Clitheroe Workhouse 1873 -1930

002 building siter

Clitheroe Hospital is currently in the process of being rebuilt. Local people will be well aware of the heavy construction site at the top of Chatburn Road where the new, modern building is very quickly taking shape ahead of its official opening planned for 2014. Adjacent to the diggers, cranes and heavy machinery stands the original, historic structure which we know as Clitheroe Community Hospital.

001 hospital frontThe building is still providing a hospital service whilst its successor takes shape in the field next door. An artists impression of the new look hospital is below. Personally, I prefer the original building in the picture above – even though the charming architecture conceals a very dark past.

new Clitheroe hospital

The original stone building needs to be replaced by a modern facility that can better cope with today’s medical demands. Sadly, the existing development does not date back far enough to be covered by a preservation order and its long term future remains uncertain, although it is hoped that the fine 140 year old building will be renovated to create affordable housing.

Clitheroe Hospital Entrance

This solid and rugged Victorian building on the very edge of town was opened in April 1873, but its main purpose back then was not as a hospital. This place was a prison in everything but name – the home to 200 inmates; people that were referred to simply as paupers and imbeciles in a time long before political correctness. Although it wasn’t that long ago in real time, it was an unrecognizably dark and squalid era before the welfare state was introduced in Britain to look after folks who were facing hardship. Its hard to imagine today, but here in Clitheroe in the 1800’s – if you couldn’t pay your way in life, you were taken into the Workhouse, along with your entire family if necessary to earn your upkeep. It was as simple as that.

Poor people have always existed, and sadly probably always will. Today, the plight of our poorest members of society is constantly grabbing the news with headlines about benefit restructures, welfare reform and food banks. But even today, in the hard economic times that families are facing, being poor is nowhere near as distressing and humiliating as it was when Clitheroe Workhouse was built to alleviate the problem locally.Clitheroe Workhouse

History tells us that society has always struggled to deal with the poor. In the 1500’s, under Henry the Eighth’s rule – beggars would be whipped and sent on their way. Communities in places like the Ribble Valley would only have enough work, food and shelter to go around the existing population, so strangers who turned up in the hope of a fresh start were viewed suspiciously. Many of these beggars had become displaced for various reasons, including huge numbers of warriors who found themselves having no purpose left after the Wars of the Roses. These hardy, strong men would find it extremely hard to find a new job in a new place. They would quickly be sent packing, despite many being starving, sick or injured. There simply wasn’t the resources to feed an extra mouth.

Neville St. ClairJust over 150 years before the Clitheroe Workhouse was opened, in 1722 the Workhouse Act was passed which gave Overseers and Churchwardens the power to build Workhouses to house the poor. At that time, the problem wasn’t too bad here in the Ribble Valley and two tiny Workhouses managed to keep up with demand. But as time went on, local churches started to become over run with beggars and scroungers and pleaded with community leaders to help them solve the problem.

By 1836, The poor problem was nationwide, and was rapidly becoming worse as the population exploded due to the Industrial Revolution which was completely changing the face of the previously agricultural north. Action was urgently needed to tackle the issue properly. The problem of vagrants and beggars soon affected every parish of the geographical region that now makes up the Ribble Valley.

Clitheroe Poor Law Union was formed in 1837. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 35 in total, representing its 33 constituent parishes of Aighton Bailey and Chaigley, Chatburn, Chipping, Clitheroe, Downham, Little Bowland with Leagram, Mearley, Pendleton, Thornley with Wheatley, Twiston, Whalley, Wiswell, Worston in the County of Lancaster. In the West Riding of Yorkshire, the parishes consisted of Bashall Eaves, Bolton by Bowland, High Bowland Forest, Low Bowland Forest, Easington, Gisburn, Gisburn Forest, [Great] Mitton, Grindleton, Horton, Midhope [Middop], Newsholme, Newton, Paythorne, Rimington, Sawley, Slaidburn, Waddington and West Bradford.

Clitheroe Workhouse rear

The districts two small Workhouses in Bolton by Bowland and Aighton could no longer cope with the ever increasing numbers of poor people. The problem gradually became worse, and as a result the Clitheroe Poor Law Union began planning a large, purpose built Workhouse to cope with the numbers. The Workhouse building was designed by Jonas J Bradshaw, and took three years to build.

Clitheroe Hospital from gate signs

What we recognise today as Clitheroe Hospital was officially opened on the 21st of April 1873 and it became home for 200 destitute men, women and children. Without a home or an occupation, these “paupers” were forced to work all day, and in return would receive a meal and a bed. The work that took place there centred around the cotton industry. If any Workhouse member refused to work (and some did) they would be dragged by horses to Preston Prison where they would be locked up. The regime really was as harsh as that, and it is difficult to imagine how distressing life must have been inside those walls at the top of Chatburn road, and in the hundreds of other Workhouses throughout the UK just a century or so ago. The only form of entertainment for the Clitheroe inmates came at Christmas time, when the Mayor would visit the poor and spend the evening telling them exciting and fascinating stories about life outside of the Workhouse.

In 1930 the Poor Law system finally ended and most of the workhouses were closed down for good. That year, Clitheroe Workhouse became Coplow View Public Assistance Infirmary – a general hospital for the local population. Eighteen years later in 1948, it became part of the newly formed National Health Service and was renamed Clitheroe Community Hospital.

Overhead Plan of Clitheroe Hospital

This plan shows the site of the existing facility to the left, with the new structure on the right of the picture.

Coplow Staff from Keepers of the House

This picture is taken from F.H. Lofthouse’ “Keepers of the House”  and shows the staff of Clitheroe Workhouse in the 1890’s. This book offers an in depth history of the institution, even including stories about the “inmates.” The link above goes to Amazon, who stock the book, a fine bibliography that was very carefully compiled and written by Frank Lofthouse, the Great Grandson of the first Master and Matron of the Clitheroe Workhouse. The book is also available for loan from the community reference library in Clitheroe.

CLICK HERE to read about Steve’s debut Novel, The Clitheroe Prime Minister


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Author of The Clitheroe Prime Minister, and columnist in Northern Life magazine.

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