The Debtor's Gaol
The building currently occupied by the TSB Bank stands on the site of a house and carpenter’s workshop that in 1840 belonged to Robert Garbett. Between 1828 and 1844, Garbett was the Gaoler of the Bradford Hundred Court Prison, which was situated here on his property. The Gaol housed individuals who were unable to pay their debts in civil cases held at the court, which was also located in Walker Street at the beginning of the Victorian era and sat fortnightly, although actual trials were heard only twice a year.
A Hundred was a local unit of administration that was introduced during the Tenth Century, from which a system of courts developed that dealt with minor criminal and civil cases. Shropshire was divided into twelve hundreds, including ‘South Bradford’ to which Wellington belonged. The Court was originally held at Bradford Bridge, near High Ercall, but had moved to the market hall in The Square by the Seventeenth Century when it was also known as Wellington Court or the King’s Court of Record.
Living in Squalor
During the 1830s, the prisons held around eleven inmates a year on average, with the Gaoler receiving a fee upon their discharge from the facility. By 1840, this arrangement appears to have changed and Garbett was permitted a salary of £8 for his services by the local Court of Quarter Sessions. The Gaoler was certainly not being rewarded for the quality of service he provided at the prison, which was already notorious for its squalor. Writing in 1806, a commentator in the Gentleman’s Magazine observed that the gaol consisted of ‘Five rooms…three of which are totally dark, as the gaoler, paying no window tax, has stopped them up. No court, no water, no sewer…with straw worn to dust on the floor’. Whether the situation had improved by Garbett’s time is hard to tell, as an inmate died in custody during 1829.
The gaol finally closed in 1844 when imprisonment for debts of under £20 was abolished. The Bradford Hundred Court itself only survived until 1867, although the courthouse in Walker Street was sold in 1851, having already been used for sometime as a temporary regimental barracks.
Fire Station and UDC Offices
Walker Street was the centre of civic administration in Victorian Wellington and by the end of the Nineteenth Century, this building was home to the organisation that governed the entire town. Wellington Urban District Council was formed in 1895, after a national system of modern local councils was introduced, and presided over local affairs until its abolition in 1974. The Council chamber was situated on the first floor, while its offices stood in the whitewashed single storey building across the road.
When the Victorian era began, Britain’s position as a dominant world super power and trading nation was widely believed to be the result of a state policy of ‘laissez faire’, or leaving things alone. This view was increasingly challenged during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, when public health problems created by the rapid Industrialisation of Britain’s towns and cities forced the state to intervene on an unprecedented scale. In 1837, the government of Wellington was still in the hands of Lord Forester’s Manor Court, which was controlled by a wealthy group of 22 regular attendees ruling largely in their own self-interest. By the 1850s, the court could no longer cope with the demands placed upon it by Wellington’s commercial expansion and local people began to look for a new way to improve the situation.
Enter the Commissioners
In 1854, Wellington’s ratepayers’ successfully gained an Act of Parliament to establish an Improvement Commission in the town. Under the terms of the new legislation, fifteen elected Commissioners were given extensive powers to manage local affairs and levy a general rate that allowed them to borrow money and improve the public health facilities in the district. During the next forty years, some of Wellington’s worst slums were demolished, building regulations for new housing were introduced, gas and water supplies were extended and improved and a new cemetery was consecrated in 1875 on land off Haygate Road.
Putting Out Fires
One of the Commissioners’ first tasks was to take control of Wellington’s fire brigade. In 1883, they opened a purpose built fire station in the ground floor of the building. Horse-drawn tenders had previously been kept at a number of locations around the town, including the Police Station and at the Sun Inn, on the opposite side of Walker Street. The Station, which was equipped with two engines, had eight retained officers by 1906 and moved to new premises in Foundry Road during the 1920s.
