Guildford: The Spike

By the terms of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, local magistrates were obliged to set up a Poor Law Union, with an annually elected Board of Guardians. These unions were responsible for poor relief in the local area and on 11 April 1836 the first election of Guardians took place in Guildford, with an annual election thereafter, held on the first Thursday after 25 March. The details of the meetings held by the Board, from 1836 to 1929 are found in the minute books of the Board of Guardians of Guildford, held at Surrey History Centre in Woking.

Poor relief was mainly provided through the local Guildford Workhouse. By 1895, this building was suffering from serious overcrowding and so a major construction project was launched, mainly focusing on the children’s area and the infirmary. By the early 20th century, however, concern increasingly focused on the provision of poor relief for ‘casuals’, a term used to describe the vagrant poor. According to the terms of 1871 Paupers’ Inmates Discharge and Regulation Act, workhouses were permitted to detain male and female vagrants in a ‘casuals ward’ until they had done a morning’s work, to pay for their keep. This was also in line with the popular 19th century idea that the ‘idle’ or ‘able-bodied poor’ should be made accustomed to hard work, in order to combat their perceived laziness. The Guildford Board of Guardians, however, did not take any action on this law until 1905, when provision was made for the building of a new ‘casual ward’ in the grounds of the Workhouse.

This ward became known as ‘The Spike’, a name that it still bears today. This was a reference to the spikes used by the inmates to pick oakum, one of the tasks given to both those housed in the Workhouse proper and in the Casual ward. In accordance with the 1871 Act, the Spike housed casuals overnight and the accommodation was segregated by gender, with a married couple, called the Tramp Master and Mistress, superintending the House. Inmates were checked on entry for alcohol and other banned substances and had to take a bath and have their clothes disinfected. They were then given a meal and a bed for the night, in narrow, individual cells, which they were locked in until the following morning. The cells were provided with a bell system, so that vagrants could call for help in an emergency.

They were expected to work, by picking oakum, chopping wood or breaking rocks and the Guildford Spike retains the original cells, three of which have grilles across the window. Inmates were expected to push the broken rocks through this grille, a system which ensured the stones were broken into sufficiently small pieces. This task did not increase the Ward’s popularity with local people, as it was noisy and regarded as a considerable nuisance.

The Spike continued to be used as a hostel for the homeless until the 1960s, after when it was used by the NHS to store records and to house workshops. In 1999 it was made a Grade II Listed Building and in 2002 it was purchased by the Charlotteville Jubilee Trust. Building work began in 2006 to turn the building into community centre, with a heritage exhibition particularly aimed at children.

Surrey History Centre holds the following registers:

  • Guildford Workhouse Births 1866-1910 (SHC ref BG6/37/1)
  • Guildford Workhouse Deaths 1887-1914 (SHC ref BG6/38/1-2)
  • Guildford Infirmary Deaths 1933-1939 (SHC ref BG6/38/4)

Transcripts of these registers have been created by a Surrey History Centre volunteer, Nick Kurn, and are now available as pdfs to view and search on the Surrey History Centre website.

To book a visit to The Spike visit their website.

Further reading

H Chapman Davies, The Guildford Union Workhouse and the Vagrants’ Casual Ward: ‘The Spike’ (Guildford, 2004)

D Englander, Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Nineteenth-Century Britain, 1834-1914: From Chadwick to Booth, Seminar Studies in History (Longman, 1998)

4 thoughts on “Guildford: The Spike”

  1. The Charlotteville Jubilee Trust have transformed the Women\’s cells and the quaters for the Tramp Major and Mistress into a Community Centre. The area of the building where the men were housed is now a Heritage Centre for people to visit and learn how the homeless were \’looked after\’ in 1906.
    It is not aimed at children in particular. The reason that the building was saved was because of the 4 cells with grilles which are very unusual. The Heritage Centre is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 till 4.

  2. Glenda Montgomery says:

    I am researching my great grandfather Henry Sreeves (Shreeves, Steeves) who in the 1911 census was an inmate in the Guildford Workhouse. He was born in 1849 and died in 1913. I am looking for his grave. I am visiting from Australia in September 1914. I would appreciate any help. Many thanks
    Glenda

    1. Gina Redpath says:

      Dear Glenda,
      I have only recently found this website and wonder if you had the opportunity to visit the Spike? The name doesn’t ring any bells but the place to check is the History Centre in Woking. There is an incomparable wealth of information to be had there and I would be pleased to check it out when next I visit. Please email me with any request – [email protected]. We would need to know his Parish of Birth as this will be referenced to him throughout his time with the Poor Laws.

  3. Gina Redpath says:

    Thank you for your comments, the Spike is thriving as a tourist attraction in the top three of Guildford’s attractions. The Spike is open from 10 until 4 pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Well worth a visit and now we have a new Exhibition entitled “From Workhouse Infirmary to NHS Hospital”, the story is incredible. The Workhouse played an important role during the twp world wars
    This is a visit that will be remembered for a very long time – thoroughly recommend it.

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