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Norfolk in World War I

December 4, 2014

Celebrating the workhouse war effort – by Stephen Pope

Civil servants responsible for the UK’s public health provision at the start of World War I coordinated a huge logistical task. They offered to work with the Ministry of Defence to find accommodation to house and train all the new army recruits required to fight a major land war against Germany in Europe. Their inspired solution was to ask the Local Government Board in London to make available any spare workhouse capacity that it had in towns, cities and rural areas like Norfolk. The granting of Old Age Pensions to those over 70 years of age in 1908 meant that by 1914 many of the elderly could afford to live at home. Fewer people in the workhouse created spare capacity that could be used for the war effort. This ensured that medical and healthcare provision for recruits could be managed in practical terms, and it secured the humane treatment of prisoners of war too.

Postcard photograph of Aylsham Workhouse, Norfolk, in World War I. Author’s personal collection

Postcard photograph of Aylsham Workhouse, Norfolk, in World War I. Author’s personal collection

From the start of the war the Local Government Board supported the military by sending out circulars urging workhouse guardians to make arrangements to admit troops into public buildings. Some 20,000 troops were in training camps in Norfolk by the end of 1914, ensuring that local guardians felt obligated to assist. At first, most were accommodated in tents. As winter approached, wooden huts were being built, but the military realised that workhouses could provide weather-proof accommodation for the troops. 

In the early days of the war effort, army units paid workhouses directly for requisitioned accommodation. Utilities expenses for fresh water supplies, and coal or oil heating and cooking costs, were refunded promptly to encourage more guardians to cooperate. St Faith’s Union to the north of Norwich, for example, was where the 2nd Service Norfolk Battery Royal Field Artillery were based. During training they paid £13 a quarter direct to the Matron of the local workhouse. Then on 1 July 1915 a formal financial compensation scheme was devised by civil servants. A Local Government Board official circular was sent out detailing a schedule for all guardians to be compensated by the Army Council for the ongoing use of workhouses’ facilities, with any expenses paid via a local Quartering Committee.

As well as billeting troops in many Norfolk workhouses, basic public health provision was also covered for recruits in the local area, including bathing and washing facilities, and the laundry disinfection of clothing. Yarmouth in February 1916 was asked to provide bathing for an extra 1,500 troops per week. King’s Lynn in August 1915 agreed to house 250 men from the Royal Berkshire Yeomanry and allowed a further 400 men to use the dining hall to get a nutritious meal.

Gradually, with the approach of winter in 1915, the military once again requested that local workhouses house even more troops. At Aylsham, for example, the City of London Yeomanry requested the use of another wing and the stables. The workhouse guardians were only able to offer the use of a Children’s Home that had been purchased in December 1914. They needed however to first rehouse the children before handing it over to the military. The children were sent to a nearby workhouse and then by February they were moved again to West Beckham and Smallburgh Workhouses, smaller facilities which had spare capacity along the Norfolk coast.

The progress of the war effort often depended on boards of guardians deciding to vacate workhouse buildings altogether. In Norfolk the Docking Workhouse was taken over by the War Office in November 1916, although the guardians requested the continual use of the board room and the stables. This necessitated the transfer of inmates to the King’s Lynn workhouse, a decision that was not without incident. The workhouse Medical Officer at King’s Lynn refused to have anything to do with the Docking inmates. Unfortunately one of the transferred inmates, a baby of two months, had recently been vaccinated and subsequently died from an infected arm. The Medical Officer was censured for not seeing the baby on its arrival and was subsequently forced to resign, in May 1917.

Like many of the workhouses in the county, Smallburgh had been quick in August 1914 to offer accommodation to the War Office. It had the capacity to house up to 800 pauper inmates, although it rarely held more than 100 at any one time, and so had space for the army recruits. The local Tunstead and District Volunteer Training Corps in December 1914 used the stable yard and erected a miniature rifle range with removable targets and butts. With the arrival of winter in 1916, the military then asked to use the workhouse building to accommodate troops. The guardians were still hoping to continue to use part of the building, but by December they had finally agreed to give up the whole workhouse to the military and transferred their inmates to Heckingham.

Other workhouses, such as Horsham St Faith and Lingwood, were also used to accommodate troops but were never fully taken over by the military. At Lingwood the Local Defence Corps asked to use the large dining room for drill, but this was refused as it was thought it would disturb the inmates in the sick wards. Lingwood, like other workhouses in the county, became home to inmates from workhouses that had been taken over by the military, receiving arrivals from Rollesby in January 1917.

Gradually these changes also started to impinge on hospital provision for the vulnerable. In March 1915 all Norfolk workhouses received a letter from the County Asylum at Thorpe outside Norwich. It stated that Thorpe would no longer be able to receive mentally ill patients because it was being taken over as a military hospital. The asylum inmates were reassessed and redistributed to other county asylums in Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Many of them were never to return. All new patients were now to be sent to Hellesdon Asylum in Norwich. A decision was also taken to try to utilise any spare capacity in newly built infirmaries in the county. Wayland Poor Law Infirmary, for instance, had been constructed near Attleborough in 1912. By November 1917 it had been redesignated as a military hospital, and its sick poor were transferred to Thetford Workhouse to free up military beds. Meanwhile, parts of the workhouse at Swainsthorpe were used by the Red Cross Society as a hospital for wounded soldiers from October 1915 to February 1919.

