Chester Union Workhouse

From Hoole History and Heritage Society

Chester Union Workhouse - 57 Hoole Lane, Chester[1]

On 26 April 1872, the Local Government Board in Whitehall, London, ordered the Guardians of the Chester Poor Law Union (formed in 1869) to purchase, for a sum of money no greater than three thousand five hundred pounds, the land on Hoole Lane described as “Three fields in Hoole Lane, in the Township of Hoole, in the County of Chester, belonging to the Trustees of the late Thomas Brassey, Esquire, containing and area of 16a. 1r. 24p. statute measure, and being numbered in the Tithe Map 20, 21, and 22.” This was part of the estate of the late Thomas Brassey, the great railway engineer and contractor, who had undertaken the building of Chester Railway Station. The order is in the Record Office in Chester.

The Local Government Board directed that the land be conveyed to the Guardians of the Poor of the Chester Union, and their successors, to build a Workhouse, its Schools, and a Hospital; whatever was necessary in later years for the relief of the Poor of the area covered by the Chester Union.

The new buildings were to replace the ‘House of Industry’ near Chester’s Roodee, which was no longer suitable for use as a workhouse.

  • The Workhouse and its other buildings were to be big enough to hold 450 persons, men, women, and children, ‘properly classified’ (families were separated on entry). It was to cost no more than £15,750.
  • The School was to be suitable for the reception and the maintenance of 150 poor children, costing no more than £5,250.
  • The Hospital Infirmary was to cost no more than £3,500.

Documents discovered at the National Archives in Kew

Plan of all the Workhouse buildings, 1911 Ordnance Survey Map

Hoole History & Heritage Society discovered the original plans for all the buildings on the Workhouse site and later children’s homes in Ministry of Health documents at Kew.

The discovery explained the development of the workhouse buildings and the site over decades in the period leading up to the First World War.

The plan chosen for the workhouse building itself was the winner of an open competition, submitted by W Perkin and Sons. The new Workhouse, opened in 1878, had a large T-shaped main building facing to the east, with a separate Infirmary to its west and a School to the south.

The original gates of Chester Union Workhouse were at, what is now, the entrance to Housesteads Drive, on the right of which was the gatemen’s lodge. The drive went through a receiving block, under a gothic arch, to the main block, which later became the main part of Chester City Hospital. The buildings were imposing, built of red brick, and the main block had a ‘water tower’, topped with a spike on a spire.

The two gate posts of the original Workhouse entrance at Housesteads Drive today

Workhouses like Hoole's, that took in vagrants or ‘casuals’ were popularly known as 'Spikes' because of the actual spike, clearly visible even from a distance, mounted on top of the building.

The spike was the symbol to vagrants that poor relief and one night’s accommodation in return for work was provided at the workhouse. The occupants of the vagrant wards, or casual wards were classed as the "casual poor", or just "casuals".

The routine for those entering a casual ward began in late afternoon by joining the queue for admission. A ‘Spike’ had only a certain number of beds and late-comers might find themselves turned away.

The workhouse system clearly expressed Victorian values and attitudes towards the poor. It degraded the poor to dissuade them from entering the workhouse. For people of that generation being admitted to the workhouse was the last resort, and a source of great shame. It was the same for the inmates who were born there.

When the Workhouse building opened in 1878, the taskmaster obtained 100 tons of stone for the able bodied and casuals to break, not for any immediate purpose, but to make them labour for their accommodation and food.

It was not until 1904 that children born in the Hoole Workhouse could have ‘57 Hoole Lane’ recorded as the address of their birth on their birth certificates. It was much later, in 1920, that those who died there had an address, instead of ‘died in the workhouse’, recorded on their death certificates.

The School

By the time the workhouse building was opened on Hoole Lane, elementary education was being provided for some poor children in the parishes of the Chester Poor Law Union.

Originally, workhouses received and maintained poor boys and girls who were segregated from their families and from each other on entry, or at birth. Schooling at Hoole Workhouse was based on rote learning by the children. The workhouse teachers were ’paid by results’ and their work was inspected before their pay was authorised by inspectors.

In 1900, the Chester Poor Law Union erected a central children's home on the Wrexham Road together with smaller cottage homes at Upton Heath, on Long Lane, in Saughall on Hermitage Road, and in Dodleston on Main Road. All these distinctive buildings still exist.

The Chapel

Building plan for the Chapel of St James the Less

The plans we discovered included those for the Chapel of St. James the Less, opened in 1880, as an extra-parochial chapel serving the workhouse. Frederick Anderson, of Hoole All Saints, was appointed as Chaplain to the workhouse in 1875, for which he received £50 per annum. From 1880 – 1900 the deaths of 1,350 people were recorded in the burial register. By 1900 the burial ground was full.

Picture of the Chapel of St James the Less today

The Infirmary

Harsh conditions were noted in the 1894, the British Medical Journal commission's report on Hoole. A patient in the workhouse infirmary had recently died and a pauper employed as a night attendant had been found guilty of manslaughter due to his rough handling of the patient while unsupervised by the sole nurse who was occupied in another block.

On 27 August 1917, Chester Union Workhouse became a Chester War Hospital, its inmates were displaced and ‘imbeciles’ were sent to the Asylum (the “Deva") in Upton. In 1919, at the end of the First World War, the Ministry of Health succeeded the Local Government Board.


The Local Government Act 1929 abolished the Poor Law Unions and transferred the functions of the guardians to the County and County Borough Councils, working through new Public Assistance Committees.

The transfer became effective on 1 April 1930. The institutions transferred to the Corporation included the Union Workhouse, Hospital, and Chapel in Hoole Lane. At that time, a clear distinction was made between the workhouse buildings and the hospital: they were administered separately, and referred to respectively as St. James's House and St. James's Hospital.

The hospital increasingly came to be known as the ‘City’ Hospital and on 1 January 1937, under the Local Government Act 1933, the hospital came into public use and was transferred from the Public Assistance Committee to the Public Health Committee. It was incorporated into the National Health Service in 1946, immediately after the Second World War, when it was transferred to the Hospital Management Committee of the Regional Hospital Board.

The National Assistance Act 1948 abolished the Poor Law. Previously, in 1947, the re-organization of hospital and public assistance services in Chester included the closure of the city Isolation Hospital in Sealand Road (built in 1899 for the Chester Poor Law Union area) and the transfer of this hospital to the Public Assistance Committee in exchange for the public assistance institution, St. James's House, at Hoole. The inmates of St. James's House at Hoole were transferred to the former Isolation Hospital, henceforth known as Sealand House. The children's home on the Wrexham Road became the responsibility of the Children's Committee and it continued to be used as a Corporation children's home until 1958, and the property was sold in 1959.

This meant that the City Hospital now comprised the whole of the former workhouse buildings at Hoole when these were transferred to the Regional Hospital Board in 1948.

During the 1950s, the City Hospital's services expanded considerably. A paediatric unit, a department for diseases of the chest, and a modern chest clinic were established, in addition to a pathological laboratory, and an X-ray department.

Cheshire County Council took over responsibility from the Regional Health Board in 1974, and, when a new West Cheshire Hospital Wing was opened in 1983, the City Hospital ceased to be a general hospital, specialising in geriatric care. Unsurprisingly, many local families in Hoole have connections with the building they grew up calling the City Hospital.

Chester City Hospital main building from the south-east in the 1990s

The hospital closed in 1991 and was subsequently demolished.

  1. Based on articles by Linda Webb, initially published in ‘Hoole Roundabout’ in August and September 2015 - The author acknowledges information obtained from the National Archives MH12 collection and ‘The Workhouse’