A life in the workhouse – Elizabeth FINCH

Elizabeth Finch is my great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was born on the 20th February 1790 in Roehampton, which was then in Surrey and part of the parish of St Mary’s Putney (nowadays it is in Greater London and a separate parish). Her parents were Thomas Finch, a shoemaker, and Elizabeth nee UMNEY. She was the eldest daughter and had an elder brother John Thomas FINCH born two years earlier. She would become the eldest sister to a further three brothers and three sisters. Her parents, as far as we can tell, remained in Roehampton for all of their lives.

Like many of her era, Elizabeth went ‘into service’ when she was old enough to work. We know that by 1813 she was working for a butcher in East Sheen called Charles PAYNE, in whose household she lived and worked for an annual wage of £7. She first appears on the records in 1815 when she became pregnant. At that time, the father of children to unmarried mothers were sought out by parish officials and coerced into providing for the child.

This examinant upon her oath saith that she is a singlewoman and that in the month of April in the year 1813 she was hired as a yearly servant to Charles PAYNE of East Sheen on the parish of Mortlake in the said county, Butcher under which hiring she served for fourteen months in the said parish of Mortlake and received the yearly wages of seven pounds since which she never live in any other service but has dwelt at home with he father and mother at Roehampton. And this examinant further saith that she is now with child and expects to be delivered in the _____ of this month.

Elizabeth FINCH     X  Her mark

Sworn the 8th day of February 1815                                                           George TRITTON


Elizabeth was examined by the overseers of the Poor of Putney on 8th February 1815. In this case, the child was mentioned but no father was given – it is not clear why. The outcome of the examination was that Elizabeth would reside with her parents at Roehampton, and therefore there appears not to have been any suggestion the child would become chargeable to the parish. The child was a boy, probably born in his grandparents house in Roehampton, and was baptised ‘George FINCH’ at St Mary’s Putney on the 14th May 1815, having been born probably in April 1815. Sadly the baby died in December 1815 and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard on the 23rd December.

The Examination of Elizabeth FINCH

This examinant upon her oath saith that she is a singlewoman and that in the month of April in the year 1813 she lived as a yearly servant to Charles PAYNE of East Sheen in the parish of Mortlake in the said County, butcher, under which hiring she served for one year and nine months in the said parish of Mortlake and received the yearly wages of seven pounds after which service she dwelt at home with her father and mother at Roehampton. And the examinant further saith that she is now with child and expects to be delivered almost every day.

Her Mark: Elizabeth X FINCH

Sworn the 16th Day of August 1817                                                  Fred REEVES

                                                                                                                 William PEARSON LLD

Elizabeth fell pregnant again in 1817. On this occasion she was examined by the Overseers of the Poor in both Mortlake and Putney parish on the 16th of August. The entry for Putney parish merely records that her last place of employment was in East Sheen, part of Mortlake parish, hence any costs associated with her unborn child were to be met by Mortlake parish. However the entry also includes the name of the father as “a man named George… is the father, he worked for Mr MARCH a carpenter at Roehampton and has a mill on Wimbledon Common where the said George worked“. The fact that a dispute between Putney and Mortlake broke out indicates that the child was to be chargeable to the parish and that Elizabeth was no longer living with her parents. The circumstances of her leaving here parents are unclear, but Elizabeth had not worked formally since her employment in Charles Payne’s house in 1815 and by 1817 was a resident of Mortlake Workhouse.

The second child was a daughter who was baptised Elizabeth Finch from Mortlake Workhouse on the 18th September 1817. The assignment to the workhouse suggests that the child had been delivered there. Sadly this child also died as an infant and was buried on the 19th August 1818. The burial does not have an abode and hence it is unclear if Elizabeth was still in Mortlake Workhouse.

Elizabeth appears on the records again in 1824. She was again pregnant with a child, but this time the parish of Putney appears to have been liable. One can infer therefore that Elizabeth had worked within Putney parish since leaving Mortlake workhouse, otherwise this child would also have been chargeable to Mortlake. The father of this child, identified in the examination on the 8th of May 1824, was Henry HIGLEY, a servant of Charles PAYNE in East Sheen. Elizabeth had worked for Charles PAYNE 11 years previously, but she clearly had kept up connections with that household, even if she had not worked there herself. This child was another daughter, who was baptised ‘Eliza’ at Putney on the 8th September 1824. We do not know the fate of this child. No burial corresponds to her birth and she may have lived to adulthood (although the records are sparse). Her place of birth is given as ‘Putney’ but it is not clear if this is the workhouse or a private residence.

Elizabeth fell pregnant for the fourth time in 1830, aged 40. The examination documents for this child are unfortunately lost, but a summary of the content has survived. It gave the child as a boy and the examination took place in August 1830. The father’s name was William ROBERTS of Bedford Court, White Hart Yard, Drury Lane, London and he was sought by the parish officials. The father to the child was never found.

GLRO-P85-MRY1-427 resized

The Summary of the birth of her fourth child in 1830. The Examination was the 7th August 1830 and the father of the child was ‘William ROBERTS of Bedford Court, White Hart Yard, Drury Lane’.

The child, a boy, was born in July 1830 as ‘St George Frederick FINCH’ and baptised at St Mary’s Putney on the 25th July 1830. The examination is dated on the 7th August by which time the note is given ‘child in the workhouse’. In all later documents, this child, my ggg-grandfather, was referred to as ‘George FINCH’. George was probably born in the Putney workhouse building. Elizabeth now appears to have spent all her subsequent life within the workhouse. It may be that she was discharged for short spells (the admission books are all now lost), but the only records we now have of her until her death are within the workhouse system.

