In 1837 they built a Victorian Workhouse on Bridgwater’s Northgate. In 2016 it was finally demolished to build a new and much needed primary school. Today all that stands to remind us of the dreadful conditions of an atrocious system designed by a government to persecute its own people is a small monument at the school gate.
On 29th July 2017, as part of the Quayside Festival celebrations, three real chained-up dignitaries -not actors prancing round the town dressed as seagulls, giant bees or faux opera singers, gathered on the site of the workhouse to unveil three plaques that told the story of the workhouse system and the Y-shaped prison-like structure that dominated the Northgate skyline for more than a hundred years and commonly known as ‘the Big House’ where you would be threatened with being sent if life got too hard, money got too scarce or your fortunes took a nose dive. A place where you’d be forced into uniform, dominated by strict martinets, faced beatings, hard labour and in some cases even the final indignity of forced dissection for medical experiment.
Blaming the poor for being poor
The workhouse system was introduced by Act of Parliament – a New Poor Law to blame the poor for the condition they found themselves in instead of the system that caused that vast inequality of wealth in the first place. A system designed to humiliate , shame and blame that was ended in 1929 and eventually replaced by the modern National Health Service, the re-distributive social security system and bolstered by employment rights, social housing and education for all.
In Bridgwater, the Northgate workhouse was demolished in the 1960s and the final bit of it – the hospital – pulled down in 2016.
The monument on the actual site was unveiled by Mayor of Bridgwater Cllr Graham Granter, helped by Chair of Somerset County Council Cllr William Wallace and Chair of Sedgemoor District Council Cllr Mike Creswell, and tells the story of the workhouse in a way that children could understand it but also contains a link to tell a more detailed version www.bridgwaterworkhouse.com
Look to the Future
Cllr Brian Smedley, Leader of Bridgwater Town Council, who had worked on the texts, spoke at the unveiling telling the history of the Workhouse and concluding “The workhouse system was an evil perpetrated on the poor and should never be forgotten. That it’s gone and remembered for what it was can only be a good thing. That it’s been replaced by a school for future generations can only be a good thing. And good will come out of this site. Through the co-operation of the Town, District and County Councils, Northgate will soon blossom forth with a celebration mile, a major leisure facility, enhanced green spaces, and a school all complementing the historic town centre. The best thing we can say about the workhouse is that it’s gone and future generations will benefit from what is built on its historic footprint.”