The Isle of Wight had a workhouse for many years.

It opened in 1774, in the grounds of what is now St Mary’s Hospital, and closed in 1948.

Feeding and homing the poor and unemployed wasn’t an act of charity; they were seen as potentially troublesome, and the workhouse allowed the authorities to keep them under virtual lock and key, all under one roof.

People admitted by reason of ‘criminality or loose morals’ had no meat on ‘meat days’ and wore distinctive clothing ‘or other disgraceful badges’.

The ethic of work for work’s sake, with no regard for humanity, could be seen in all its glory; it was a grim, soulless existence.

In 1891, on March 28, this letter appeared in the County Press: “Sir, in many cases, no more is heard of inmates of the workhouse after they enter there.

“I enquired of an inmate I knew, and the answer received was that the old man had been dead more than a year.

Isle of Wight County Press: The Workhouse burial ground from an 1862 map, overlaid on a modern photograph.The Workhouse burial ground from an 1862 map, overlaid on a modern photograph. (Image: County Press/Google Maps)

“There had been no record of his death, and unknown to his old friends, he had died and been buried in an unmarked grave in the workhouse cemetery.

“Cannot the master present a written statement of the deaths which occur in the house, giving the names, ages, and places to which the deceased persons belonged?

“Your obedient servant, Clericus.”

The Board of Guardians did actually take notice of that letter, and deaths in the workhouse were published thereafter.

The following, moving letter, appeared in January, 1908.

“Sir, I have noticed with sorrow the letters in your paper about the workhouse.

Isle of Wight County Press: The main workhouse buildings still exist, seen here in March 2023, in the grounds of St Mary’s Hospital.The main workhouse buildings still exist, seen here in March 2023, in the grounds of St Mary’s Hospital. (Image: Alan Stroud/County Press)

“I should like to say a few words on the other side.

“It may seem astonishing, but I want to say that the happiest three years in my life were spent as an inmate of the workhouse.

“I went there out of health, but left it with a good, sound constitution.

“It is true that the butter was not the best ‘fresh,’ but when I remembered that when living at home I often had dry bread or bread and dripping, I ate it and was thankful.

“The meat was not always of the best quality, but before going there, many a day I had none.

“The regular living and plain diet built me up, and I am now a strong woman.

“I never met with anything but kindness from the Guardians, nor anyone else.

“There are many there who could say the same.

“In fairness to those who work so hard for the good of the poor, I ask you to insert this letter.

“Yours obediently, Fair Play.”  

On March 28, 1931, the County Press quoted from an official report on the workhouse.

“The area of the property is about 77 acres, and about half is let to farmers.

“About 13 acres grow all the vegetables used in the workhouse, and there is a cemetery now full, of about four acres.

“The water supply is from the main, supplemented by a well which yields 7,200 gallons a day.

“In the men’s quarters there were 132 beds, with 85 occupied.

“In the women’s quarters are 110 beds, 69 being occupied.

“The dormitories are lit by gas and warmed by radiators.

“The nursery provides very good accommodation for the six infants in the house.

“The food, including all the bread, is cooked for all the inmates in the main kitchen.”

On a personal note, in 1992, I recorded my uncle, Les Arnold, born in Green Street, Newport, in 1917, talking about our family history and the subject of the workhouse came up.

He told me: “People who didn’t have anything were rounded up and they went to the workhouse, they had no option.

“They’d come into Newport, and they didn’t have any money, and I used to look at them and think, poor souls.

“We were never flush at home, but they had nothing!

“When I was about 15, there was a lad who hounded me for a couple of weeks.

“I felt sorry for him, and I made the mistake of getting a bit too friendly with him. He asked if we had a gramophone at home.

“Well, we did, and he had some records at the workhouse and wanted to know if he could bring them to the house and play them and I had to tell him no.

“I had to put him off. I felt ever so sorry for him, and I felt sorry that I had to turn him down, but there was no way I would be allowed to take him home.”

In 1948, the NHS arrived and the workhouse, by now renamed Forest House, was closed, the County Press reporting: “The Poor Law is finally abolished and on Monday, the 440-bed institution will form the largest unit of the Island’s free hospital accommodation under the new National Health Service.”

Hooray for that.