It seemed a curious place for one of the grimmest of Victorian institutions, tucked under manicured downs, surrounded by handsome villas with flowering gardens and cosy cottages. But when the Guildford Union Workhouse was built in 1905, it was positioned on the edge of the town in order not to offend the susceptibilities of the townsfolk. After the abolition of workhouses it was turned into a hospital, and then, in the 1980s, the site was used for an upmarket residential estate.
Curiously, the ‘spike’ or casual ward for vagrants survived and received Grade II listing in 1999. Spikes figure largely in the books of George Orwell and Jack London, who were among many middle-class writers who voluntarily underwent the experience of total destitution. There is a hierarchy even in hell and the spike was always physically separate from the workhouse.
I was taken round the Guildford spike by its last porter. It was institutional rather than inhumane: a tiled corridor ran the length of the building, with cells on either side. It was very evident that they were locked from the outside. To enter the sleeping area one stepped through a concrete footbath. And, remembering Orwell’s horrific description of the obscene horrors of the communal bath, I asked the porter about conditions. He was most indignant. ‘It wasn’t a bit like that. There was lots of clean, hot water. The master was an old soldier, a disciplinarian — but you got your rights.’ His wife, who worked as a nurse in the workhouse itself, confirmed the relative humanity. ‘I looked after the lady tramps,’ as she put it delightfully. ‘When one came in I’d go across with a clean nightie, a comb and a bar of soap for her.’
The tramp was supposed to work for his (or her) keep.