by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer
In 2014 whilst working in Southwark Archives, an ex-colleague Steve, came to me with a card from the card index and asked me if I knew anything about the details on it. On the card was the title of a film – My Little Grey Home in the West by John Goldschmidt, a student of the National Film and Television School. The card stated that the council’s social services had purchased a copy of the film and it was shown at a Welfare Committee meeting on 13th January 1970. The film was about Newington Lodge Public Assistance Institution for the homeless, a portrait of some of its residents. The film was released in 1968, one year before its demolition. I will return to this…
From orphanage to infirmary to workhouse to homeless institution to lodge
Throughout its history, Newington Lodge changed its name and its use several times. Although from 1852 it was the Workhouse for St Mary Newington parish, run by the Governors and Guardians of the Poor, the building started life in 1850 as a children’s home and school. The need for workhouse accommodation however, was becoming desperate and the children resident there were moved to a District school in Anerley. The new workhouse which replaced the overcrowded one on Walworth Road opposite the present day Westmoreland Road, was designed by Henry Jarvis (the same architect who designed Newington Vestry) and constructed on the other end of Westmoreland Road, near to Thurlow Street. It occupied the area of what is now Latimer Block (opposite the Hour Glass pub) on the Aylesbury Estate. The area was called Walworth Villa Estate and was part of Walworth Common.
Men and women were housed in opposite parts of the workhouse. The infirmary was located roughly in the middle and there was accommodation for around 500.
Being sick, having a mental illness, being too old to care for yourself or unemployed and without the financial means to help yourself left you little choice in finding shelter, food or care in 19th Century London. A spell at the Workhouse was the last or only choice, particularly if you were single and unmarried with children. However, the 1834 Poor Law Act which was brought in to overhaul the poor relief system introduced a more robust administrative system in England and Wales. Local parishes formed Unions and within these were an elected body of Guardians, each with the responsibility of the care of the poor across their individual parish.
The new act contributed towards a change in attitudes toward the poor and their predicaments were seen as self-inflicted. The Workhouse would be seen more as a deterrent and a place to work in order to earn food and shelter. The new act meant that it was now unlawful for any poor able-bodied unemployed man or woman to claim poor relief (though outdoor relief remained for widows, children and the sick).
Conditions at workhouses up and down the country are well documented and St Mary Newington Workhouse was no different. Sharing bathing water and towels, skin infections, poor quality diet, back-breaking work, high mortality rates and poor sanitary conditions are just some of the experiences reported. There was an open sewer, part of the Earl Sluice, situated by the shed of the workhouse which also happened to be the place that the very sick were sent for fresh air and separation from other inmates. It was not difficult to see why people felt that they were in a prison, their crime being poverty.
Moreover, being given the term ‘inmate’ which was the general description given to residents at workhouses and asylums and carried out into the 20th Century, undoubtedly contributed to a general stigma and prejudice that existed toward the poor. So much so that it was not uncommon for people to record alternative addresses for babies born in one.
The discovery of “unclaimed” bodies at St Mary Newington Workhouse being sold to the Anatomy School of Guy’s Hospital by the Workhouse master, Alfred Feist and his collaborator and undertaker, Robert Hogg, showed the dispensability with which those in power could treat the poor. However, this discovery proved to be a major scandal for the Southwark Board of Guardians, particularly as it was revealed that the relatives of those who had pauper funerals were defrauded. The coffins were filled with stones or the bodies of their relatives substituted with the bodies of other inmates (The St James’s Chronicle, 21 January 1858). Adding insult to injury, during their trial at the Central Criminal Court in 1858, Hogg escaped prosecution owing to a deal between his solicitor and the Poor Law inspector, while Feist, although found guilty of collusion, was freed on a point of law which basically said the relatives did not originally specify that they didn’t want their deceased relatives dissected. Careful what you do not wish for.
During the 1860s and 1870s a number of extensions took place at Newington Workhouse to accommodate the increasing number of poor, sick and homeless people. For example in around 1866 a 2-storey female ‘vagrant’ ward was added.
In 1869 St Mary Newington and St George the Martyr Parishes joined St Saviour’s Union. So the administration of St George’s, Mint Street, Christchurch, Marlborough Street and Newington Workhouses came under one Board of Guardians. (It’s worth pointing out that St Mary Newington Guardians remained the owners of the buildings used for poor relief in their parish, which meant that St Saviour’s Union paid St Mary’s rent, which they in turn could use to improve the Walworth Common Estate). A new female infirmary with laundry and bakery was built along Thurlow Street.
By 1877 it became necessary to convert Newington Workhouse into an Infirmary for the large number of sick in the St Saviour’s Union area. Outbreaks of smallpox still blighted the Infirmary and overcrowding soon became not just a health issue but a nuisance to the local residents, who endured the sight of daily removals of dead bodies from the Infirmary. The Infirmary now had in excess of 1000 inmates. Meanwhile, a new, larger infirmary was built on Champion Hill in 1887 and the sick poor were soon moved there from Newington Infirmary. The mother of screen legend, Charlie Chaplin, stayed there in 1896. A seven year old Charlie and his brother stayed in the Newington Workhouse along with some 1300 inmates.
