When I visited my son and his girlfriend in Ampthill England, I felt like I was stepping into a storybook. The crooked narrow, cobblestone streets lined with thatched huts, red brick homes and tiny walk up shops looked like pages out of a Charles Dickens novel. Even their home, a former caretaker’s cottage, was on the grounds of a stately 2-story brick building, which once served as the Ampthill Union Workhouse. Built in 1835, the old “poorhouse,” where penniless paupers worked for porridge, was laid out in an octagonal hub. The rows ended in 3 story blocks with observational windows over the work yards. Renovated into an expensive apartment complex today residents can relax in an inviting, picture perfect English back garden.
In the past, poorhouses often looked and felt like prisons. Funded by the local parish able-bodied inmates toiled in exchange for food and shelter. Workhouses filled with orphans, unmarried mothers, widows, sick, elderly and vagrants who endured the harsh regime, Spartan conditions, and slept in communal dormitories
Behind the wrought iron entry gate, Nic and Larissa’s brick cottage, the size and shape of a shoe box sits at the front of the grounds. It was divided into a small living area, a kitchen galley, a bedroom, bathroom and a dining room with just enough space for a table of four. Apartments in the main building today would cost a pretty penny, but the cottage rental was a steal.
At night spotlights illuminated ancient trees casting shadows and as I wandered the grounds, my imagination ran wild. I expected to see Oliver Twist dart across the courtyard.
As the wind moaned in the treetops, I could hear echoes of the old nursery rhyme that even American children were weaned on. We grew up listening to our mothers’ lament, “oh no, we will be driven to poor house.”
Anonymous verse from Yorkshire.
Many old workhouse buildings became public assistance institutions and continued to provide accommodation for the ill and elderly. In 1942 The Ampthill Workhouse became St. Georges Hospital, and then later the Cedars Old Peoples Home.
But Larissa and Nic’s new abode, filled with light, laughter and good cheer, showed no sign of its grim past. Warm and cozy, we squeezed around the table enjoying the lovely meal they prepared. I gazed out the window and felt grateful that my family members had steady jobs, roofs over their heads and food on their tables.
In the UK the workhouse era ended officially on April 1, 1930. Fortunately poor houses became a thing of the past, but poverty is not. Many homeless people everywhere in the world sleep in the streets under cardboard boxes, rummage through trash bins for scraps and struggle to survive.
Everyone can offer aid. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Work at a food pantry. Contribute to the local charities.
Pat, you have given us both a lovely tour of the English countryside and a sobering glimpse into the hard times of the past. Poverty still prevails yet in a new form these days. One doesn’t have to go very far to see evidence of it. And I can relate to your sense of gratitude about not having to worry about meeting basic needs. Thanks for this reminder that we who have so much must do our part to help those less fortunate than us.
Walking on the grounds of the estate today made it hard to believe that it was once a poor house. My research into its past made me realize how fortunate we are to have so many blessings in our lives even those things we take for granted like water, food and shelter.
What a dreamy place to live.
It is lovely especially on a sunny day.
I always thought “going to the poorhouse” was a strictly Southern expression — who knew it was a real thing?? Thanks for educating me today, Pat. I’m glad to see these structures being adapted for happier purposes today. Good that you were able to visit your son and his girlfriend in England, too — I know they were glad to host you! You’ve made some excellent points about poverty, and I’m right there on board — yes, those who have been given much should be willing to share some!
Debbie, I learned a lot too about poorhouses after my visit to see our son. Since it happened to be rainy and cold during our visit, it also make me realize how difficult times must have been in the past without heating or insulation in brick buildings.
There is something about historic dwellings. We were lucky enough to stay at Fort Recovery Tortola, BVI-right next to the gun turret which the Pirate John Lafitte used to defend his land! The ghosts of such places…!
I can’t imagine ever staying in a place that had been a hospital though. Our city hospital is now luxury apartments! We always laugh, wondering who got the place with the big walk in fridge…that use to be the morgue… lol!
I often wonder about the stories the walls could tell of the historic old buildings. Every time the wind blew across the courtyard, I imagined hearing ghosts out to play in the night.
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