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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Escape from the workhouse

It must have been a traumatic experience for my great uncles and great aunt to be admitted to the workhouse in 1886, after their father walked out on the family. (See last week’s blog post, A Brush With The Workhouse)

On the 1881 census the family were living in Chapter Road, Newington and by 1891 they’d moved to Princess Street, in St George the Martyr. What I hadn’t known when I’d recorded that information years ago, was what had occurred in between the two censuses - and a lot can happen in 10 years.

From pillar to post

The workhouse records I came across on Ancestry, show that the three children were moved from one establishment to another. The entry of 5th January 1886 in the Admission and Discharge book of Christchurch Workhouse lists the children as arriving at Lambeth Workhouse and being transferred to St George's Workhouse, in Mint Street, both workhouses being part of the St Saviour's Union.

It's said the Mint Street workhouse was the inspiration behind the famous scene in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist when Oliver dares to ask for more. Dickens was staying in lodgings in Lant Street, nearby and used to walk past the establishment on his way to work.

James Mahoney's famous illustration from Dickens' novel Oliver Twist

Appalling conditions

In 1865, the Mint Street Workhouse was the subject of one of a series of articles published in the medical journal, The Lancet, investigating the state of London's workhouses. The report cited a catalogue of appalling conditions. One observation described how: Thirty men had used one [water] closet, in which there had been no water for over a week and which was in close proximity to their ward.

The outcry following the article's publication contributed to a change in the law and the introduction of the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867, which set out to improve the provision for London's sick and poor. Although the Mint Street site remained in use until 1920, one would hope that conditions would have improved by the time of my ancestors' stay 19 years later!

Famous connections

Charlie Chaplin at Hanwell School - can you spot him?

The good news for Allen, Maud and Ernest was that their workhouse stay was short - the discharge page shows they left Mint Street on Thursday 14th January to attend the Hanwell School, a charity establishment where silent film legend Charlie Chaplin would be sent to in 1897, aged 7 (can you spot him in the photograph on the left?).

Coincidentally, Chaplin was also originally admitted to Lambeth Workhouse.

Next time - the family reunited and an exciting future...


(P.S. I believe Chaplin is the little chap right in the centre, ducking his chin down behind the head of the child in front).


Note: There is an abundance of fascinating information on workhouses in England and Wales on Peter Higginbotham's excellent website,



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