Gateshead Poor Law Union, Durham Genealogy

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History[edit | edit source]

The union of Gateshead comprises nine parishes or places, and contains a population of 38,747.

Gateshead - Gedding', Topographical Dictionary of England (1848), pp. 283-287. URL: Date accessed: 24 March 2011.

See also

"A Short History of Gateshead". © Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998

Page 48
reforms and introduced another innovation,'younger brethren', as well as the existing bedesmen. These 'younger brethren' had to be over 56 years of age, receiving less than £20 per annum and attending church regularly. Once accepted, they were given a pension, not exceeding £25 per annum.

From this time, the hospital prospered, and the chapel (St Edmund's) was rebuilt in 1810. Increasing industrialisation enhanced the value of its land and the income rose accordingly so that by 1903 there were 46 'younger brethren' receiving £897 per annum between them. A new hospital has been opened on Sunderland Road at the time of writing.

A rate was levied by the parish to provide for the poor. A poor house was built in St Mary's churchyard and was in use in the seventeenth century but the largest portion of the money available was used to send paupers and vagrants back to their own parish in case they fell ill or died and caused even greater expense. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Gateshead's trade was at a low ebb and the poor rate collected was raised to £148 per annum to help those unemployed. The parish gave financial assistance to those living at home as well as maintaining a poor house; in 1733, one hundred and forty-five were included in this category, at various rates per week, from 2d to 2/-·

Another parish poor house was acquired in 1750.In 1728 a Newcastle merchant, Thomas Powell, bequeathed all his wealth 'towards building an almshouse for poor men and women in Gateshead'. This almshouse was built in 1731 on the east side of the High Street and in 1750 the trustees of this bequest agreed with the parish overseers to convert the building into a poor house and later a workhouse. This change was illegal, against the terms of the bequest, but it was not questioned for almost a century, and after an enquiry, it became an almshouse once again in 1841.

Meanwhile, the poor rate had risen to £264 in 1757 and efforts were made to halt this unhappy trend. Assistance was withheld from those who refused to enter the poor house while from 1771 a man was paid £250 from which he had to feed and clothe the inhabitants of the poor house and pay any other expenses which arose. This system continued until 1809 when a permanent, salaried, Overseer of the Poor was appointed. The poor rate collected in 1810 amounted to f2,865 so committees were set up to report on the poor house and the out-relief payments which were now very large, the main recipients being widows and wives of men in the armed forces.

In 1813 rules were laid down to reorganise the poor house which show something of the life 'inside'. The main aim appears to be cleanliness - clean blankets every 6 months, clean sheets every3 weeks and a daily wash for the inmates. The poor rate was still rising and those receiving assistance were put to work levelling High Street, probably in the hope that this would deter others from seeking relief.

An Act of 1819 changed the administration of the Poor Law. A Select Vestry was chosen by ratepayers and included many people from the four-and-twenty. One of its duties was to examine all applicants for relief, a kind of means test, and as a result the poor rate fell from £4,500 in 1820 to £3,040 in 1822, although mild weather and cheap food were factors which affected the number of applicants. The poor rate was held steady until 1831 when removals of vagrants to Scotland and Ireland, a cholera epidemic and then in 1832 a miners' strike placed an intolerable burden on Gateshead causing a sudden rise to £4,709.

A further Act, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established Poor Law Unions (neighbouring parishes grouped together) which were operated by Boards of Guardians. The first meeting of the Gateshead Board took place on 14 December 1836, in Gateshead. The area covered was approximately the same as the new Gateshead Metropolitan District Council area, extending to Chopwell, Crawcrook and Heworth. This Board of Guardians remained in power until 1930. The Guardians resolved to build a new workhouse which would be better suited to the purpose and eventually decided on a site off Coatsworth Road, now Woodbine Street, in the then fashionable suburb of Bensham: a healthy site was necessary for the recovery of the sick. This new building was opened in July 1841 with accommodation for 276 inmates. Powell's Almshouses reverted to their original purpose. They were finally demlolished in 1947 and new homes for the almspeople were built in Cross Keys Lane in 1962.

Gateshead's increasing population meant larger numbers of inmates in the workhouse. A workhouse was first suggested in 1863 but it was June 1890 before High Teams Workhouse was occupied. The Guardians had trouble in finding a suitable site. Heworth, Low Fell, Saltwell, Whickham were all discussed but eventually High Teams Farm was bought in 1885, the unemployed were used to level the area and to make bricks, and building began. Those parts of the farm not used for the workhouse were leased and sold for house building; the Guardians making money to ease the rates by inserting restrictive covenants against the sale of alcohol into the legal transactions. This meant public houses could not be built and covenants were withdrawn at a high price.

When one thinks of workhouses today, one associates them with poor living conditions, inadequate food and clothing, harsh masters and matrons, very little education for children and no means of enjoyment for the inmates. In Gateshead there were complaints, frequently about the food, although only the best was ordered, and on one occasion, the master and matron were found to be locking up troublesome inmates in the mortuary! The inmates were expected to work; the women performed domestic duties while the men worked on the High Team farm or broke stones for the roads. Although some nurses appointed in the early days of the Guardians were inclined to alcoholism, the standard improved later and generally the staff appear to have done their best to improve life for the inmates. When one matron, Mrs Penrose, died in 1886, the Board of Guardians paid tribute to her: 'To the aged inmates she was a comforting counsellor, while in her, each child found a parent.'

Children were a special problem, they had to be educated and attempts were made to rid them of the workhouse stigma. Classes were held within the workhouse for girls (1841) and boys (1851). Teaching methods improved and in 1895 all the children attended Brighton Avenue Board School. Footballs and the use of a playing field were provided. Other attempts to improve the way of life of the children were emigration to Canada, carefully supervised apprenticeships and boarding-out of children to foster parents. This latter scheme was not successful as those interested quickly realised that it was not a cheap way to acquire a domestic servant. Trips to Tynemouth and pantomimes in Newcastle and Gateshead theatres were arranged. After 1869, modest attempts were made to vary their clothes as the uniform branded a child as a workhouse inmate.

Eventually, cottage homes were opened in 1901 at Shotley Bridge, the first in the North East. Six cottages provided for 120 boys and 90 girls and at first met with some hostility from local residents (this had been a problem in selecting a site for the workhouse itself) but continued in use until 1930 when they were handed over to Durham County Council.

One group of inmates in the workhouse received very little sympathy, the tramps and vagrants who slept in the casual ward of the workhouse. They were a problem from the mid-nineteenth century and several times suggestions were put forward that the vagrant wards be demolished. On one night in January 1865, twenty-three people slept on the stone floor of a room 12 feet square! Later on, in the 1890s, attempts were made to distinguish between those who had left home in search of work, and vagrants who knew no other way of life. In 1901 it came to light that the master of Newcastle Workhouse was turning away vagrants and advising them to come to Gateshead! This practice was discontinued after complaints by the Gateshead Guardians.

For more information on the history of the workhouse, see Peter Higginbotham's web site: and

Parishes in the Union[edit | edit source]

 Gateshead, Durham Genealogy  Gateshead Fell, Durham Genealogy  Heworth, Durham Genealogy Heworth St Alban, Durham Genealogy Ryton, Durham Genealogy Stella St Cuthbert, Durham Genealogy Whickham, Durham Genealogy Winlaton, Durham Genealogy