- Lewes Workhouse
In Victorian times Lewes used to have its own workhouse,
built in 1868 in the space where the Ousedale Estate now sits.
The workhouse was a catch-all institution for those unable
or unwilling to work, designed as a deterrent to the work-shy.
Conditions, famously described by Jack London and Charles
Dickens, were desperately harsh. Families were separated,
food was basic (usually a thin porridge called gruel), forced
labour was imposed. The work-house was not a prison - ‘residents’
could leave if they managed to find work - so they tended
to be collecting points for those who were unable to find
work: the insane, the old, the infirm, the orphaned, the physically
or mentally ill and unmarried mothers. A 1881 census shows
that the Lewes workhouse had 142 residents, many of whom had
‘handicaps’: 25-year-old Sarah Bailey is registered
as ‘blind’, 32-year-old Samuel Best as ‘imbecile’,
20-year-old Elizabeth Jennings as ‘idiot’, 27-year-old
William Lucas as ‘deaf and dumb’. Ages ranged
from two to 87.
The institution was closed in 1898, and became a reformatory
for drunkards following the passing of an act of that year
enabling the compulsory detention of ‘criminal inebriates’.
The reformatory divided inmates into wards according to their
behaviour, ranging from ‘well-behaved’ to ‘very
troublesome.’ It was closed down in 1910 - eventually
the buildings were knocked down in 1960 to make way for the
flats which are there today. DL