Victorian workhouses were the product of national legislation (The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) aimed at regularising and controlling care of the poor.  Prior to this, support of the poor and homeless fell to the Parish, but nineteenth century population growth, and its increasing concentration, made this parochial response seem inadequate and it was certainly variable.  The 1834 Act divided England and Wales into larger Poor Law Unions, administered nationally by a Poor Law Commission and locally by a Board of Guardians, each Union tasked with the building and running of their own workhouse. By 1840 about 350 new workhouses had been built, or existing premises enlarged and updated.

Over the following two years, ‘the Poor Law Commissioners published model workhouse plans intended for a variety of situations,’ [1] accounting for some of the architectural and functional similarities we find across the piece.  The underlying rationale behind all examples was the perceived need not necessarily to care for the poor and homeless, but to ‘cure’ or punish them for their destitution, and to make them pay for their keep by hard, often meaningless labour.

Through their design and layout, workhouse buildings imposed classification (based on age, gender and ability to work), segregation and supervision of its inhabitants; these buildings were the means whereby the Poor Law Unions ‘dealt with’ poverty and the fecklessness they felt it sprang from and further encouraged.  Theoretically the workhouse was to be so unattractive and its conditions so harsh that only the very desperate would seek its confines.  Also, workhouses were originally located on the outskirts of the towns they provided for, their inhabitants forming a marginal society in every way.

Stylistically, workhouses had to reflect the seriousness and civic pride with which the local Union undertook its duty.  Some architects specialised in this building type, working to a small number of plan layouts, knowing they had to do this within very tight budgetary constraints.   Of the three local examples presented here, Guisborough and Stockton were both designed by the same architects, John and William Atkinson from York, who were also responsible for many others of the type in the Ridings of Yorkshire.  William Perkin and Sons from Leeds designed Middlesbrough’s workhouse and this practice was also responsible for additions to Ecclesall Bierlow Union Workhouse (Sheffield 1873), the erection of a new one in Chester (1874) and very possibly others.



Middlesbrough Workhouse

Middlesbrough Workhouse was a much later interpretation of the building type, and as such was architecturally a very different offering.  Middlesbrough’s establishment in 1830, its municipal incorporation in 1853, and its subsequent dramatic growth, meant that much of its urban and civic provision was later than comparable Victorian cities.  Middlesbrough Workhouse exhibited a Gothic Revival style, utilising plans that reflected a more evolved response to Poor Law legislative requirements.

Middlesbrough Poor Law Union was formed in 1875 and having acquired a 15-acre site on the western edge of the town, held an architectural competition for Middlesbrough Workhouse soon after.  Twenty-four competing architects’ plans were scrutinised by the Building Committee and by ‘a professional man, Mr T.R. Smith, being called in to assist the Guardians in making a selection.’[2]  T.R. Smith was probably Thomas Roger Smith, a London based architect and surveyor who ‘was often an architectural assessor in competitions.’[3]   In this instance he was also acting as an arbiter between the Middlesbrough Guardians and the London-based Local Government Board, ensuring the designs conformed to national standards.  Leeds based architectural practice William Perkin & Son were the chosen winners of the competition,[4] but Smith ‘pointed out at the time that the Local Government Board might require some alteration in the selected plans before they were approved.’[5]  Ultimately, a ‘conference’ was required to discuss differences of opinion.  The sticking point was ‘the respective advantages of the pavilion and the corridor systems’[6], the Government officials in favour of a pavilion system while the Middlesbrough Guardians argued that its use in this instance would create an inconvenient structure and one that would be ‘cold if only partially occupied.’[7] Ultimately the Board approved a slightly modified version of the Perkin plan, ensuring ‘through ventilation between the centre main building and its two wings.’[8]  However they also insisted on the school being as far as possible from the main building and the hospital being two storeys rather than three.  In a revised plan Perkin and Son increased the height of the Main Block and the Tower.

What was eventually provided at Middlesbrough consisted of three brick-built blocks, employing a combination of corridor and pavilion plans, and catering for three different and separated functions:

  • The Main Building on the corner of what was then New Cemetery Road and Ayresome Green Lane housed the Master’s quarters and office, committee room, clerk’s office, strong room, visitors room and a large dining room for the inmates. The Main Building  was for all paupers ‘except vagrants’, and was to accommodate ‘20 males, 30 females, 50 old men and 40 aged women, 4 married couples, and infants with their mothers and nurses 30.’ [9]  The two symmetrical wings were to house sperately male and female ‘imbeciles’
  • An Infirmary to the north of the Main Block was expected to accommodate 188 cases ‘exclusive of fever and infectious diseases.’[10]
  • Segregated Boys’ and Girls’ Schools to the north-west corner of the site were intended for 90 boys, 90 girls and 40 infants.

The Main Building provided the ‘public face’ of the workhouse and as such needed to express the town’s civic pride, municipal wealth and social conscience, all in one package.  The chosen Gothic Revival style was deemed capable of doing just that, although it was not unlike other civic and residential architecture in Middlesbrough.  While a pared-down approach to the style was in keeping with the economic constraints of the project, a three-storey central tower and spire provided an imposing first impression.

‘After 1930, the Middlesbrough workhouse site continued as the Holgate Institute, providing Public Assistance to the poor.  At that time some of the buildings became incorporated into the Municipal Hospital, later the General Hospital, with the main building being demolished in the 1980s  Part of it was in use as an old people’s home until 1974, when it was used as a training centre.  The only material remnant of the Workhouse is the Holgate Wall, west of the modern housing estate.’[11]



[1] Peter Higginbotham, ‘Workhouse Architecture’, ; see this site for detailed plans of the Middlesbrough workhouse.

[2] ‘A New Workhouse at Middlesbrough’, The Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 23rd March, 1877, p.2 and 31st March, 1877, p.6

[3] ‘Thomas Roger Smith’, Dictionary of National Biography, last edited October 2013,_Thomas_Roger_(DNB12)&oldid=4616769

[4] In 1874 Perkin & Son had been the architects for a new Workhouse at Chester.

[5] Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, op cit

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] Martyn Hudson, Anthea Fraser Gupta, “A Palace for Paupers”, The Holgate Workhouse 1875-1930, The Middlesbrough History Project, 2018