Children’s activities in the workhouse varied; girls mainly did household work and learned the duties of being a housemaid which would see them fit for work outside of the Workhouse. Boys were educated and given religious instruction and taught skills like blacksmithing.
Apart from another change in name in 1899 to Newington Institution, possibly as a result of the formation of the metropolitan boroughs, the building’s purpose was unchanged. It was still run as a workhouse, though now under the administration of the new Southwark Board of Guardians as the day to day administration of the former vestries was transferred to the Metropolitan Boroughs of London. Further alterations and additions were made in the turn of the 20th Century. One of them being the married couple’s quarters and a few years later it would be possible for older couples to make their own meals!
However, overcrowding and understaffing continued to be a major problem for the workhouse. The treatment of inmates was still archaic and often cruel.
Newington Institution survived World War I largely unscathed, though it did its bit like many large establishments in helping the war effort by providing accommodation for the sick and injured and recycling food by-products for munitions.
By 1929 with the introduction of the Local Government Act, Workhouses were replaced by Public Institutions and the Board of Guardians replaced by the London County Council (LCC) and a new Public Assistance Committee. The new committee assumed responsibility for the workhouses of Gordon Road, Christchurch and Newington. One of the major changes during the 1930s was to no longer admit the mentally ill. They were sent to asylums. Single men, women and the elderly infirm were still admitted. Other aesthetic changes were made, including the inclusion of radios, flowers, a reduction in the number of beds, lockers for residents, bed side chairs, table cloths and so on. Crucially, from around 1937 residents were allowed leave for the day.
Newington Public Institution suffered extensive bomb damage during the Blitz in 1941 but it carried on housing residents and provided accommodation for families made homeless as a result of bomb damage to their homes. Like elsewhere food rationing was a fact of life. By 1947 the over 60s had free movement and whilst bomb damage repairs were being undertaken, there was a reduction in beds which accommodated the elderly, infirm, healthy and a small unit for expectant mothers. From 1948, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act, the Institution became temporary accommodation for homeless people and families.
Changes and conversions continued apace in the 1950s, mainly to try and remove reminders of the workhouse days, though it was impossible to do that for the exterior of the building, which remained imposing and drab. It was renamed Newington Lodge, replacing ‘Institution,’ a term reminiscent of workhouse days. Televisions and new upholstery were introduced and further extensions and modifications were made for elderly couples.
For all the praise Newington Lodge received for these positive changes, the conditions in which its homeless families were purported to be living was becoming an ever increasing issue in the late 1950s and 1960s, gaining the attention of television broadcasters and the press much to the increasing irritation of the LCC, who felt that it was an intrusion into the lives of the elderly and homeless.
“Up to three families are crammed into one room at Newington Lodge, and the rooms contain up to thirteen beds. Edna shares two toilets with sixty-four other people….
…the doctor told Edna that there was dysentery “in the walls” and warned her to keep her children as clean as she could” (Families Without A Home, by Jeremy Sandford , The Observer, 17th September 1961).
In 1966 the new London Borough of Southwark were more amenable and gave permission for the BBC to film in the old hostel block of the Lodge. This surely added to the perception of an archaic institution, still stuck in the past, when scenes from the film were used in the controversial docu-drama Cathy Come Home, a film about homelessness.
By the mid 1960s, the number of elderly, infirm and homeless families accommodated was down to around 15. Even though the old area of Walworth Common, including Newington Lodge was now earmarked for redevelopment for the building of the new Aylesbury Estate housing area, amenities carried on being provided for the mainly elderly residents.
Some images of the former Newington Lodge, c.1969 from Southwark Archives
Back to that Index card
The last warden of Newington Lodge was Mr R Morley and it was under his management that approval for a film about the residents at the Lodge was made in 1968 by John Goldschmidt. My Little Grey Home in the West would be exhibited at the National Film Theatre and Royal College of Arts the same year to critical acclaim. By the following year the number of residents at Newington Lodge was around 272. They were transferred to various sites including the new Livesey old people’s home and by 17 June the last residents were moved out, leaving the former workhouse empty after 117 years. On 31 July 1969, Councillor Mrs L N Brown, Mayor of Southwark removed the first brick from Newington Lodge, beginning its demolition.
Sadly, the copy of the film purchased by the social services department in 1969 could not be traced, but knowing how important it was to have a copy for the borough, particularly given the year it was made, shortly before its demolition, I decided to contact Mr John Goldschmidt directly and the rest is history (sorry) as they say.
I put the British Film Institute in touch with John who, as a true professional, had safely stored both the original negative and soundtrack. Arrangements were made thereafter to digitise the film with the BFI and a DVD copy was donated to Southwark Archives. We thank both John and the BFI and of course, my ex-colleague Steve who showed me the index card with the title of the film on it.
The film is available to view within the archive for privatenresearch purposes and it is hoped that one day it will be available on BFI player.
Much of the research for this blog comes from A History of Newington Lodge 1849 – 1969 written in 1970 by Mr B G Morley of Southwark Council’s welfare department. We owe a debt of gratitude for the research he undertook.
Living in the Shadows, Southwark News, 7 July 2005
Southwark Civic News, No.9 October 1969
Grim Realities – a Model Workhouse, by James Greenwood (copy of essay, Pamphlets collection ref. 362.51)
St Mary Newington Vestry Minutes