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.


Stockton Workhouse

The Stockton Poor Law Union was established in February 1837, and initially took over the existing parish workhouse located on the corner of Bishop Street and the aptly named Workhouse Street.  Dating from 1760, this was a relatively small building, providing accommodation for a maximum of 40 inmates in 1837; it is shown on the 1855 OS map as ‘Almshouses’. They were ‘rebuilt in 1816, from a gift of £3000 by George Brown, Esq.; they contain a committee-room and dispensary, and thirty-six apartments.’[2]

However, by the late 1840s this was proving inadequate and in 1849-1851 the Union built a larger workhouse on a nine-acre site on Portrack Lane, opposite the Ironworks, next to a brick field, a location chosen for its distance from the town centre.  Also, in 1847 amendments to the original 1834 legislation had been rationalised and published as a Consolidated General Order, no doubt acting as a spur for many Poor Law Unions, including Stockton. The architects were again John and William Atkinson of York, and here they produced a U-shaped plan fronted by a north-facing entrance block which housed a Porter’s Lodge and the Workhouse Master’s quarters.  To either side of the main building were Vagrants’ Wards with enclosed yards behind.   To the south-west and behind the main block lay separate and segregated Women’s and Girl’s accommodation and yards, and to the south-east the same for Men and Boys.  To the southern edge of the building plot was a Small Hospital and Hospital Yard and in 1852 separate Girls’ and Boys’ Schools were added.  The girls were taught sewing and knitting, while the boys learned to garden in what was initially a very large vegetable plot.

The Portrack Workhouse was brick-built, and the only photograph identified to date, shows a less intimidating building than some, no doubt softened somewhat by the small formal flower bed in front of the central entrance.[3]  The Atkinson’s were quite busy at this time.  In York they were responsible for the Union Workhouse in 1848 and the County Hospital in 1851, and as well as Stockton they were also building the workhouse at Kirby Moorside (1850).[4]

In 1851 the Portrack Workhouse had been built to accommodate 260 inmates but was later extended as needs increased or changed.  ‘A central wing containing a dining-hall was added at the rear of the entrance block. A further ward block was erected to the south, and a new large building for male patients was erected in 1868 at the south-east of the site.  Another block, probably for isolation cases, was built to the south of the original infirmary.’[5]

In 1875, the Stockton Union catchment area was reorganised as several parishes were separated out to form a Middlesbrough Union.  The newer town just down the river was beginning to rival its older neighbour in all respects, not least in its growing population and increased numbers of the poor and destitute.

In the 1890s the Stockton Union buildings were extended to accommodate 350 inmates, and in the early 1900s 400 places were made available.  Late nineteenth century OS maps show that a larger school was also added on the south-east corner of the site.

After 1930 the workhouse was renamed the Stockton Public Assistance Institution, and then in 1948 became the Portrack Geriatric Hospital.  In 1962 it was renamed St. Anne’s Hospital which closed in the 1970s and was demolished in 1977.




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

[2] ‘Stockport – Stockwood’, in A Topographical Dictionary of England, ed. Samuel Lewis (London, 1848), pp. 209-215. British History Online [accessed 1 August 2018]

[3] Robin Cook identifies a postcard image dated c.1902 of the Portrack Workhouse in his Stockton-on-Tees Through Time, Stroud (2014)

[4] At a rough estimate John and William Atkinson were responsible for the design and building of about 14 workhouses in Yorkshire.  A comparative study would no doubt prove an interesting project.

[5] Peter Higginbottom, op cit