Thackley workhouse, 1765 -1858


Most of us have an image of workhouses based on reading or watching Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist,  but in reality workhouses varied enormously throughout the country and throughout the years of their existence.  Dickens drew on his experience and knowledge as a campaigning journalist and writer, and knew the grim urban structures built to house the increasing numbers of ‘undeserving poor’ around London.  Like those and many other urban workhouses, Bradford’s workhouse, now St Luke’s Hospital, was a warren of randomly erected blocks of accommodation, with only basic sanitation and other facilities deemed necessary for the paupers of all ages and situations. 

But then picture a small cluster of buildings, perhaps with small gardens, in a hamlet several miles from a major industrial town, surrounded by fields and fresh air.  Thackley Workhouse was by no means idyllic, and had many of the faults of its larger neighbours, but to its old, sick and infirm inmates, it was undoubtedly better than much of the alternative provision in other places.

Thackley workhouse now

To understand Thackley Workhouse and its development, a brief background history of the English Poor Laws will, I hope, be helpful.


The origins of the Poor Laws, which established workhouses to provide shelter for the poor and destitute, can be traced back to the late 1300s, following the Black Death. Laws were introduced to control the movement of the unemployed, as hitherto unimagined numbers of men, women and children searched the country for jobs.  This ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor. But it wasn’t until the 1601 Poor Law was put on to the statute books that the patchwork of earlier Acts and laws concerning poor relief became comparatively standardised throughout the country. However, despite being harshly applied, for instance it banned begging and anyone caught could be whipped and sent back to their place of birth, poverty continued and grew worse. 

In 1834 a new Poor Law (The Poor Law Amendment Act) was introduced. Before that Act, which radically altered the administration of relief to the poor, individual townships or parishes appointed Overseers of the Poor to be responsible for relief and to keep the accounts and records of their activities.  These were local men elected by their fellow citizens. but they were not always good or honest administrators.  Some people welcomed the new Act because they believed it would, amongst other consequences,  encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves because workhouse regulations and conditions made them places to avoid. The new Poor Law ruled that paupers were to be housed in workhouses where they would be clothed and fed, with no more ‘outdoor relief’ to people living outside the workhouses. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse paupers would have to work for several hours each day. But the poor themselves hated and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns, including Bradford.  

1814 Survey of land ownership, showing the workhouse buildings, inaccurately

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was not implemented in Bradford until 1838. After the Act twenty widespread parishes encircling Bradford were amalgamated into the Bradford Union under the control of a single Board of Guardians. The Union was initially divided into three districts for the administration of relief, with four workhouses for paupers requiring indoor relief.  The workhouses were soon reduced to two, in central Bradford and in Thackley, officially referred to as Idle Workhouse.  But putting the Act into practice became an organizational impossibility, with the ‘out-townships’ such as Idle, claiming that they were subsidising the poverty-stricken townships of central Bradford. 

The complaints made by the representatives of the ‘out-townships’ increased,  leading to the Union splitting in two in 1848.  Bradford Union consisted of Bradford, Bowling, Horton and Manningham.  North Bierley covered all the surrounding areas, including Idle and its workhouse in Thackley.


Because of the way that different parishes dealt with their poor inhabitants over the years, there was a great variation in provision throughout the country.  Commonly, there would be individual cottages that the Overseers acquired, where elderly people could be settled; in some places there were almshouses where a small community of the poor could live out their lives. Other places had built Poorhouses, the forerunners of Workhouses. But as the needs of the poor increased, a more efficient national plan was seen as a necessity.

In both Idle and Thackley there were cottages provided for the poor. There were eight or nine paupers’ cottages in Idle, scattered around the village green, which was a much larger area than the present-day Green.  In Thackley, which Wright Watson later described as ‘simply a great stretch of common land, or waste, without a building on it’, there were at least five more cottages dotted around.  But a workhouse was needed as the villages grew, and as industrialisation began to change people’s lives.

Thackley workhouse, the earliest buildings built facing directly on to
Windhill Old Road

Both pressure from government and changes in legislation were making it more desirable to have a single ‘House of Industry’ or workhouse, for each parish or township.  There was widespread abuse of the system in its present state, and it was hoped that a more forceful regime would lessen the misuse of funds and accommodation.  Even so, it wasn’t until 1765 that the Overseers and those with a vested interest decided on a site for the workhouse in Thackley.

Wright Watson described the site as ‘very secluded and almost arcadian in its beauty.  For there were no houses at Burnwells, and none in Brackendale except for old ones at the far end.  Nor were there any “dark Satanic mills” anywhere at all’ he added.  This was not strictly correct, as there were small woollen mills and other industries such as tanning in the immediate vicinity.  The opening of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in the valley below Thackley, also in the 1760s, encouraged the transport of more goods within the vicinity of the Workhouse.