In 1834, plans were drawn for the workhouses of Battersea, Clapham, Putney, Streatham, Wandsworth and Tooting to amalgamate into the ‘Wandsworth and Clapham Union’ with a longer term plan to create a single, large workhouse from the several smaller buildings spread across the parishes. In 1836, the new Union was created and one of its first actions was to sell the building that housed Putney workhouse. Elizabeth and 53 other inmates were moved on the 11th August 1836 to Clapham Workhouse. Putney workhouse must have seemed relatively small and personal compared to the much larger institutions in which she would now live her life. In addition to creating much larger workhouses, stricter regimes were created within the building with regulated diets and heavily structured daytime activities. By 1836, George was 6 (if Eliza were still alive, she would have been 12). By now George would have lived separately to his mother with the other pauper boys. Parents were only allowed to mix with their children for a few hours on every Sunday before religious service. A few months after the move to Clapham, Elizabeth was returned back to Putney workhouse with three other inmates to assist with the preparation of the building for sale.


George and Elizabeth were moved on the 22nd December 1836 to Streatham Workhouse as “Elizabeth FINCH aged 51 and her bastard boy George aged 5” (note: there is no mention of Eliza FINCH, if she survived).


In January 1837 a note appears that the Guardians were considering moving Elizabeth FINCH back to Clapham workhouse, but that this was overruled. For the interim, Elizabeth and George were in the same institution, if not the same ward. In early 1837 an outbreak of ‘the itch’ became prevalent among the boys at Streatham Workhouse and those children unaffected were transferred to Tooting Workhouse. It is not clear whether George was moved.

By 1838, the new combined workhouse building on St John’s Hill in Wandsworth was ready. The first inmates were transferred shortly afterwards. A sense of the diet is given by a ‘Bill of Fare’ that was posted giving the diet that could be expected.


By the time of the 1841 Census, Elizabeth and George were in the new building. Elizabeth is shown in women’s ward and George amongst the boys – they are living apart. The new combined workhouse was also accused of mistreatment of the inmates. In 1843, some of the inmates made a complaint. The depositions from one inmate shows that “There are 4 warden misses, 2 women Finch and Keene 2 men Mansell and Wotton. They have an allowance of beer, the allowance of two of them Finch and Keen has been stopped. Keen’s allowance was stopped for going upstairs to get the keys from me to go to the workhouse for hot water. She sits up at night with a woman who has fits. She told me the master stopped her beer in the last week of fortnight the Master has visited frequently the infirmary the 1st 7 weeks duration did not come so often; sometimes he came once a day to, sometimes the Schoolmistress.” By now it can be seen that Elizabeth is working as an orderly within the Workhouse Infirmary. This complaint led to an enquiry by Dr WJ CONNOR, the doctor to the workhouse, which showed that inmates were in some cases living in the same clothes for up to three months and that lice and bodily infections were rife. This was reported in the local press.

By 1844, George would have been 14 years old and the workhouse regulations required pauper children to be apprenticed in a trade at that age. Although the name is not given, in 1836 it is recorded that a suitable master should be recruited to train the elder pauper boys in bootmaking. Since George FINCH was in later life a bootmaker, we can infer that he was trained by this master.

In 1851, Elizabeth is still found within the workhouse but George, now 21, had left and was living in Clapham. George was a journeyman bootmaker and in 1853 he married Mary Clara SHARMAN at St John’s Church, Clapham. He gave his father’s name as ‘George FINCH, bootmaker‘, a fabrication presumably to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that he did not know his father. Elizabeth did not witness the marriage and it may be that she was unable to attend, being an inmate of the workhouse and not strictly at liberty (potentially jeopardising her living in the institution). Since Elizabeth had only seen her son for a few hours every week, it is possible that she and George had little in common. George set up a family in Clapham but, perhaps in recognition of his mother, his first daughter was called Elizabeth. The 1861 Census returns for the workhouse are now lost, but she appears in a national survey of paupers who had been in a workhouse for more than 5 years. By this time she was 71 years old and the document states she had been in the workhouse for 20 years, but it is almost certain that she had been there longer. Elizabeth remained in the workhouse as she grew older. She died in the workhouse infirmary on the 22nd August 1866 and buried a week later (28th August 1866) in a pauper’s grave in Putney.

Elizabeth spent upwards of 50 years in the workhouse system. Her earlier life may have involved relatively short periods, entering and being discharged from the workhouse system, but the latter half of her life was spent entirely as a workhouse inmate. She lived through a period which saw the industrialisation of social care provision and endured some its excesses in the largest workhouse in London. Victorian Workhouses were engineered to be so unpleasant that only those in the most dire of need would subject themselves to it, and in the 1840s, the conscious drive to make the environment unpleasant let to instances of outright cruelty. Elizabeth witnessed (and possibly experienced) some of those excesses. Some, such as Elizabeth appears to have been, were trapped within the system, unable to gain the independence to move out of the workhouse, irrespective of the pressures to leave. Elizabeth’s is not however entirely a negative story. Despite the hardships, Elizabeth brought up a son who was trained sufficiently to leave the workhouse and start in his own career. Although the family were never affluent, subsequent generations avoided the grinding poverty that Elizabeth experienced.

The documents referred to in this description are found at a selection of archives. The Pauper Examinations are at Wandsworth Archives (PP2/4/3,4) but the summary document of pauper examinations from 1830 is amongst the Putney collection at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). The Committee Minute Books of the Wandsworth and Clapham Union Workhouse are also at the LMA (WABG1/1-4). The Minute books of the Board of Guardians are at the National Archives in Kew.

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