for over 70 years old (see our other article on page 8 of this issue) and the Lunacy Act (both 1908), and state sickness and unemployment insurance schemes (1911). The government legalisation included introduction of minimum wages and conversion of workhouses into certified hospitals. The last workhouses closed in 1913. In line with changing national policies, Farnborough workhouse was demolished and in 1907 replaced on its site with Farnborough Hospital. The old system and Poor Law Amendment Acts were formally abolished on 31 March 1930, paving a way to the replacement of Poor Laws with the Ministry of Health.       
George Warde Norman was a director of the Bank of England and an influential vice chairman of the Bromley Union for 40 years

On 5 February 1864 renewed nurse Florence Nightingale wrote ‘how gladly would I have became the Matron of a Workhouse’ calling it ‘this great Reform’.

    In times when the Poor Law Amendment Acts came under lots of pressure and criticism from the public and famous people such as Dickens, the support of the workhouse system by reformers like Nightingale comes almost as a surprise.Nightingale believed that ‘there is no reason why all these parts on the machine should not work together’. Her vision did not work within the New Poor Laws, but the need to update the system eventually led to the establishment of the NHS.

Farnborough workhouse witnessed it all: starvation, overcrowding, epidemics, the ageing, chronically and mentally sick. However it also saw modernisation in form of vaccinations, education and a change of attitude towards the poorest in the society. In many ways, despite its problems and with its limited means, the rigid system designed in Chadwick’ s office coped remarkably well in Bromley Union’s hands. It makes for a sad, yet uplifting history.
Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890), the social reformer responsible for the implementation of the Poor Law Amendment Acts 1834, including in Bromley    


Farnborough Workhouse - 1851

When the 1851 Census was taken, there were 206 people in the workhouse, including four staff — a Master, Charles Higham — his wife, who was the Matron — a schoolmaster, Samuel Berridge — his wife who was the schoolmistress, and with these latter two was their son John, aged 14.

Of the 201 paupers, 126 were males and 75 were females. Twenty-seven of the males were 15 years of age or less, and it is surprising that the two 15 year olds are described as scholars. Usually at that age they were at work. Twenty-two females were 14 years of age and under. The youngest inmate, Sarah Fisher, was nine months old. Her mother Mary, was 29 and had been a house servant. The eldest, Elizabeth Green, also formerly a house servant, was 89 and there were ten other octogenarians. Twenty- nine were septuagenarians.

As would be expected in an agricultural area many of the inmates had previously been employed in some form of agriculture. Forty-nine had been farm labourers, 10 were farm servants and 8 had worked in fields — a total of 67. There was a surprisingly large number — 26 — who had been house servants. Two others had been public house servants, three had been nurses, two gardeners, two laundresses and a needle-woman. There was even a butler. Did the gentry really look after their old servants or did they pass them over to the workhouse?

Other professions included soldiers, sheepherders (sic), shoemakers and basket weavers. There were two cripples, three idiots and three blind people. Ann Carter who was 36 years old, and had previously worked in a paper mill, was an inmate, with her seven children whose ages ranged from 1 to 13. They had all been born at Wrotham.Thirty-six of the inmates gave their place of birth as Bromley, whilst 70 gave an area within the present Greater London Borough of Bromley. Thirty-three gave addresses in Kent. Three said they were born in Ireland and only 12 were unable to give a place of birth. The place of birth of the rest was spread throughout the country.

Author unknown, 

contact sitemap directions home home