Once the land was agreed upon, the decision was made that ‘… staking out of about an acre of the waste grounds of Thackley should be forthwith carried out and that with all convenient speed there should be erected thereupon a Workhouse with other conveniences necessary for the habitation and employment of the poor belonging to the Township of Idle aforesaid …’

And so the Workhouse was built. It was financed by selling the individual cottages used by the Overseers to house mainly old people.  Some properties were immediately bought by members of the ‘local officialdom’ who had been involved in commissioning the Workhouse, and thus sufficient money was speedily raised to build the Workhouse.  These transactions appear to have been above board, and basic but fair prices were paid, but several local people benefitted financially from being in the right place at the right time, and gained useful properties and land, once the old residents and their belongings had been removed to the new Thackley Workhouse.


As the workhouse system became more centrally organised, through a series of Reports and Acts of Parliament, a classification scheme was adopted which was intended to take account of all paupers.  Inmates were to be separated into seven categories: aged or infirm men or women, able-bodied men or women over 16 years of age, boys and girls aged from 7 to 15 years, and children under 6 years of age.  In theory each category was assigned its own dayrooms, sleeping rooms, and exercise yards in the workhouse, but in the case of small sites such as Idle Workhouse there was never enough space for so many separate areas.

Wright Watson commented on the workhouse occupants, perhaps rather scathingly:

 ‘Besides being a home of rest for the aged and infirm, the Institution was a home of work for the poor but able-bodied, a convalescent home for the ailing of all ages, and it would seem, a maternity home for expectant mothers’.

But there was little else the working population could do when they became ‘infirm’ or were taken ill, whatever their age.  If they were unable to work they had no money for medicine for themselves or food for their dependant families. If there were charitable hospitals, such as Bradford Infirmary, they rarely accepted penniless paupers as patients.  But the workhouse might provide accommodation and very basic medical care.  A doctor would be called in, usually paid a minimal fee by the Overseers, although in the case of the large urban workhouses he would be paid an annual sum and would have regular hours for visiting his pauper patients. Similarly there was little maternity provision and generally none in charitable hospitals; if the mother-to-be was unmarried, abandoned, or had no-one to support her, the workhouse was the only place to go for shelter and some care, if only from an unqualified midwife. 

Figures for exceptionally old inmates are quoted by Wright Watson.  Working from burial records, he cites the high number of people living into their 80s and 90s, and one of 108 years. This might be remarkable, but could be seen as proof of the theory that, in times past, if someone survived childhood and the young-adult years when accidents at work and diseases like tuberculosis took many lives, there was no reason why they shouldn’t live to old age.  This was probably also helped by living in a sheltered community where food and care was adequate.

Until the first full census in 1851 not much can be learnt about the individual inmates; there was a census in 1841, but that gave only names and ages.  By 1851 the workhouse was part of North Bierley Union, and Inmates were accepted into the Idle workhouse  from any of the parishes that made-up the new North Bierley Union.  There were 71 inmates and their names, marital state, ages, former occupation, and place of birth were listed.  Only 8 people were registered as originating from Idle.  The inmates’ ages ranged from 4 infants aged under 1 year old to 2 men over 90. 

A total of forty-seven inmates had worked in the woollen industry around Bradford. Several were in their twenties, the oldest was 95, and a number of others in their 80s. At least eight had been hand loom weavers, a skill that had been replaced by new machinery in factories, causing widespread destitution in the Bradford area.  But it is hard to draw valid conclusions about the causes of poverty from this sample, who were part of a moving population of short and long-term paupers.  Only two people listed in 1841 were still in the workhouse, or back there again, ten years later.

The census of 1851 gives no indication of disabilities or impairments except for two people who were described as blind.  However, an article in the Bradford Observer in November 1848, depicted a more depressing picture. The writer described a visit made by the newly-elected guardians of the North Bierley Union, who held their first meeting ‘at the old poorhouse in Thackley’.  He wrote that

‘The occupants are chiefly old and helpless men and women, some worn out with infirmity and age, but far the greater portion helpless by reason of mental imbecility.  There are about a hundred inmates in the house.  In one small dark room, the benches, with high backs, forming a circle in front of the fire, contained a number of octogenarians, and a few somewhat their juniors.  They sat motionless as statues  … it was a picture of still life …’

He was told that the old men often got into arguments amongst themselves and described watching ‘one youngster (a man, of idiotic appearance, about 40) ‘ who had ‘that morning disturbed the harmony of the fire side’.  Told off by the workhouse governor, he reacted with more disruptive behaviour, and was threatened with ‘a sound drubbing’ by a much older inmate.’

