By Matthew Hathaway of Bicester Local History Society

ONE of the earliest directories of English workhouses, published in 1725, records that Bicester had a charity school whose pupils were employed in work as well as learning.

The children were employed in spinning jersey. A weaver in the town supplied them with work and they were split into groups, six boys working one day, another six the next, and so on.

This is the earliest reference to any kind of workhouse in the town, but by the time the parliamentary survey of poor relief was completed in 1777 Bicester had a parish workhouse in operation in London Road for up to 40 inmates.

In 1782 the inmates were employed in spinning wool, jersey and coarse linen.

In 1809 the overseeing of the workhouse was contracted out to Henry Chandler on a salary of £3 10s per week for up to 20 inmates, plus 3s 6d a week for each additional pauper.

He lived in the workhouse and received an additional income from the inmates’ work. In return for this he supplied them with food, clothing, accommodation, and also taught the children to read.

Labourers' wages were made up by the parish on a scale that was determined by the current price of bread. By 1820 the high price of bread following the introduction of the Corn Laws had pushed the poor rates to very high levels. Able-bodied paupers were sent around local rate-payers in the hope that they would provide them with work, a practice known as the 'roundsman system'.

In 1821, Sir Gregory Page-Turner offered to provide work for any unemployed paupers in his quarry and brickfield at Blackthorn. This scheme reduced the poor rate by half but was not a popular measure with the labourers in the town and, in 1826, resulted in a riot that destroyed the Town House and Shambles in Market Square.

In 1830 an emigration scheme was organised by the Bicester Emigration Committee to send some of Bicester’s paupers to America. A thousand pounds was borrowed to fund the project and, on May 24, 1830, 71 adults and 40 children set off for Liverpool.

However, some of the prospective emigrants got cold feet on the way and returned to Bicester, where they again became a burden on the parish.

The Bicester Poor Law Union was formed on August 1, 1835, at the first meeting of the Bicester Board of Guardians. They were an elected body, 40 members in total, representing the 38 parishes that the union covered.

They had their first meeting at the Black Boy Inn, Market Square, and their first task was to build a new workhouse, large enough to serve the entire union.

The new workhouse was built to the north-west of Bicester and opened in October 1836. It was designed to accommodate 350 inmates and cost a total of £4,640. To the west of the main workhouse building they built a hospital, which later became an isolation hospital.

The workhouse remained in operation until the Bicester Board of Guardians was finally disbanded in 1939. The workhouse then became, for a while, the Frank Gray Home for Boys, an institution aimed at saving the impoverished young from drifting into a life on the road.

After the Second World War the building was converted into flats and became known as Market End House. It was demolished in 1966, after a brief period of use by the county fire brigade for training crews in performing rescues from smoke-filled buildings. Market End Way now stands on the site.

To find out more about the Bicester Workhouse, or any aspect of Bicester’s history, please visit our website