As the military started to require more and more manpower, and with the introduction of conscription in 1916, so members of staff in workhouses became liable for call-up. Few workhouses though had men of military age; often it was only the Master, Porter and Medical Officers who found themselves being conscripted. Medical Officers in particular were required by the military. By March 1916, the Local Government Board formally asked all workhouse guardians to release Medical Officers age 45 and under for military service. While smaller workhouses, for instance Swaffham, could afford to let go of their resident medical men, in most cases the guardians maintained that they could not spare theirs. At Aylsham by 1917 the guardians found themselves short of experienced staff. The Porter had been called up in May 1916, and although the Master applied for exemption, by April 1917 the military had appealed and he was also called up too. The workhouse was left to be run by the Matron and her sister.

Guardians often appeared before local tribunals on behalf of their staff to gain exemption from military service. The Assistant Clerk at Lingwood, McRoberts, was granted such an exemption in May 1916. It was however only granted for a short period; by September it was withdrawn and he enlisted in October. His place was taken by Miss Florence Kendall, but at a much reduced salary: £5 instead of £40. In contrast, the guardians often offered to make up any loss of a Master’s salary when he was serving on a reduced pay grade as a solider or officer. Yet one essential role in workhouses was increasingly difficult to fill, that of the general nursing staff. Many nurses left to work in military hospitals either through a sense of patriotism or because they were better paid there. Thetford Workhouse had a great deal of difficulty retaining nursing staff. In January 1916 there was one Head Nurse and just two assistant nurses in service to tend its 300 beds: on average they cared for 144 inmates per night throughout 1916.

One aspect of the workhouse war effort that merits closer attention is the use of the buildings to house German Prisoners of War (POWs) in Norfolk. Horsham St Faith workhouse housed 50 POWs in a disused building on site in 1919 while they were cleaning out the dam and dykes at a local mill. At Kenninghall, POWs were involved in getting in the 1918 harvest, working in 62 parties throughout the local area. The prisoners worked a 60-hour week and received pay at a rate of 5d per hour for skilled agricultural labour and 4d per hour for unskilled tasks. Two of the POWs are known to have died during their period at Kenninghall: Otto Kohnert on 9 January 1918 and Ludwig Wingert on 15 January 1918. Both were initially buried in the local churchyard before being reinterred in the German War Cemetery at Cannock Chase in January 1963.

POWs arrived at Gressenhall Workhouse in April 1918, and were employed on local farms and clearing out the river Wensum. On arrival they were paraded in the courtyard and inspected by the Medical Officer, Dr John Duigan. He was appointed as a civilian medical practitioner by the military authorities, meaning that he was responsible for the healthcare and welfare of the POWs. Unable to speak German, he relied on a prisoner from Cologne who spoke at least six languages. On several occasions Duigan had to act as a dentist, extracting teeth. Lacking a dentist’s chair, he relied on a burly German prisoner to hold the patient’s head while he took out the decayed tooth.

During the POWs’ time at Gressenhall Workhouse an epidemic of influenza broke out in the camp, with four cases also developing pneumonia. The Army asked Duigan to send them to a hospital in Norwich or Cambridge, but he refused. The POWs were officially under Army control, yet had to abide by workhouse rules. Duigan decided he had the medical authority to keep them at Gressenhall. He was later informed that Gressenhall was the only military base not to have deaths from the epidemic. Duigan credited this to his refusal to transport the pneumonia cases on a risky journey and the good nursing the sick men received from their fellow prisoners. This style of care, however, often contravened workhouse rules. Physical contact between any remaining Poor Law inmates and the POWs should have been minimal, but a female inmate, Mabel Bowman, was found in the camp fraternising with one of the German prisoners. She was not punished because the guardians blamed any laxity on the military guards in charge of the prisoners.

Intriguingly, at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, a parcel lid for German prisoner number 18339 has survived today in the museum collection. It was sent by the prisoner’s family and never left the workhouse.

As a result of military occupation a number of Norfolk workhouses never reopened after the war ended, among them Docking, Swaffham and Smallburgh (which had been damaged by fire and been left in a very dirty condition in 1918). The majority of Norfolk workhouses had provided a valuable service to the war effort in practical ways that merit a celebration of their medical successes 100 years on.

Stephen Pope spent 27 years in the Royal Air Force as a radar technician. After leaving, he worked front of house at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum in Norfolk. On retiring, he became a volunteer researcher at the Museum and continues to research the history of the Poor Law in Norfolk. If you too have information about the workhouse war effort in World War I, do get in touch with Stephen (

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