While today occupants of what is now known as Blythview tend to be holiday visitors, enjoying the pool facilities, the beauty of the Blyth valley and the beach at Southwold, there was a time when these buildings served a very different purpose and those that occupied them had very little satisfaction from their surroundings
England’s ancient Poor Laws brought violent reaction from some of our forefathers.
Bulcamp is not at the top of every Suffolk explorer’s list. The community consists of a few scattered farms and cottages straddling the A12 Ipswich-to-Lowestoft road near the village of Blythburgh. The hidden hamlet does not declare itself and so the unwary traveller might pass through it without ever realising they were in the locality.
But Bulcamp meant only one thing to our east Suffolk forefathers in the nineteenth century – the workhouse.
A Suffolk Rebellion
Suffolk is perhaps not renowned for the riotous behaviour of its inhabitants. The first riot took place 243 years ago on August 5th, 1765. The second, 173 years ago on December 21st. 1835. They both occurred at the same place – Bulcamp.
Both rebellions took place at the same location – the ‘H’ shaped building, which opened in 1766, and still stands on high ground just beyond Blyford parish church.
Assistance to the poor in England was governed by the Poor Laws which, from the 16th century, made parishes responsible for providing relief to those genuinely unable to work. It was also designed to prevent starvation in years when the harvest failed.
‘An Acte for the Reliefe of the Poore’ followed in 1601 and marked the foundation of the Old Poor Laws, empowering parish overseers to raise money for poor relief from the inhabitants of the parish, according to their ability to pay. The poor-rates were dispensed to the needy of the parish, usually in the form of bread or money.
The lion’s share of the poor-rates were obviously paid by the wealthiest occupiers of the land. They were anxious to lessen their financial burden and one answer to their problem was to construct a large building known initially as a ‘House of Industry’.
Although prosperity had increased by the eighteenth century in the area around Halesworth, problems still existed which were linked to poverty.
1764, the first meeting of directors and guardians took place at The Angel Hotel, Halesworth, to organise the financing and building of the Bulcamp ‘House of Industry’. It was to be built on high ground just beyond Blyford parish church. One of the directors, Sir. Thomas Gooch, laid the first brick on March 18th 1765 but completion of this building was hindered by a riotous mob and the destruction of the partially built edifice.
The London Magazine of August 5th reported: “On this day and the Monday evening, some thousand persons assembled near Saxmundham and Yoxford, and destroyed a building called the Industry House.’
A below-average harvest that year coupled with high prices and unemployment had resulted in bitterness and resentment amongst the rural poor. They also felt threatened by the new building and the probable loss of traditional rights to relief within their homes and parishes.
An extract from the minute-book of the Union House for September 2nd. 1765 records: “Mr. John Redgrave, Surveyor of the Works gave an estimate of the damage done, being £508 19s. 6d.”
The climate of fear about the workhouse was eventually allayed and the construction of the building was completed. The ‘House of Industry’ opened on 13th October 1766 with 56 poor inmates. By the following April the numbers had increased to 352.
With the riot in mind and because of malicious reports that were received, the directors explained to potential inmates that the conditions inside the house would be humane. This would include separate bedrooms for married couples, care of the sick, children to be taught to read, and “good new feather beds with proper furniture for the poor”.
However, by 1832 growing dissatisfaction with the whole system, particularly from the land and property-owning classes who bore the brunt of the poor-rate burden, led to the Whig government appointing a Royal Commission to review the system of administering poor relief.
The intention of The Poor Law Amendment Act was: “To raise the labouring classes from the idleness, improvidence and degradation into which the male administered relief laws had sunk them.”
The objective was also to provide a refuge for the ailing and helpless and to deter the able-bodied from claiming poor-relief. It was to be administered uniformly to all paupers nationwide.
The result was a much more Spartan regime, and by July 1835 relief was to be given only in the workhouse. Children were separated from their parents. Husbands from their wives. And these sudden and great changes excited riotous proceedings in many parts of the country, not least at the House of Industry building, now renamed the Workhouse for Blything Union.
On December 21st 1835 it was further noted in the Minute Book: “It having been reported to the Guardians present that a considerable body of men, armed with pickaxes, crowbars, and other implements of destruction were advancing in different directions to attack the Workhouse and the Committee there …”
A mob of two-hundred approached from the direction of Halesworth to the workhouse gate adjoining the highway, and when persuasion failed to disperse them, they were read the Riot Act by the Rev. A. Collett.
The mob eventually withdrew, threatening to return with greater force. A courier was despatched to Ipswich for military assistance; eight soldiers arriving later to join others from Halesworth.
On December 28th classification in the workhouse began. A further entry in the Minute Book reads: “ … the men were sent to their respective wards, the women to theirs, and the children to theirs.” Chilling words.
A period of calm was restored.
However by March 1836 windows were frequently being broken and the able-bodied men who tried to see their wives were forcibly restrained by the Governor and locally stationed police officers. It wasn’t until May 30th that the workhouse was reported in a tranquil state.
Bulcamp and many other workhouses across the country now saw the start of a harsher and more intolerant regime for inmates. It was evil carried out in the name of good.
In the following years Bulcamp became synonymous with hardship, squalor and despair. Features that combined to put the fear of God into any Blything inhabitant should their path, through unfortunate circumstances, lead to the workhouse door.
Although the Victorians were blamed for many harsh measures, it was they who slowly brought reforms to bear in the workhouse. Eventually, like many other such places, Bulcamp was converted into a hospital for the aged and infirm. In later years it became the Red House, a home for the chronically ill. Latterly known as Blythburgh and District Hospital, it closed in 1994.
Since 2000, the old hospital has been subject to a redevelopment project called Blythview. No doubt the new inhabitants will enjoy a lifestyle undreamt of by the past occupants of Bulcamp. And the fact that the three-storey building still survives is of great importance both historically and socially. A chance for owners to combine modern living with the enjoyment of a Georgian period setting.
Original article by Dennis M. Skeet.