The rise and fall of the Union | Then & Now

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Roger Guttridge revisits the hillside site of Shaftesbury Workhouse

The former Shaftesbury Union Workhouse
All pictures from Roger Guttridge’s book Shaftesbury Through Time

A century ago, it was one of the dominant buildings on Shaftesbury’s southern slopes, but today you have to look hard even to find a vestige of the Union Workhouse.
In fact, the only detectable remains of the Dickensian edifice are the brick entrance splay, which has been filled in, and part of the old nurses’ quarters and washroom, which survive as a single-storey bungalow known as Valley Cottage.
The 19th century building in Umbers Hill off Breach Lane was constructed in local stone, some of which was quarried on or near the site.
The Union Workhouse succeeded two poorhouses – one at Motcombe, which housed the women, the other at Gillingham, which accommodated men.

The surviving former nurses’ quarters and washroom

It took time to find a suitable site for the workhouse. One negotiation was abandoned after Earl Grosvenor suddenly realised the proposed building might be visible from Motcombe House.

Three young women, a baby and a dog relax in the field now occupied by Shaftesbury Homegrown

The workhouse stigma
Once it did open, the typically austere-looking workhouse accepted poor folk not only from Shaftesbury but also Gillingham and many surrounding villages, including the Stours and
Fontmell Magna.
In Shaftesbury: An Illustrated History, Brenda Innes quotes a couple of touching entries from the 19 volumes of workhouse minutes.
One records an offer by Mary Foot and her mother to maintain her brother’s illegitimate child to save it from a workhouse upbringing.
Another refers to an old woman’s friends, who ‘refused to let her be taken into the workhouse’.
Both these references serve as reminders of the stigma that going into the workhouse involved in Victorian times.
So does the story of Shaftesbury’s Doctor Harris, who attended the confinements of gypsy women needing medical attention, to spare them the ordeal of giving birth in the workhouse.
The Union Workhouse, also known as Alcester House, was demolished in the early 1950s and replaced by modern houses and bungalows.
On the opposite side of Breach Lane, a field has been transformed into Shaftesbury Homegrown, a community farm and allotments.

The workhouse site today as viewed from Shaftesbury Homegrown. Image: Roger Guttridge

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