This Edwardian workhouse tells a harrowing story of those who were forced to trade hard labor for lodging.
Guildford Union Workhouse Casual Ward was built in 1906, to temporarily house the vagrant folk of the town. Though this may sound charitable and preferable to some other alternatives, this workhouse, like many others, was located on the outskirts of town, thereby relegating society’s ill, infirm, and impoverished, away from the communities they wished to be part of. With a maximum stay of two nights, and compulsory hard labor to “earn their keep,” the workhouse was far from homely for those it supposedly welcomed.
The ward gained the nickname “the Spike,” in reference to the sharp tools provided to pick oakum, one of the laborious tasks that some residents were required to perform in exchange for their night in a tightly confined, and locked, cell. Once locked in for the night, the occupant could only leave once their manual labor was completed.
As well as the eponymous oakum picking, another manual labor on the site was the task of stone breaking. This involved, as its name suggests, breaking up large stones for use in road making and other construction. This task involved specialized cells, with grills upon the outer window into the yard, through which only stones broken to the desired size could be passed. Of the Spike’s original 13 stone-breaking cells, three survive with grills still in place.
Such tasks were partly to pay for the occupants’ board, but they also serve as a reflection of early 20th-century attitudes toward those less fortunate. Many believed that the “able-bodied poor” were victims of their own laziness, and that compulsory hard work could resolve their situation. Regardless of its believed improving effects, however, some still felt the hard-working stone breakers remained a nuisance, for many locals complained about the noise produced by the labor each morning. The Spike now operates as a museum with guided tours available.
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