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Former Northampton Union Workhouse

A Grade II Listed Building in Castle, Northamptonshire

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Latitude: 52.2417 / 52°14'30"N

Longitude: -0.8818 / 0°52'54"W

OS Eastings: 476449

OS Northings: 260983

OS Grid: SP764609

Mapcode National: GBR BW8.KVK

Mapcode Global: VHDRZ.NXPC

Entry Name: Former Northampton Union Workhouse

Listing Date: 22 January 1976

Last Amended: 26 July 2013

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1293423

English Heritage Legacy ID: 232248

Location: Northampton, Northamptonshire, NN1

County: Northamptonshire

District: Northampton

Electoral Ward/Division: Castle

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Northampton

Traditional County: Northamptonshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Northamptonshire

Church of England Parish: Northampton St Michael and All Angels with St Edmund

Church of England Diocese: Peterborough

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Former Northampton Union Workhouse built 1836-7 to the designs of George Gilbert Scott, with later C19 additions.


MATERIALS: red brick with stucco dressings and Welsh slate roof covering.

PLAN: the remains of the original ‘cross in square’ plan comprises the long south front range and the parallel three-storey range to the north, which was originally the central range but now forms the rear range. These are linked by three shorter, two or three-storey ranges: the middle ‘spine’ range links the entrance block to the octagonal hub (originally at the centre of the plan), whilst the east and west ranges form enclosed courtyards on either side.

EXTERIOR: the building is in an imposing Georgian style. The south frontage has a central three-storey, pedimented projection of five-bays with the three central bays breaking further forward than the outer ones. The ground-floor windows have rusticated stucco lintels, joined by an impost band, whilst those on the upper floors have gauged brick arches, painted white. The windows are two-over-two pane sashes and the centrally-placed front door is of C20 date. On the left (west) side of the central projection is a double-height, single-storey range of three bays with moulded brick eaves and tall windows, now boarded up, with gauged brick heads. To the left is a lower single-storey range of four irregular bays, probably of later date as it has dentilled brick eaves. The windows are divided by shallow brick piers and set in shallow recesses. They are also boarded up, as are many of the windows in the building (2013). On the right (east) side of the central projection is a single-storey range of five bays, divided by shallow brick piers, with moulded brick eaves. The windows are irregular and the third bay is blank. This is followed by the two-storey 1897 block which has a central projecting chimney incorporating a small pedimented panel inscribed ‘1897’. There is a window either side with a cambered brick arch. The first floor has a blank bay on the left and a window on the right. The side, rear and inner courtyard elevations are even plainer, the sole embellishment being the moulded brick eaves. The fenestration is mostly regular, consisting of two-over-two pane sashes under gauged brick arches, but a number have been replaced in the C20 and most have broken or missing glazing.

INTERIOR: a complete interior inspection (2013) was not possible due to the unsafe state of the building. Few fixtures or fittings survive except for a small number of plain C19 staircases, the remains of a moulded cornice in the former entrance block, and some doors of C20 date. The roof structure, where visible, appeared to be of good quality carpentry, including the queen post roof truss over the east range.


Attitudes to paupers hardened in the early C19 under the influence of utilitarian ideas which sought to discourage idleness by making poor relief an unattractive option. Workhouse regimes became harsher, and greater emphasis was placed on supervision and the segregation of the sexes. This approach is embodied in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which ended outdoor relief and made entry into the workhouse a prerequisite for assistance. The new legislation required parishes to form ‘unions’ each with its own workhouse, and four model plans were produced by the specialist workhouse architect Sampson Kempthorne (1809-1873). His guiding design principle was the panopticon, a radiating plan consisting of wings emanating from a hub, which facilitated both surveillance and the segregation of paupers by age and gender. There were local variants but the commonest form was the ‘square’ or cruciform plan, and an austere classical style was favoured for economical reasons. Around 320 workhouses were built between 1834 and 1841.

The Northampton Poor Law Union was established on 27 August 1835. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians which approved the expenditure for Northampton Union Workhouse in February 1836. It was built in 1836-7 at a cost of approximately £7,000 and accommodated 304 inmates. The architect was George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) who had worked briefly with Kempthorne in 1835 and adhered to the ‘square’ plan more closely than most at this early stage, perhaps because they still occupied an office in the same building. Scott went on to become one of the most successful and highly regarded architects of the Victorian age, and he has innumerable listed buildings to his name.

The original plans for the workhouse do not survive but, based on other workhouses designed on the principles of Kempthorne’s ‘cross in square’ plan, the probable function of the ranges can be deduced as follows. The front range housed the central entrance block on the ground floor and the boardroom on the first floor, flanked by the single-storey ranges which contained various storerooms. The east and west ranges, at right angles to the front range, may have contained the receiving rooms and bathrooms for new inmates. The spine range linking the entrance block to the hub probably contained the childrens’ school room and dining room, and the upper floors provided sleeping accommodation, probably for children. The central hub had a kitchen on the ground floor and the workhouse master’s accommodation above from where he could observe the female and male portions of the building on the west and east respectively. The rear ranges housed workshops, laundries, lavatories etc.

The earliest known plan of Northampton Workhouse is Low’s 1847 map of Northampton which shows the building’s ‘cross in square’ plan, although the north spine range and the east side of the rear range are not yet built up. There is a separate building to the north, the Infirmary, which was built in the 1840s and then doubled in size in 1869. The Workhouse School was built to the west of the site in 1872, and the Nurses’ Home to the north in 1897. The first edition Ordnance Survey (OS) map of 1885 shows that the workhouse has been extended with additions to the rear range and the north spine. The east range was rebuilt in 1897, and the OS maps of 1901 and 1926 show considerable extensions to the north spine. As the C20 progressed the site became more involved in hospital care, and it was incorporated into the new National Health Service in 1948 when it was re-named St Edmund’s Hospital after the nearby parish church. It was used increasingly for administrative and support services until the site closed in 1998. The building has remained vacant, and the rear ranges have been demolished.

Reasons for Listing

The former Northampton Union Workhouse, built 1836-7 to designs by George Gilbert Scott, is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: it is one of the earliest commissions undertaken by George Gilbert Scott who went on to become a highly significant and influential architect. The former workhouse has an imposing, well-proportioned late-Georgian façade, dominated by a full triangular pediment giving it the air of an important civic building;

* Historic interest: it is one of the first generation of New Poor Law workhouses (1834-41) and represents a key moment in changing social attitudes towards the provision made for the poor and destitute. The evolution of the workhouse in the early C20 into an institution focussing on hospital care further illustrates a development in social values which gradually rejected punitive concepts regarding the ‘undeserving’ poor in favour of universal care;

* Context: it is the focus around which the Infirmary, Workhouse School and Nurses’ Home were later built. These buildings are not listed but nevertheless form important elements in the architectural and historic context of the former workhouse;

* Alterations: although the rear ranges have been demolished and the interior does not survive with any great degree of intactness, the remaining front and middle ranges with the linking blocks represent the essential principal elements in the building’s conception, namely, the imposing civic façade and the key functional areas, including the entrance block, central hub, wards, and receiving rooms.

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