Picture- the west wing of the new Chailey Workhouse in 2015 after conversion to houses. © Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


We like to  remove from our sight people who remind us that our ideas of a “normal” society are wrong.  Whether they are poor, old, physically or mentally disabled or homeless, we like to erase them from our images of what it is to be human.  In the past, these unacceptable people often ended up in the countryside, in places like Chailey.

Chailey Parish Council

Back in the day, the members of Chailey Parish Council were not much concerned with footpaths.  From 1894 to 1930 only two major debates are featured in their records.  Both issues were generated by the railway company.  Once the company tried to stop a path past Newick and Chailey Railway station from being a right of way, even though legislation said it was. On a couple of occasions attempts were made to divert a footpath across Sheffield Park Station (ultimately successful).

What they were very concerned with was the management of the property they owned, including the old workhouse at North Common.

The Chailey Workhouse

In 1388, following the Black Death, there was a shortage of labour. To prevent labourers travelling the country to search for higher wages (and perhaps to spread rebellion and disease), their movements were restricted, and local areas were made responsible for keeping those who could not maintain themselves locally through work.  From 1601 it was the parishes that were the responsible body.

Laws passed in 1723 encouraged parishes to provide workhouses in which the poor had to reside to get help.  The web site workhouses.org.uk records that the Chailey workhouse was in existence by 1776.  But it was expensive to house the poor in workhouses and cheaper to support them outside.  At the end of the 18th century a system of supporting people outside, even if they were working, was developed.  It was more popular in the south of England than the north.

This system was criticised because it was said to enable employers to pay low wages, and have these wages topped up by the parish.  So in 1834 the New Poor Law made it illegal for parishes to support paupers except in the workhouse. They were allowed to form unions with nearby parishes under the supervision of guardians appointed by parishes to administer the schemes.  Chailey  formed a union with other local parishes but, for the time being, they kept the old workhouses.

Workhouses housed not just the able bodied poor, but also older people, children and the infirm (physically and mentally).  workhouses.org.uk records that Chailey was used for the able bodied. Children went to Ringmer and older people went to Ditchling.

Picture- The site of the first Chailey Workhouse

The idea that society should not subsidise low wages sunk deep into the national consciousness  and it was not until the 1970s that a Conservative government introduced a benefit (Family Income Supplement- now Universal Credit) specifically to subsidise low wages.

The intention of the workhouse was that life inside should be worse than the very worst of life outside, so that people would have to be absolutely desperate to apply for admission.  At least they had the right to admission.  In Ireland the workhouse could turn people away if it was full.

From 1845 counties had to provide asylums for “lunatics”  Initially  East Sussex lunatics went to St Francis at Haywards Heath, and then from 1903 to the Hellingly Asylum.  You can find out more about the county asylums here.  There was much argument about who should house pauper lunatics, the asylum funded by the County or the workhouses funded by the parishes. The asylums were often out in the country so that ordinary people did not have to think of them.  Iain Sinclair, in his book “London Orbital” describes the M25 as a tour of the old London asylum sites.

Putting unacceptable people away allows us to create an image of our society which is short of its rough edges- a fake normality.

The Homeless and Rootless

Although workhouses were designed to contain local paupers, there were still some people who had no connection with anywhere.  In time the workhouses had to cater for them by setting up “casual wards”. Usually you could only stay one night in the casual ward and then had to move on. If anything, conditions in the casual ward were even worse than the rest of the workhouse. At Chailey, according to   See here. The tramps of folklore were not tramps by choice, but because they were constantly forced to move on.

The New Workhouse

In 1873 the Chailey Union built a new workhouse for all residents at South Common. It was just over the Chailey border, in East Chiltington. workhouses.org.uk has pictures of the old and the new workhouses.

The area had changed.  In 1842 the common had been enclosed, so it was now a common in name only.  The enclosure set out a number of public paths, two of which are still not on the rights of way map. (An application has been made to add them which you can see here)  In common with many Victorian Public buildings it has an austere design, intended to inspire respect, and perhaps fear.

Picture- the site of the new workhouse and Pouchlands hospital

You can find a walk nearby here

Back in North Common

All parishes, including Chailey, were reformed in 1894.  Civil parishes were created, separate from the church.  This move saw a weakening of the powers of the old Lords of the Manor and the Church.

In 1875 the Parish rented the old workhouse to Brighton Industrial School for 60 boys detained by the magistrates. Shoemaking, tailoring and farm work were taught. Industrial schools were the forerunners of approved schools (later community homes).  This is the first time that I can trace that Chailey was used for the common practice of dumping unwanted members of society in the countryside.

The industrial school was always agitating for improvements or changes to the tenancy. This was probably because the building was unsuitable for their needs.  This caused the council to hold lengthy deliberations.  The industrial school moved to Portslade in 1902, perhaps despairing of the getting the changes the school management wanted.

