Hoole Social Welfare

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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.

Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Female Friendly Society

The following account of the first procession of the Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Female Friendly Society appeared in the Chester Courant at Whitsuntide 1816.

Chester Courant Article 1816, transcribed

Similar reports were to appear in succeeding years, the last one found being in 1843 when the society’s name appears to have changed to The Ermine Female Club. In the first few years the church services were held at St. Oswald’s in Chester Cathedral, later St. John’s Church was the venue and in 1840 the newly built Christchurch in Newtown was used. Sermons were given by various members of the local clergy including the Rev. Archdeacon Clarke of Chester Cathedral; Rev. Isaac Temple, Vicar of Plemstall; and Rev. G. Pearson of St. Olave’s.

After the processions, dinners were given by prominent local people, initially Thomas Walker at his premises at the tanyard in Flookersbrook; by John Lightfoot at Brookside; and later by Jospeh Newall at his wheelwright’s business in Brook Street. In 1820, the dinner was “served up by Mrs. Monk the wife of the landlord of The Ermine, after which dancing commenced on The Green and continued until 6 o’clock when tea was served. To prevent intrusion lady non-members and gentlemen paid 2 shillings each for tea, if dancing only, 1 shilling.” In 1818 “the pleasures of the day terminated with feelings of regret by all who participated in the music fete”. In 1840 they concluded the evening by having “a right good merry dance”.

Although these annual events were reported as the highlight of the society’s activities, there is unfortunately no other information on what the Society did or how it was organised. In February of this year, Stella Young, who had researched Neston Female Friendly Society gave a presentation on the way in which that Society had operated and because there were many similar societies nationwide, it is likely that our Society ran on similar lines.

Friendly Societies (the title is still used by some companies today) were set up to provide insurance for its members in the event of illness or disability, and benefits were paid to its members; female friendly societies were able to respond to particular circumstances such as pregnancy, childbirth and female ailments; note the surgeon (then the term for a doctor) taking part in the procession. Young female servants in trouble and elderly employees e.g. cooks and maids unable to work any longer could be helped.

In Neston, monthly subscriptions (premiums) were paid according to age, 6 pence if under 20, 8 pence between 20 and 25, 1 shilling between 35 and 40 etc. Like present day insurance there were rules as to eligibility.

Benefits included:

  • For sickness: 4 shillings weekly after being unable to work for 1 week on producing an Order from the Surgeon such allowance to be continued for 6 months if ill for so long; if longer only 2 shillings and 6 pence.
  • In old age: a weekly allowance of 2 shillings and 6 pence.
  • On death: if a member for 6 years £2, for 8 years £4, for 10 years £6 providing she had a child or children born in lawful wedlock or other relatives dependent upon her support; otherwise, in no case more than £2.
  • In childbirth: on the birth of a child 5 shillings.

[It is noted that the only rule found of our local Society was “all women lying in are to bring a certificate of the baptism of their children by a Minister of the established Church”. This was quoted in a letter in the Chester Chronicle on November 1816 from a ‘dissenter’ who disagreed with the rule and who then received a rebuke in the paper from a ‘friend of the Church’.]

The Surgeon was appointed on a salary of £15 per annum to attend all the benefitted members in case of sickness and to find them proper medicines.

The Neston Society appointed a lady patroness, stewardesses, a secretary and trustees. The Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Society reflected this pattern of organisation and those who took part were clearly from well to do families of the area and many of the names are recognisable.

Emma Anne Blackburne section of Stained Glass Window, Chester Cathedral[2]
Emma Anne Blackburne memorial on Stained Glass Window, Chester Cathedral[3]

The prime organisers were the Hesketh family who lived at Newton Hall. Henry Hesketh Senior was a notable City wine merchant related to the Liverpool branch of the family who, as a part of Offley Campion Hesketh Co., owned vineyards in Portugal and records of the Port of Chester show him importing port wine on a regular basis. His son, Henry carried on the business and his wife became the President of the Society. One of their daughters Emma, then aged 23, is credited with the establishment of the Society, designing the beehive insignia, ensuring white shawls edged with green were worn and that wands (long sticks) surmounted by evergreens were available. Emma married Rev. Thomas Blackburne in August 1819 and then lived in his new Parish of Eccles. Following her husband’s sudden death in 1847 she settled at Spring Hill in Boughton. She died in April 1886 aged 91 and a stained-glass window in Chester Cathedral is dedicated to her memory. Research by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at York University into her role following the first fatal railway accident, which involved Liverpool MP William Huskisson at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line in September 1830, and more details of her life, can be found at https://borthwickinstitute.blogspot.com/2019/09/william-huskisson-and-vicaress-of-eccles.html.

The lady patronesses were Lady Broughton who lived at Hoole House and was well known for her gardens there; Lady Kilmorey, the wife of the Lord of the Manor of Newton; and Mrs. T. Cotton a member of a prominent local family. Other members included the sisters, Mrs Francis Bagnall and Mrs. Maria Moore who owned the land on which Moor Park was built; Mrs. Tonna a sister-in-law of the Hamiltons; Miss Brittain a member of the prominent land holding family; Mrs. Walker nee Catherine Lightfoot, the wife of Thomas Walker; and Miss Broster daughter of John Broster of Brook Lodge, printer, publisher, historian. In 1820 a Miss Brown (Browns of Chester) is listed and in 1823 Mrs. Sedgwick who had moved into Hoole Hall.

Nationally, a number of female friendly societies continued to exist for many years, using their local Church as a focus. This area did not have its own Church until All Saints opened in 1867. The coming of the railways in 1840 saw the social pattern of the area changing completely probably explaining the disappearance of Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Female Friendly Society.

Procession ot Neston Female Friendly Society

The coming of sewers to Hoole during the mid-19th century[4]

There was a crisis of sanitation that led to The coming of sewers to Hoole in the mid-19th century. The article addresses Hoole's population, housing conditions, epidemics, Public Health Acts, the development of the sewers themselves, and the people involved.


Based on articles by Linda Webb, initially published in ‘Hoole Roundabout’ in August and September 2015 -  http://www.hooleroundabout.com. The author acknowledges information obtained from the National Archives MH12 collection and ‘The Workhouse’ http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

  1. Based on articles by Linda Webb, initially published in ‘Hoole Roundabout’ in August and September 2015 -  http://www.hooleroundabout.com. The author acknowledges information obtained from the National Archives MH12 collection and ‘The Workhouse’ http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
  2. Courtesy of Sally-Anne Shearn, the Borthwick Institute
  3. Courtesy of Sally-Anne Shearn, the Borthwick Institute
  4. The linked article was researched and written by Monty Mercer, who gave a presentation to the Society on 20th February 2019