St Ives Workhouse

St Ives Workhouse
There are few better ways to understand the raw edge of social history than to read about how the poor of St Ives were cared for. From John Cole, just 3 weeks old, to James Inglett aged 94. For a history of the St Ives Parish Poorhouse and the Union Workhouse, read on.

You can access all of the available census records for the St Ives Union Workhouse at the foot of this page. If you are looking for a particular person, all the names mentioned in the census records (and elsewhere on this site) are listed in the Surname Index.

Care for the poor

Relief has been available for centuries. In 1601 Queen Elizabeth I passed the Act for Relief of the Poor. This made parishes responsible for their care. The cost was funded by a poor rate tax on property owners. Grants of money, food, clothing or fuel were made to those living in their own homes. By housing the poor in a single location, economies of scale could be applied.

By the early 1800s the amount spent nationally on poor relief had quadrupled. Causes were an economic downturn and less need for agricultural labour. There was a widespread belief that the system was being abused. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 encouraged the building of union workhouses. Groups of parishes, or 'unions', built their own. Soon there were hundreds of workhouses throughout England.

Typically organised to discourage their use, a porter or relief officer had to approve each applicant. Having followed a period of severe hardship, entry to the workhouse would have been a distressing experience. After a bath the inmate would be medically examined and issued with a uniform. Men, women and children were often separated, as were the able bodied and infirmed. Women did cooking, sewing and laundry. Men might perform hard physical work, such as stone breaking, bone crushing or oakum picking.

How did people end up in the workhouse? Some were too poor to support themselves during periods of unemployment. Unmarried pregnant women, disowned by their families, had little option but to enter the workhouse. Homelessness was another cause. Those mentally ill or mentally handicapped were often assigned to the workhouse, described as 'idiotical' or 'imbecile'. Having no-one willing to provide support during old age or sickness was a factor. Aged or disabled inmates with no family could face spending the rest of their lives in the workhouse.

Mothers with young children could be widows or abandoned. Their husbands may have travelled elsewhere searching for work. If with a single child, they were most likely unmarried. There were abandoned or orphaned children, isolate and aged from as young as a few months.

Workhouse medical treatment was basic in the early days. Female inmates provided the nursing care. Scandals of poor skills and hygiene led to legislation which improved conditions. From the 1880s the poor were admitted for the sole purpose of receiving medical attention. This marked the beginning of Britain's state funded medical service.

Poor relief in St Ives
There was a parish poorhouse in St Ives before 1719. Below is a map showing the poorhouse in 1808. It blocked off the east end of Market Hill, as shown marked in red. In 1812 a new poorhouse was built in what is now Station Road.
St Ives own Union Workhouse was built in 1834. The map below is from 1899. The building still exists. It now forms rather elegant apartments on the A1096 heading away from St Ives towards the A14. 
Census records
Information on St Ives Union Workhouse inmates and staff is shown in the census records, taken every ten years from 1841. Each census gives details of inmates. The 1861 census is somewhat different, only showing initials of inmates to afford some degree of privacy. The graph below shows total inmates for the censuses to 1911.

The 1851 census gives a snapshot of how economic changes could result in St Ives residents finding themselves in the Workhouse. There was a quadrupling of inmates in the ten years from 1841. More than half of those in the Workhouse in 1851 were there through unemployment. Almost half the male occupants showed their occupation as 'farm labourer'. Clearly, it was a bad time if you worked on the land. Developments in agriculture meant less labour was needed. Once a farm labourer lost his job, the tied cottage went as well, dilapidated as it might have been. Agriculture workers were often hired on a daily basis rather than permanently employed.  

Another cause of the 1851 unemployment crisis may be attributed to the Irish Potato Famine, 1845 to 1852. One million people emigrated from Ireland, many to ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow. Most stayed near to where they landed, too destitute to venture further inland. But there is evidence some made it as far as St Ives. Four Workhouse inmates are described as 'Irish tramp'. No doubt more were working in and around St Ives. With an excess of available labour, farmers could reduce wages.

In 1841 there were no whole family groups (i.e. father, mother and children) in the Workhouse. So long as a husband was present, there was enough employment in St Ives to keep the family away from the Workhouse. Ten years later children aged under 12 years made up 40% of the total. Almost two-thirds of these were still with their parents. This reflects whole families going into the Workhouse.

To read the census records themselves, click one of the images at the foot of this page.

Other records

There are minute books dating from 1836 dealing with the Board of Guardian's general policies and issues. Also registers of births and deaths from 1836 to 1914 on microfilm. Additionally, you can read newspaper cuttings about the Board of Guardians' meetings.

There are few records for the poorhouses. Parish vestry minutes make occasional references to funds, staff appointments, building works etc. There is also a small bundle of estimates for repairs and alterations dating from 1817 to 1826.

Thanks to Bob Burn-Murdoch and Mary Carter for some of the information shown above.


  1. My 4th Great Grandfather George Luff, spent more than 10 years in the workhouse. In the 1901 census it says he worked on his "own account". Could you elaborate on the meaning of this category. I suspect he passed away while living there in 1903, at age 87. Could you tell me how this would have been handled and where he would have been buried. I am coming to St Ives in January to do some research on this branch of our family tree, but I only have three days, so the more I can find out before I get there the better. Thank you so much for your assistance. Darlene Lohnas Lockport, NY

    1. Hi Darlene. Not sure if you've spotted he was also on the 1891 census, page 3. In that census he's shown as a sawyer (his job was to saw wood). Although he was 75 years old then, he still considered himself out of work. There's a cross under column 8 'employed', meaning up to then he had worked for someone else. By the time we reach 1901 and age 85 years he's accepted he's now retired, describing his occupation as 'formerly'. The term 'on own account' is under the employer type, the choices given at the top of the column being 'Employer', Worker or On own account'. Could be that because of his age he was unable to get another job, so his last working days came from sawing and selling firewood directly to the public. For that he'd have come out of the Workhouse for a period, indicating he was maybe in there through ill health or purely age.

      If you Google 'George Luff, St Ives' a couple of sites come up mentioning that name for St Ives. There's an indication of a George Luff, sawyer and publican. The British Newspaper Archives mention a George Luff, landlord of the Woolpack, Eaton Socon, which is about 15 miles away from St Ives.

      Finally, keep an occasional eye on the St Ives 100 Years Ago surname index. Although there are only two entries for George Luff presently, I'm periodically updating the index and more entries might pop up.

      Hope you enjoy your visit to our beautiful little town. January probably isn't the best time to appreciate it, but you'll love the old buildings, narrow alleys and ancient bridge. What makes St Ives unique is the town centre is bordered by the River Great Ouse, a peaceful river that winds its way across the Fens to Great Yarmouth. On the other side of the river there are just ancient meadows, in summer full of wildflowers and insects and wildlife.

      You might want to contact the Norris Museum in St Ives to see if they can help your search. Also Huntingdon Archives, where most of the family history records for St Ives are kept. The Huntingdonshire Family History Society have a CD of gravestones in the county and other resources that may help.

      Hope you have a fruitful visit and are encouraged to visit again. Regards, John

  2. Thank you so much for the information. I will be sure to check out those places and google. Every little bit helps because you never know which one will lead you home. Thnks again.

  3. I lived in a flat at the Brambles in early 2000s and always had wondered what the history of the main building. I had almost rented a place in the main building but then a flat at one of the buildings behind it became available and having better scenery, it was my choice.

    Quite interearing stuff. Thanks!

    1. Appreciate the positive feedback, Hakan. Glad you enjoyed the read.