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Workhouse Riot
Desperate families feared new regime

Local people rioted as Steyning workhouse families resisted separation and rough tactics by MP Harry Goring roused fury.

Steyning WorkhouseThe old Steyning workhouse today - a fine Wealden-style house

Violence and chaos came to Steyning one late summer day in 1835. There was a riot. It was fuelled by anger, mistrust and mishandling of a difficult situation.

In 1834 a new Act of Parliament had set up Poor Law Unions. The aim was to replace small parish workhouses like Steyning's with bigger, combined workhouses. This was intended to reduce the cost to the middle and upper class parish rate payers, to deter all but the literally starving poor and to end the effective subsidy of low wages.

The new Steyning Poor Law Union was established on 25th July 1835. The thirty-one members of the new Board of Guardians represented twenty-three parishes. Plans were made to build the union workhouse in Shoreham.

In anticipation of this, instructions were given to move some of the thirty-three inmates of the Steyning workhouse to either Henfield or Shoreham. At the same time, according to newspaper reports, some children from Henfield were being moved to Steyning.

For single men and women this might have been tolerable but Thomas Moon and Benjamin Hayler were married men in their early twenties. They each had a wife and two young children. The two men became convinced that they would be separated from their children and possibly also from their wives. They refused to leave Steyning.

Captain Henry (known as Harry) Goring, Member of Parliament and local magistrate, claimed: “It is well known that Steyning workhouse is a mere pig-stye.” But Hayler and Moon seem to have disagreed.

They explained that until ten days before these events took place, the master of the workhouse was William Hill, a market gardener who found work for all the paupers. Even the children were “put to weeding.” Thomas Moon also said that “the poor were well fed” and “we always had small beer.” (Small beer was a very weak beer often preferred because of the risk of ill-health from water.)

The parish records do show that under the old system the poor were supported and treated as members of the community. With the new system, a different master was appointed by the Board of Guardians and immediately conditions became more harsh. There was water rather than small beer to drink. The level of relief was cut from two shillings a week to four loaves (valued at 1s 4d) –  “nothing but bread” as it was said.

The word about the Henfield workhouse was also discouraging. A report to the Commissioners for the Poor said: “Able-bodied and young persons will not remain in it as the discipline and regulations are rigidly enforced by a very efficient governor, who had been a sergeant of artillery.” Steyning inmates had also heard that, “at Henfield they are making a treadmill to grind bones and corn.”

Besides that, Hayler and Moon said they should not be sent to another parish where they would get no support from their families, who were local to Steyning. Thomas Moon’s father, for instance, was a master shoemaker living in Church Street where he had fathered thirteen children. Extended families and their community of friends and neighbours, however poor, could provide more support in their own way than the parish ratepayers.

So there was great distress and anger at the Steyning workhouse with what was known, or at least feared, about the new arrangements. The resentment was shared by others beyond the workhouse itself. When Peter Sayers, the town’s constable, was given a warrant authorising the arrest and removal of Thomas Moon and Benjamin Hayler, he was clearly frightened that he would be attacked. The constable asked local men to come with him to make the arrests but almost all of them refused.

Captain Goring decided to take things into his own hands. He and his men galloped up, barged into the workhouse and accosted the two paupers. But things didn’t go to plan. In their haste, Captain Goring and his men had leapt off their horses without tethering them. The horses charged off into the town, creating mayhem.

Up to two hundred people turned out in support of the paupers – maybe a quarter of the town’s adult population. About sixty Royal Irish Dragoons were sent from Brighton and coastguards from Shoreham were called in to rescue  Captain Goring, who was trapped at the workhouse for several hours with an angry mob outside.

Details of what happened when Harry Goring tried to arrest Thomas Moon is recorded in an almost word for word report of the proceedings of the Steyning Magistrates Court which appeared in the press a day or so later.

See part two of this story >

Details from the magistrates court

The Workhouse
A website about Steyning and other workhouses, with links to some census information. Search for "Steyning". See also details about the Steyning Union, set up after the 1834 Act and the Poor Law Union workhouse at Shoreham-by-Sea.

on The Poor Law Amendment
Act 1834

Spartacus Educational
on the 1834 Poor Law

BBC GCSE Bitesize
on the Poor Law

UK Parliament
on Poor Law Reform

The Spectator Archive
There was a tumult at Steyning,
in Sussex, yesterday week . . .

Terrible Times Link