The report continued on even more disheartening lines,

‘The day room of the females presented a melancholy sight.  In that crowd of “Forsaken wives and mothers never wed,” was found much to excite feelings of commiseration and sadness.  In front of a fire, at each end of a long room, on the ground floor, were grouped a large number of women and children.  Deformity was the prevailing characteristic of these persons.  Idiotcy [sic] and mental imbecility were marked in almost every visage, both of women and children. Such an absence of beauty in a collection of human beings we never witnessed.  There were about thirty women and children in the room and we counted no fewer than twenty-six of deficient intellect.’

Despite the obvious failings of the workhouse, many of which were caused by inadequate accommodation and lack of space, the reporter and other visitors admired the cleanliness and orderliness of the institution.  

But it was clear that the new North Bierley Board of Guardians had many long-term problems to deal with, not only at the workhouse, but throughout the network of sixteen formerly independent townships and parishes, with a population of over 60,000 people.


The Thackley workhouse was built for the poor of Idle township, including Thackley.  It had no connections with other townships, and certainly not the list that has been quoted, for example, in Idlethorp, where Wright Watson attributes management of the institution to the North Bierley Board, which was not brought into existence until 1848. 

One of a growing number of Acts of Parliament attempting to deal with the poor, Gilbert’s Act of 1782, permitted a combination of parishes to form themselves into temporary unions if necessary, such as for financial or practical purposes.  Numbers of paupers fluctuated, and locally this led to problems, but it’s unclear whether combinations were ever arranged until 1840, when the Calverley and Pudsey workhouses were closed and the inmates were divided between the workhouses at Bradford and Thackley. However, throughout the 19th century the number of paupers in the workhouse grew, as did the numbers of paupers being given outdoor relief, a form of relief which had been intended to end with the growth in size and number of workhouses.

The Workhouse buildings that we can see today form two short rows of cottages facing each other, the rows being divided by an access path and the cottage gardens. The row facing directly on to Windhill Old Road was the earliest part of the institution dating from 1765 and the only buildings shown consistently on maps throughout (and after) the life of the Workhouse. The total cost was £104/10/1.  The top cottage in the line is believed to have been the Master’s House, and has an ornate ‘Venetian style’ window in the gable end which distinguishes it from other cottages in the area.

The ‘Venetian style’ window in the original Master’s House

In the case of Thackley workhouse, growth had to be contained within the initial rectangular piece of land.   In 1790, stables were built at a cost of £34/17/10.  This was at right angles to the inner row of cottages as described above. The architect’s plan drawn for the sale of the entire former workhouse and land in 1898 suggests more than one building there, but without naming any previous uses.  There was a mortuary which might well have been in that corner, away from other residential buildings, forming a mixture of utility areas. The inner row was probably one of the necessary additions to the workhouse, built when needs changed.  But since it is not shown on maps, including the OS maps throughout the period, no building date can be stated with certainty. It has been said that it was originally one long room downstairs, heated from a huge fireplace at each end, with the dormitory above. 

Within this rectangle, bounded on three sides with buildings, was a cobbled courtyard, Many of the tasks that could be done by inmates outside, such as picking oakum, or removing burrs and dead matter from sheep fleeces, would take place there, in amongst the endless lines of wet bed-linen and paupers’ uniforms.  Laundry was washed by the female inmates as part of their obligatory work and was hung out to dry in the exercise yards, in the wind if not the sun.

The rear of the cottages that face on to Windhill Old Road

 In the mid-19th century, land adjacent to the fourth side of the rectangle was purchased, thus opening up an extensive area that became a vegetable garden for the Workhouse.  It was common for workhouses to grow as much of their food as possible, the work being done by the inmates.  Vegetables were grown even in the crowded confines of urban workhouses such as that in Bradford, in conditions where very little flourished because of the perpetual industrial smog.  Workhouse diets, as stipulated by national regulations, were generous in amounts but tended to be stodgy.  Vegetables and fruit would add healthy variety to the diet, although they were rarely seen as part of the diet of working people and were regarded with suspicion.

After the intake of inmates from Calverley and Pudsey, there were 41 inmates in Thackley, and more extensions were needed.  These were completed,  but another visit from a Poor Law inspector in 1845 recommended further alterations, and that a fever ward be provided.  The exercise yard was also divided by a wall to give men and women their own separate spaces.  This was the time when the extra garden area was added, to provide inmates with exercise, work, and healthy food.  The house was then said to be capable of accommodating a hundred inmates, although it was unlikely it was ever full. The author of the Bradford Observer article in 1848, quoted earlier, remarked that the workhouse ‘as a refuge for the parish poor of a country district, doubtless affords all the comfort that is expected or required’.

The Tithe map of 1847, again with inaccurately drawn buildings

There is never a mention of anything for the paupers beyond what was legally necessary, and basic standards meant the only luxury in the paupers’ lives was the Christmas Dinners: ‘a good dinner of old English fare – roast beef and plum-pudding … “Home-brewed” and “a pipe” afterwards formed the “luxuries” of the old, and spice cake that of the young’.  The meal was provided every year by the Visiting Committee and members of the Board, and ‘Many feelings of gratitude were manifested by the poor people, whose enjoyment on this festival was thus cared for.’ 

