The Lambeth Workhouse, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Ann Nichols

The building that houses the Cinema Museum today is the former admin block of the Lambeth Workhouse.

The Lambeth Workhouse was built between 1871-73 and closed in 1920.  It could house up to 800 people, although probably held a lot more.  It consisted of an admin block, gatehouse and 3 blocks, with one housing men, one women and one children.  If you were a mother who came in with children, you were separated and a mother could only see her children on a Sunday.

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The Lambeth Workhouse in 1873.

Workhouses started in the 1830’s after the Poor Law of 1834 and continued on to around the end of WW1.  They existed all over the UK, Ireland and in the Netherlands.  They were a place were poor people could go and work in exchange for three meals a day and a bed for the night, which not everyone in poor areas of the country were getting. Although the people in the workhouses didn’t get paid.

Workhouses were run by private companies who could bid for contracts for work (often undercutting local businesses), knowing they have an instant workforce that they didn’t need to pay!  People would work from 7am to 6pm, with one hour for lunch, 6 days a week.  On a Sunday they were expected to pray in the chapel.  At no time though were they allowed to leave the gates of the workhouse and they also had to were uniforms.  Workhouses got the term of being ‘a prison for poor people’.

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Map shows size of the workhouse.

The kind of work they would do is to break rocks, unpick rope, needlework and spin mop yarn.  It was hard, although people at the workhouse knew they would get three meals a day and a bed.  Often people on the outside, could only afford one of these – sleep on the street with food or sleep in a bed whilst going hungry.

People could leave though at 2 hours notice, they could walk into the admin block and give their notice.  They would be leaving with no money in their pocket and so instantly had to find work for food and a bed for that night.  Some people were in and out of workhouses all their lives, others came in occasionally if they fell on hard times.

Once the government realised how much money the companies that run the workhouses were making from them, they started to shut them down.

Two of the most famous people who came into the Lambeth Workhouse were Charlie Chaplin, who grew up nearby and entered the workhouse aged 6 years old with his half brother Sidney and their mother.  This was after Chaplin’s mother and father split up and they spent 1 year in the workhouse.

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Chaplin as a boy.

The other person was Mary Ann Nichols, who came into the workhouse after losing her job locally and divorcing her husband.  Aged 43, she left in May 1888 and ended up working as a prostitute in Whitechapel and in August 1888 became the first victim of a killer later known as Jack the Ripper!

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Mary Ann Nichols.

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