An Act of 1723 allowed parishes to rent or build a workhouse, either for their own paupers exclusively, or as part of a group of parishes working together to accommodate their poor. The following decade saw numerous parishes experimenting with the offer of workhouse relief, and some places went to the trouble of commissioning a purpose-built structure. But how did they afford it?
Parishes were funded by a local tax, which was good at meeting the annual costs of relieving the poor but not well adapted to raising the capital sums required to invest in a new building. Some form of borrowing was inevitable; funding might came from a landowner, or a cluster of wealthy inhabitants who saw it as their duty to underwrite a big social project like a workhouse. It might also take the form of a joint-stock enterprise, where modestly prosperous people purchased a ‘share’ to the value of £25 or £50, received interest on their loan over a number of years, and eventually saw the return of the original share value as well.
A specialised form of this sort of financing was called a tontine, a form of gambling with one’s own (or one’s family members’) longevity. A tontine sold shares and yielded dividends which expired on the death of each share owner, but where the survivors of the scheme enjoyed increasingly-large incomes from the interest (since the money produced was divided between fewer and fewer people). A humorous interpretation of the history of a fictional tontine can be found in the 1966 film The Wrong Box.
Parishes in Cumbria and Westmorland certainly adopted the joint-stock approach to building workhouses in a few instances. The Whitehaven workhouse was built in 1743, and the cost was borne by the sale of tickets for £25 promising to bear interest for 31 years. The whole cost including the principal was paid off by 1780. The Kirby Lonsdale workhouse was constructed using a similar method, albeit 68 years later and with more expensive shares: there the tickets were £50 each, with the aim of discharging the whole debt by 1831. The question arises, was there the additional excitement of a tontine element to these parish ticket sales?
Historian of both workhouses and financial instruments, Professor David Green, confirms that workhouses were erected by tontine in some places, even if not in Whitehaven or Kirby Lonsdale. He writes ‘St Martin in the Fields in London and Forehoe workhouse in Norfolk were both tontine schemes. The Forehoe workhouse tontine was set up in 1776 to raise £11,000 for a new building.’
The manner of raising money for the workhouses in Whitehaven and Kirby Lonsdale is interesting whether or not it involved a tontine, but we are hoping for further enlightenment (perhaps from the overseers’ vouchers).
Sources: Parson and White, Directory of Cumberland and Westmorland (1829), pp. 255, 688-9; email from David Green 3 October 2019.