The Four Spectres of the Victorian Poor

In 19th century London the four spectres of old age, accident, sickness and unemployment haunted the poor, for it led, almost inevitably, to applications for the Poor Law, and in many areas this meant the workhouse. While many have disappeared under bulldozers, often to make way for new hospitals a few of the old buildings remain.

There are two within a few hundred metres at opposite sides of Ladywell Fields on my regular runs along Waterlink Way. The Poor Law Unions that ran them were Lewisham and Bermondsey (St Olave) were unusual in that they provided mainly ‘outdoor’ relief – money, food, clothing or goods, given to alleviate poverty without the requirement that the recipient enter an institution.

On the western side of the Ravensbourne are the remains of the workhouse infirmary of the St Olave’s (Bermondsey) Union Board of Guardians.

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Opened in 1900 it had 812 beds for the elderly poor and infirm. It was later to have a variety of uses – a WW1 military hospital and what seems to have been a quite large scale children’s home.

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Much of the site has been cleared for housing, but the gatehouse, admin blocks (which are used by Lewisham Council) and magnificent water tower all remain.

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