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West Firle Union Workhouse (later Stanford Buildings)

Before the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act each individual parish was responsible for the maintenance of its own poor. The Poor Law Amendment Act changed all of that. Huge increases in parish poor rates followed the mass demobilisation of troops after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the subsequent economic downturn that followed.

The West Firle Poor Law Union was formed on 25th March 1835 from the parishes of Glynde, Beddingham, West Firle, Ripe, Chalvington, Selmeston, Alciston and Berwick. On 4 May 1835 the Board of Guardians of West Firle Union placed the following advertisements in the Sussex Advertiser:


The BOARD OF GUARDIANS of the WEST FIRLE UNION hereby give notice that they intend to Contract for the undermentioned Articles of PROVISIONS, for the supply of the Poor in the several Parishes comprising the Union, for three months, from the 18th of May to the 9th of August, both inclusive.


Second wheaten Flour, as per sample of one gallon, at per gallon, an account to be rendered to the Relieving Officer weekly.


Good Bread, at per lb. as per sample.


Good round and flat Dutch Cheese, as per sample of a whole Cheese, at per lb.

Good Butter (second quality), at per lb.

The Contractor to engage to deliver the articles to the several paupers in the different Parishes, according to the directions to be given by the Relieving Officer.

Payments will be made weekly.

Persons may Contract for a single Parish or District.

Further particulars may be had upon application to the Clerk of the Board, residing at Beddingham, near Lewes.

The Board of Guardians will not be bind themselves to accept the Lowest Tender, unless the articles prove, on examination, to be of the best quality.

Tenders must be sent in on or before the 15th instant, by Nine o’clock in the Forenoon.


The Board of Guardians of WEST FIRLE UNION, near Lewes, are desirous of receiving Tenders for the Erection of the New Workhouse at West Firle.

The Plans and Specifications may be seen at the Office of Mr KEMPTHORNE, Architect, Carlton Chambers, 12 Regent Street, London; or at Mr WEBB’S, Beddingham, near Lewes, after the 14th of May.

Sealed Tenders must be sent to Mr WEBB before the 29th of May.

Good and ample security will be required.

The board do not pledge themselves to receive the Lowest Tender.

These adverts appeared in the paper again on the 9 and 25 May and 1 June and from the first of the adverts it is clear that the Board of Guardians were still supporting paupers living in their own homes before the workhouse could be built. Despite the intentions of the new Act this process would continue after the workhouse opened.


Additions to the workhouse were made almost immediately. On 28 Feb 1840 the following advert appeared in the Sussex Advertiser:


PERSONS willing to Contract for Building a New Kitchen, etc, at the West Firle Union House, may see the Plans and Specifications on application to Mr R JOANES, Architect, Lansdowne Place, Lewes, to whom sealed tenders are to be delivered, endorsed ‘Tender for alterations at West Firle Union House’, on or before Thursday the 19th of March next.

The situation became so difficult that a Royal Commission was appointed in 1832 to review the administration of the poor laws. They presented their report in March 1834 and took the view that poverty was caused by the fecklessness of individuals rather than the prevailing economic conditions. So, large families got most, which resulted in improvident marriages; unmarried women got poor relief for their children, thus encouraging immorality; labourers could get almost as much when claiming poor relief as when in work; and employers could keep wages below a living wage as the rest would be made up from the Poor Rate. This all has a very familiar ring nearly 200 years later.

Although we have not found an advertisement for any of the posts for the first employees at the workhouse the original staff was probably the same as appeared on the 1841 census. John Hart, aged 47, was the master, his wife Sarah, 45, was the matron, and there was a porter, Robert Reeve, aged 40, and a 20 year-old schoolmistress. None of them were born in Sussex.

An idea of the terms on which the master and matron were employed can be gauged from the following advert that appeared in the Sussex Advertiser of 28 September 1858:



THE GUARDIANS of the Poor of this Union will, in consequence of the resignation of the present Master and Matron, proceed to the Election of a Master and Matron for the Workhouse, at the Board Room, on Monday the 18th day of October next.

The duties to commence on the 25th of October next. Salary for the Master, £30, and for the Matron, £20 per annum, with rations and furnished apartments. Applicants must be man and wife, and the former not less than 30 years of age, without incumbrance.

The Master must be fully competent to keep the books required to be kept by him under the orders of the Poor Law Board, and give satisfactory security to the amount of £100 for the due and faithful discharge of the duties of his office, and that of the Matron.

Canvassing the Guardians either directly or indirectly is strictly forbidden and will be held to be a disqualification.

Applications in the handwriting of the applicants, stating age and previous occupation, accompanied by testimomials to be delivered at my Office by Post or otherwise, on or before the 9th of October next.

The Guardians will, by letter after examination of the testimonials, request the attendance on the day of election of both candidates as they may think fit, and will pay the travelling expenses of such as the Candidates so requested to attend as may not be elected.

By order of the Board


Cliffe, Lewes, 27th Sept, 1858.

In all, the report made twenty-two main recommendations which included the grouping of parishes into Poor Law Unions for the purpose of building and operating workhouses. All poor relief would be refused to able-bodied persons and their families unless they entered the Union workhouse. The report also recommended that the conditions in the workhouse would be less eligible (ie, less pleasant) than those of a labourer and his family living outside of the workhouse. For more information on the Act and the history of workhouses see www.workhouses.org.uk).

In his book Recollections of a Sussex Parson, published posthumously in 1912, the Revd Edward Boys Ellman, vicar of Berwick, wrote that

"Glynde, Beddingham and Firle were under a private Act of Parliament for Poor Law management which, when the new [Poor Law Amendment] Act came in force in 1835[sic], they refused to give up, unless they were allowed to choose their own Union of Parishes. As Ringmer and Alfriston bore a bad name for Poor Law management they refused to admit them and, consequently, the West Firle Poor Law Union was made of only eight parishes, being the smallest Union in the kingdom.

"My father [John Ellman the younger], who had been a leading member in the management of the Private Act, became the first Chairman of the West Firle Union under the new Act, and retained that position till he left Glynde in 1846. I little thought that I should ever be appointed to the post, but I was elected Guardian for Berwick more than forty years ago, was first Vice and then Chairman, ever since the retirement of Doctor Skinner about thirty-five years ago [written 1888]".

Boys Ellman gave a few other insights into the application of the Poor Law in his book.

The West Firle Union workhouse was built in 1835-6. It was designed to accommodate 180 inmates and the Poor Law Commissioners authorized an expenditure of £2,950 on its construction.

Surprisingly the land that the workhouse was built on was not leased to the Guardians of the Poor of West Firle Union by the Gage Estate in Firle until 16 Aug 1836. The workhouse was to be built on ‘part of a field called Pound Field’ at 1d a year (ref ESROEast Sussex Records Office/SAS/G 49/263).

The fact that the workhouse was obliged to employ a schoolmistress must have been contentious. The workhouse schoolmistress’ post was in place before Glynde School was opened in February 1842, so the children of the paupers were receiving more of an education than those children not in the workhouse. Not only that but the number of children she would have been teaching would have been no more than 27 in 1841 and as few as 22 in 1851.

No admission and discharge registers have survived for the workhouse so one of the few ways we can find out the numbers and names of inmates can be discovered in the census returns for the workhouse in 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891.

In 1894 the West Firle Union was dissolved, the eight parishes being moved to other, larger, Unions. Glynde and Beddingham both became part of the Lewes Union.

Listed under the Topic: Education

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