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)
To book a visit to The Spike visit their website.
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)