The Guild of Brave Poor Things

This organisation was set up to help people with physical disabilities.  Its name suggests how such people were seen.  They took over the tenancy of the old workhouse in 1903 to start the Chailey Heritage Craft School, a residential school for disabled children.  At some point Chailey Heritage separated itself from the Guild and seems to have bought the old workhouse from the council. The Heritage exists today on a number of sites.  The singer Ian Dury was once a resident.  You can find a walk celebrating him here  and a bit of his music here.  You can find more about the Guild here .  As usual, the socially embarrassing were put away in the countryside.

Back at the New Workhouse

In 1898 the the Chailey Union merged with Lewes, to become the Lewes Union.  The Lewes workhouse on the site of the current De Montfort estate was closed.  Lewes paupers were sent to East Chiltington, out of sight and mind of the more prosperous, although not those who might be sent there.

In the first half of the 20th century the first beginnings of cash payments to poor people reduced the numbers in the workhouses.  But oakum picking and bone breaking as task work for the able bodied persisted at Chailey till 1921.

In 1930 the new workhouse became a “Public Assistance Institution” controlled by the County Council. According to the book “A Lingering Fear” written by Harry Gaston, it was intended to convert the site into a facility for “medium and low grade mental defectives (page 18) with some provision for other sick people (page 27). But around 1930 the majority of inmates were  still able bodied men. (page 43)

Chailey appears to have still been providing hammocks for casuals in the 1930s (A lingering fear page 74)

In 1948 workhouses came to an end. The reforming new Labour government set up a national insurance system for people who could not work to get money, supported by National Assistance payments for people who had not paid enough insurance payments. Paupers no longer had to live in institutions.

The new system also allowed a large number of “pauper lunatics” to be discharged.  People sometimes don’t realise how many people had been held in asylums simply because they had no money to go elsewhere.

But there were still people who were considered too infirm to live in the community.  They became the responsibility of the new National Health Service.  As you might expect the new NHS was short of properties and many of the workhouses were reincarnated as hospitals. Some had some of the same inmates.  The East Chiltington workhouse was named Pouchlands Hospital.


“A Lingering Fear” quotes Dr T.N. Rudd, a Southampton geriatrician, writing in 1967, as comparing the ignorance expressed by many Germans as to events in wartime concentration camps, with the lack of knowledge of the British public were cared for in long stay hospitals.

In 1972 I got a job as a nursing assistant at Pouchlands.  The hospital was divided into two wings. One wing was for psycho-geriatric patients. The other, which I was to work on, was for people who were, in the language of the day “mentally subnormal”.  At the time I did not know that there had been investigations into cruelty to patients in the previous 5 years. (A Lingering Fear, pages 148-151)

In 1961 Conservative health minister Enoch Powell had demanded that the old mental institutions be replaced with community care.  He said “There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault”.  They were still resisting in 1972.  Small mental handicap hospitals still dotted the countryside. Local hospitals included Laughton Lodge, Pouchlands and a hospital near Cuckfield.  St Francis and Hellingly mental hospitals  were still open.  Amongst vulnerable friends Hellingly was more feared than St Francis.

I used to travel up from Lewes on the Chailey bus. The bus stopped in the hospital grounds and I only had to walk about 20 feet through the front door to the ward.

Anyone who has been into any institution will know that those 20 feet represented a transition from one world to another, with different rules, different norms and different expectations.

Picture- The east wing of the new workhouse/Pouchlands Hospital in 2005.  In 1972 the section to the right housed the patient’s dining room on the ground floor an the staff canteen on the top floor. The central 2 story building held the women’s wards.   The bungalow on the left is new. © Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The staff divided the inmates into “high grade” and “low grade”.  I was assigned a group of “low grade” men to be responsible for.  None of them had any speech and they were all incontinent. My first lesson was that incontinence is not random, but tends to happen at specific times.  If I was lucky and the bus was on time I could usually get each of my family group on the toilet before it was too late. I remember sweating on the bus, willing the driver on.

If the worst happened then it was a matter of cleaning the person up and putting new clothes on them.  There was a box of clothing for the low grade patients.  Each item had been washed and washed so many times before that it was faded and shapeless.  It was a matter of trying to find some clothing from the box which was not ridiculously large or small. There was no underwear, so my group went commando.  I asked about incontinence pads, but there were none.

Sometimes a manual clean was not good enough and I had to put someone in the bath. The bathroom was a large open area with baths and urinals.  One day I had put a resident in the bath and went to use the urinal, whereupon the board of visitors (a body responsible for overseeing the welfare of the patients) swept into the bathroom taking no notice of the naked patient or me at the stall. That is, they took no notice until I put my uniform jacket back on and was greeted by embarrassment and the swift exit of the visitors.

The board of visitors was presented with the menus of food served to patients.  One day, when I was serving dinner I examined the menu.  Fresh fruit was promised.  I looked in the cupboard and found about 17 bananas, a feast which was to be afters for some 50 patients.


The wards existed in a general state of chaos kept vaguely in order by an inadequate number of mainly untrained staff.  I often found myself thinking “This is like working in a loony bin” and then realising where I was.  Occasionally an inmate would wander off into South Chailey.  One time it was my turn to go to fetch them.  The charge nurse sent me after them, and then called me back while he looked up the files to see if they were a “voluntary” patient or someone who had been compelled to be there.  On finding that they were “voluntary” he sternly told me not to let anyone see me physically restraining them.

