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Lambeth’s crowded workhouse

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Leave the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s headquarters and turn left at the far end of Lambeth High Street. You are now in Black Prince Road, which was once known as Workhouse Lane. On the right, just after Tyers Street, you reach the original site of the Lambeth parish workhouse, opened in 1726 to look after the area’s poor and destitute. The plot is now occupied by dreary blocks of flats, with no evidence of its former use.

In 1866, Lambeth’s workhouse was the subject of an exposé in the Pall Mall Gazette. The report contained graphic descriptions of its primitive accommodation, in which 30 men had to share a room only 30ft square, and inmates were expected to bathe in a “mutton broth bath”.

In the same year a report on the workhouse appeared in The Lancet, which was investigating conditions in London workhouse infirmaries. The report noted that the workhouse had an official capacity of 1,100 inmates, of whom about 900 required medical care and around 70 were housed in its insane wards.

The infirmary’s only paid staff were its male superintendent, who also acted as dispenser, a female superintendent sick-nurse, who also acted as midwife, and male and female superintendents of the lunatics. They were assisted by 72 pauper nurses who received additional food for their work.

The Lancet report proposed the building of a new infirmary “on modern principles”. This recommendation seems to have been acted on, since in 1873 the workhouse relocated to nearby Renfrew Road, in a new building that catered for 820 inmates.

But 15 years later the original site was reopened as an experimental workhouse that only housed able-bodied inmates. The 200 men and 150 women had to endure a strict regime and carry out work such as stone-breaking and oakum-picking.

The aged and infirm remained at the Renfrew Road site, which continued as a workhouse until 1922. It then amalgamated with an adjacent infirmary to become Lambeth Hospital.

By the start of the 1939–45 war Lambeth Hospital could accommodate 1,250 patients. But it closed in 1976, when services moved to St Thomas’ Hospital.

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