Workhouses, in existence since the sixteenth century, were designed to accommodate able bodied paupers, who were expected to work at menial (and usually pointless) tasks, in return for food and accommodation.
However, it was increasingly the elderly and disabled who were admitted, along with people who were injured or ill, because there were no hospitals or dispensaries in rural areas. In the absence of nursing or medical care, female inmates were expected to care for those who were sick as best they might.
There were strict procedures to ensure that only eligible local people were admitted, but from 1840 there were also Casual wards, where the homeless poor, vagrants or travellers could be accommodated for a couple of nights. These were the forerunners of Casualty or Emergency departments in hospitals, where patients are not counted as admissions until they are moved to a ward.
The Union Workhouse in Railway Approach (then Glen Vue) was built in 1859, replacing an earlier building in London road. It was for 260 inmates from the Parishes of East Grinstead, Hartfield, Crawley and Lingfield – the “Union” refers to the grouping of Parishes together for providing poor relief, under the rule of a locally elected Board of Guardians. By this, time, care had improved somewhat: nurses were employed and there were visiting doctors.
The 1881 Census shows 8 staff, including 3 nurses, a school mistress and an industrial trainer. There were 149 inmates, of whom 70 were from East Grinstead – 15 men, 16 women and, sadly, 35 children, of whom 11 were unaccompanied. Nine people had mental or physical disabilities. There were also 4 Casuals or Tramps, one of whom came from San Francisco, apparently, unlikely as it may seem. And, ironically, there was a family of 7 named Welfare.
The system finally changed in 1920, when local authorities took over running the workhouses, now called “Public Assistance Institutions”. When the NHS started in 1948, many of these former workhouses became public hospitals. In East Grinstead it was St Leonard’s Hospital, which was finally demolished in 1982, to be replaced by the flats in St. Leonard’s Park.