Amongst qualified staff there was some resentment about the idea of community care, although they realised that there was a need to change.  I was told proudly that the hospital did not have padded cells.  It was only later that I found that the reason you could not get some patients into the toilet cubicles was that there had been a practice of locking them in the cubicles if they misbehaved.

It is impossible to know what life might have been like for the inmates had they had a more stimulating regime.  Many of them had been there for many years.  The records of some of the female patients showed that they had been admitted for being “moral defectives”   as defined by the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act,-  probably they had got pregnant.

The absurdity of having people with no medical needs that could not have been dealt with by a GP cared for by the NHS was illustrated by these records. The records recorded every ingrowing toenail, immunisation and common cold, but contained nothing about social development, interactions or why they did the things that they did.  On one occasion I turned up for work to find that I was the only one on duty.  After an hour or so of trying to cope on my own a hastily summoned charge nurse turned up.  He insisted that we make all the beds with hospital corners because that was what you did in a hospital in the morning.

More incontinence

Incontinence was an issue with my group of patients throughout the day. I developed the habit of leaning my head over to the left and sniffing so I could smell people’s bottoms. Sometimes I would arrive home from work and find my landlady changing her youngest at the top of the stairs to the flat.  I began to be a little obsessed.  On occasions I found myself walking along Lewes High Street sniffing people’s bottoms only to find out that a dog had done its stuff on the pavement.

The staff treated patients as kindly as we could, but with no training, no resources and not enough of us we were winging it.  Some staff had previously been farm workers and sometimes I thought they treated patients like animals to be cared for.  There were also staff from Mauritius who lived in. One showed me a brochure which had seduced them to come to work at Pouchlands.  It boasted that London was only forty miles away (It was, but you had to get a bus to Lewes which only ran every one to two hours even to get the nearest railway station) and claimed that workers would have use of a swimming pool (There was one, but it was concrete and leaked, so was never filled).

Inmates would have been entitled to a small amoun t of social security benefit as hospital patients. This could have been spent on their welfare.  But the hospital secretary had signed forms in every case which said that they did not need the money, so nothing was paid.

Every evening a member of staff went round giving everyone a ladle full of largactil in a mug.  This was because there was only a skeleton night staff and largactil had the effect of making patients sleep, apart from its other, rather more nasty effects.

Social Activities

I can only once remember a patient getting a visit.  While I was there one resident was discharged. This was on the ground that he was dead.

Sexual relations between patients of the same sex were tolerated providing that they were of roughly the same “grade”, but when on male patient developed an interest in a woman he was sent to St Francis to have electro-convulsive therapy.

One day I was asked by a wheelchair user to take him to the local shop, which was near the Horns Lodge pub.  I got nasty stares from people on the footpath and from users in the shop.  I also got a telling off when I got back to Pouchlands for taking a resident out without permission (which I don’t think I would have got.)

I was allowed to take residents out for short walks down the bridleway next to the hospital because it was not used much and no one could see them.  After one sunny day all of the people I had taken ended up red and raw.  No one had told me that a side effect of largactil is that it makes you get sunburn very easily.

Here is a film made by ATV about another hospital for the same group of people 9 years later.

Time to go

Irvine Goffman, in his book “Asylums” writes about how institutions institutionalise everyone in them.  I realised that that this had happened to me when I found myself referring to having to “get the low grades in for lunch”.  A patient who had overheard me turned and roundly reprimanded me.  It was time to go.

My next job was working in the Lewes social security office in Mountfield Road.  This was another successor of the old poor law.  Claimants visiting the office had to walk down a path in full view of the office.  Staff made comments about them, few complimentary. But at least the claimants got to go home again afterwards.

The Voucher system

At around the same time I ran into a man who was living in a coal cellar in Brighton (They had cleaned it out).  He was subject to the voucher system.  When you turned up as homeless in Brighton and other cities you were not given money to find accommodation.  Instead you were given a voucher. Vouchers were only accepted by a small number of providers who provided the worst substandard accommodation.  So he was stuck.  I asked him where he had been before and he told me he had been in St Francis mental hospital.  “Couldn’t you go back?” I asked.  He was indignant. Sleeping in a coal cellar was better than what St Francis had to offer.

Back to the future

The hospital closed in 1991. The buildings were converted into residential units, preserving much of the structure.  I often wonder whether the people living in the new homes have any inkling about what happened in them.

But we still find ways to hide the defective away.  In one street that I lived it took me 4 years before I realised that there were two houses where no one came and no one went, except for the carers.

Scandals in homes for people with learning disabilities continue. This article, from 2018 summarises the  current position.  A 2019 report  suggests that, if anything, the hiving off of care to the private sector may have made things worse.

Nor are things much better in many private homes for older people.  Here is one recent story.

In the time of Coronavirus we make older and other vulnerable people hide away in their homes so that the rest of us can lead more “normal” lives.

We shrug off the slaughter of people in care and nursing homes because we don’t see them, even though we may pass by the buildings every day.

Some things don’t change.