As the population of the workhouse continued to grow, the space must have become uncomfortably tight.  By 1844 there were 80 inmates, but only 35 beds; workhouses were notorious for their unhealthy practice of putting two adults per bed, and more than two children per cot or bed.  When the guests arrived for the first North Bierley Guardians meeting in 1848, as reported, even the governor was inconvenienced by the lack of space, as he had ‘with some ingenuity, converted his own dwelling, which is under the same roof, and divides the male side of the house from the female side, into a board room.’  This implies that the original Master’s House was no longer being used as such.

But still more accommodation was insisted upon by the Poor Law authorities.  This included more dormitories, two sick wards and sick day rooms; infirm men were to have a combined sleeping and day room. Some much-needed additional washing facilities were at last provided.

The later row of cottages opposite the original row

But there were ongoing issues which were never dealt with: there was no separate accommodation for children, and their education was seriously neglected. They spent their days in the presence of some of the unsuitable people who lived in or passed through the workhouse, and as a school inspector noted  ‘None could read and I do not know I have ever met children in a state of greater ignorance’.

There was disagreement as to what the answer was, very much affected by the question of money.  There was pressure at a national level to provide large institutional workhouses that could cope with all the categories of the poor, and it was clear the earlier generation of small workhouses like Thackley could not satisfy those requirements.  But the Board of North Bierley were wary of the costs of building a new workhouse which would surmount all the difficulties of updating and expanding the old one.

Eventually, in 1854, Mr Farnall, District Inspector of the Poor Law Board, was brought in to give an “able and lucid address’  to the Guardians ‘in advocacy of the advantages which would flow to the ratepayers as well as the poor themselves“, if a new modern workhouse was built.  At great length Mr Farnall told them how beneficial and economical a new workhouse would be, and did not mince his words in telling the Board how ‘the Idle workhouse is nearly as ineffective and inefficient a workhouse as any within Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire’. 

He warned the Guardians to ‘remember distinctly the different classes of people whom you have to relieve.  You have the idle and the dissolute, though able-bodied poor, the aged and infirm poor, the idiot or imbecile poor, the orphans, the illegitimate and the deserted children, and those whom unforeseen and unavoidable calamity have reduced to poverty, and finally you have the way-faring poor and the tramps.’

Of the latter, he said, I believe you pay for placing these vagabonds in lodging-houses, and by doing so you may certainly make the fortunes of the low lodging-house keepers,’  This refers to a common method of dealing with the particular problem of vagrants and tramps, who were unwelcome in workhouses because cramped conditions often meant the vagrants could not be quarantined from the rest of the inmates.  This was necessary firstly because of the danger that they brought in infectious disease, and vermin and secondly because of their offensive behaviour, but it was a costly form of ‘outdoor relief’.  The Inspector continued to analyse the problem of not only vagrants but also people whose drinking habits and ensuing behaviour was disruptive, saying that

 …’your workhouse at Idle does not afford you the means of either classifying its inmates, or subjecting them to such wholesome discipline and regulations as will tend to check their unruly propensities and reckless habits.’

Again and again he stressed how the lack of facilities at Idle caused distress to the other inmates, asking if it was fair that the 65 old and infirm people now in Idle workhouse should be occupants of the same rooms and the same yards as the 29 imbecile or idiot poor you have there?’

Turning to the question of expenses, and undoubtedly aware that Boards of Guardians in the Bradford area were noted for their parsimony, Mr Farnall explained how much of the ratepayers’ money was going to support people who should be paying their way by working for their relief money in the workhouse, but because of lack of space were getting outdoor relief.  He told the guardians that

‘You have today upon your books 1993 recipients of parochial relief, and of these 996 are infirm and aged people, but 722 of them are children under 16 years of age, and 275 of them are able-bodied men and women, and the weekly amount of out-relief distributed to them is £116.9s.’

Persuaded by these arguments, the North Bierley Board members agreed that a new workhouse should be built. 

North Bierley workhouse, 1893, already extended from its original layout

Thackley workhouse closed in 1858; the inmates were moved to the new Union Workhouse at Clayton Heights, where 250 inmates could be housed, in what was described as ‘the Siberia of the North Bierley Union’.

The old workhouse buildings at Thackley were eventually sold for £700 in 1898, to members of the Raistrick family who owned Bowling Green Mill and other properties in Thackley.  The workhouse building were converted into cottages.  Now surrounded by suburban housing, they form an attractive and unusual group of dwellings – and there is now no stigma attached to “living in the Workhouse.”

The plan for the sale of the Thackley workhouse

Dr Hester Marvell

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