The Parish Workhouse
The former public library in Walker Street (which closed in 2009) originally formed part of Wellington’s Victorian Workhouse, which was situated there until 1876, when a brewery was opened on the site. The Workhouse was essentially an institution maintained by public money where paupers would go, in theory at least, to do unpaid work in return for food and accommodation. At the beginning of the Victorian period, conditions in each establishment were meant to act as a deterrent to potential inmates. In practice, this proved difficult to implement as many of the residents were either too sick or old to do any work or find employment elsewhere and ended up living in the institution permanently.
When the Walker Street institution first opened, in 1797, a Vestry Committee of the local parish church, who also maintained a separate facility for children in the nearby village of Waters Upton, managed it. The Committee employed a Master and Matron to run the Workhouse and sat every fortnight to consider applications for relief. At that time, many of the applicants were given financial aid rather than being forced to enter the workhouse itself, as the volume of requests for relief was often linked to unemployment caused by downturns in local Industries. Although the Workhouse was capable of holding 160 residents, it rarely appears to have been full: in 1834, there were only 40 residents living in the institution, none of whom were classed as being ‘able-bodied’.
A New Broom Sweeps Clean
In 1834 new legislation was introduced in England and Wales that affected the treatment of poverty for the whole of the Victorian period and established a system of administration for workhouses that lasted until 1937. Under the new guidelines, outdoor relief was banned and the workhouse became the only means of help for those seeking assistance. The management of each institution was taken out of the hands of the parish and vested in local Poor Law Unions, with an elected ‘Board of Guardians’ overseeing the running of each establishment. In Wellington, the Board originally met at the Parish Offices, situated in the older part of the building later used by the library, before moving to Edgbaston House in 1887, which stands adjacent to Larkin Way.
As the Nineteenth Century wore on, perceptions towards the causes of poverty in Victorian society began to change and the focus shifted away from blaming the individual for his or her own plight, towards other environmental factors outside their control, such as bad housing and a lack of formal education. Many local Poor Law Boards began to modernise their facilities in order to treat the inmates more effectively. In Wellington, a new Workhouse was opened in Holyhead Road during 1876, which included a separate infirmary and a schoolroom. The facilities were designed by the partnership of Bidlake and Fleming in a cruciform shape and by 1885 could accommodate 350 adult inmates.
Or Does It?
While the situation in Wellington was undoubtedly improved by the provision of a new institution, the situation still appeared far from perfect. Edward Lawrence was a small businessman and local government veteran who served on Wellington Union’s Board of Guardians for over twenty years. In that time, he had also acted as an Improvement Commissioner, stood on the local School, Highway and Burial Boards and was, in many respects, typical of the individuals who managed local affairs in the town towards the end of the Victorian period. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Lawrence had long campaigned for office on a platform of social justice for the poor, proclaiming himself as the ‘upholder of the peoples’ rights’.
In 1890, he was appointed Master of the new Workhouse and kept a diary of events during his time in office. From a very early stage in his tenure, Lawrence declared that he had no intention to ‘stick to the narrow minded old ways’ and was quick to highlight many shortcomings in both the treatment of inmates and the provisions they were afforded within the institution. Despite regular visits from the Poor Law Guardians and the local Visiting Committee, many of these practices were allowed to continue through a mixture of ignorance and deference to established customs, much to Lawrence’s increasing dismay. His refusal to follow established practices soon led the disenchanted Master into conflict with the Board of Guardians and he was forced to leave his post in 1891 after only a year in charge. Although he went on to sit on the Board again after being dismissed, the events surrounding Lawrence’s time in charge illustrate that just because the Workhouse facilities in Victorian Wellington improved, the treatment of inmates did not necessarily follow accordingly.
The town’s Nineteenth Century workhouses are both located on the Victorian Wellington walk and the institution on Holyhead Road will be more familiar to many people as the Wrekin Hospital, which was established in the former Workhouse buildings by 1948. Part of the old parish facility in Walker Street was transformed into Wellington Library, although sections of the old workhouse that stood adjacent to and behind the modern building were eventually demolished.