It might seem incongruous to be discussing poverty and poor relief in what is now the – at least outwardly – conspicuously wealthy City of Westminster. However, throughout much of its long history, Westminster was at the poverty-blighted ragged outer edge of the built-up area of London, as can be clearly seen on William Booth’s “Poverty Map” of 1889.
In the Medieval period, poor relief was provided by charitable donations from the churches, including Westminster Abbey, and from other rich institutions and rich individuals.
In the post-Medieval, after the passage of the “Old Poor Law” in 1601, there was a formalised further charge on ratepayers to provide for relief at the level of the local parish. This saw the “impotent poor” cared for in alms-houses; the “able-bodied poor” either put to work in “Houses of Industry” (the fore-runners of workhouses) in exchange for board and lodging, or else provided with “out-relief” payments or payments-in-kind; and the “idle poor” sent to “Houses of Correction” (essentially prisons).
In Westminster, the Tothill Fields Bridewell was built in 1618, and demolished in 1834. The last surviving relic, the seventeenth-century gate-way, may still be seen, in Little Sanctuary.
The Palmer Almshouses were built in 1656, and demolished and replaced by the United Westminster Almshouses in 1882.
And the St Margaret’s Workhouse was built in 1692, and replaced by the Greycoat School in 1698.