The workhouse in the Nuneaton area was referred to as ‘Chilvers Coton Workhouse’ from its location. Some interesting documents survive in the care of Warwickshire County Record Office: including the appointment of a master in 1727 and some early handwritten rules for the original workhouse.
The first master of Chilvers Coton Workhouse
The responsible people found it difficult to supervise the workhouse and costs were rising so they appointed local man John Buswell to keep an eye on things. This proved successful and so they decided to appoint him formally as master. He was to be paid 8s a month and had to provide food and drink, clothes and washing for the poor in the workhouse.1
Chilvers Coton Workhouse rules
The rules are undated, but appear to be from the mid 18th century.2 The Master was to keep a record of the poor in the workhouse, accounts of expenditure and the earnings of individuals. In summer the inmates were to rise at 5am, work from 6am till 7pm, and go to bed at 9pm. In winter they were to rise at 6, work from 7am until 5pm, and retire at 8pm. Breakfast was at 9am with half an hour to eat, dinner was at 1pm, and supper at 7pm in summer, and 6pm in winter, both with an hour to eat. Those who had not completed their assigned work had to continue working after supper. All candles had to be put out at bed-time.
Those who refused to work (although able), fought or made a disturbance were to be put on half-rations or bread and water for 2-3 days, and if they persisted sent before the magistrates or to the Bridewell (aka House of Correction). Any poor people from the local community who came into the workhouse just for a meal were to be sent to the Bridewell. Any inmate who went out begging or char[r]ing was to be sent to the Bridewell. Any inmate who stole wood, coal, clothes, lace etc was to be punished by the law [this suggests the workhouse was lace-making commercially]. The master was to keep a record of any disorderly conduct, such as rudeness, wickedness and dishonesty, so that the Overseers of the Poor could punish the offender.
On Sundays, all able inmates were to attend church (or another place of religious worship) and older people were to instruct the young in their prayers morning and afternoon. There was to be no immorality, profaneness or rudeness, nor should the poor be allowed to ‘wander idly about’.
Nuneaton Union Workhouse
It is not clear where the original workhouse was located in Chilvers Coton. In 1799 it was decided to build a new workhouse in Bishop Street (now called College Street because the workhouse was euphemistically known as ‘The College of the Poor’). Local landowner Sir Roger Newdigate funded the new workhouse and the inhabitants expressed their gratitude for his generosity.3
Plans for the workhouse show that the top floor was for dormitories with separate quarters for married couples with the children sleeping nearby; this was surprisingly humane compared with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which insisted on segregation of the sexes and children being kept in a separate building. On the second floor were workshops for the poor to work as tailors, shoemakers, knitters etc. This building, shown in the photograph, appears rather forbidding and prison-like. It was shown on Ordnance Survey maps of the 1880s and 1900s, but by the 1950s had become part of the George Eliot Hospital. The building has now been demolished and the site used for a car-park.
This article draws on material written by County Record Office staff for past exhibitions
1 Appointment of a master, 1727. Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR136/B4307b.
2 Orders to be observed at the Worke House, no date. Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR136/B4307a.
3 Plans for the new workhouse at Chilvers Coton, 1800. Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR1199/10.