Can you imagine waiting in line alongside a cold brick wall waiting to be admitted to a Workhouse because you were homeless? Well you can share that experience at The Spike Museum, Guildford.
The Spike, a purpose-built Vagrants Casual Ward, was built in 1906 alongside Guildford Union Workhouse. Each evening at about 6pm the Tramp Master would admit the tramps waiting outside the gate in the brick wall. Now it is a museum where you can feel what it would have been like to be on the road, homeless and looking for work in the early 20th century.
The men and occasional women were given single cells on a hard bed with one blanket. First they had to take a bath which became dirtier and cooler if you were at the back of the queue. While their clothes were taken away to be fumigated, they were a given a nightshirt, a mug of thin skilly and a piece of bread. After being locked in their cells overnight (There was a bell to ring in emergencies) a breakfast of more skilly and bread was followed by tasks such as chopping wood, breaking up large stones into small pebbles or using a “spike” to pick old ropes apart (picking oakum).
As a visitor to the museum, a volunteer will take you back to 1906 going through the same experiences as a tramp.
In the main ward there is an exhibition about the history of the whole Workhouse, now replaced by a housing estate. Built in 1838 it provided accommodation and food for destitute local people. Men and women were separated and children over 7 parted from their mothers. There was room for 300 inmates and 10 sick beds were provided. A larger infirmary was built in 1856 and eventually in 1896 the Guildford Board of Guardians built a new 170- bed Guildford Infirmary.
You can discover the stories of Priscilla Cinderella Cooper, a blind widow who had to enter the Workhouse with her three young sons and was still there 20 years later, the tales of many “orphans” sent to Canada at a young age to start a new life, or the boys who went to sail training ships before they entered the navy. Then there were the old soldiers and sailors with no pensions for whom the Workhouse was an old people’s home.
During World War One, the Infirmary and the rest of the Workhouse was turned in to a military hospital for British, Canadian and Australian soldiers. The exhibition tells you the story of some of these soldiers and their nurses.
Though returning to its function as infirmary of the Guildford Union Workhouse for 20 years, the outbreak of the Second World War and its location close to the English Channel made it an obvious choice for a military hospital once more. It was particularly useful for those evacuated injured from Dunkirk. In 1945, the association with the old workhouse infirmary ceased and Warren Road Hospital became St Luke’s Hospital. After being incorporated into the National Health Service, St Luke’s expanded. A nurses’ training school was added in 1956 and radiographers, radiotherapists, operating department practitioners and midwives were all trained on site.
Alongside the hospital, The Spike continued to provide overnight shelter for homeless people until 1962.
These complex changes in function provided the volunteers with many artefacts, memories and life stories and a visit to the museum gives a glimpse into history full of suffering, sadness, duty and kindness.
The Spike Heritage Centre is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 am until 4 pm. It is fully accessible to disabled visitors including a wheelchair lift. Admission is £6 per person or £5 for concessions.
There is a carpark easily accessed at the museum which is a ten-minute uphill walk from Guildford London Road station.
The Spike Warren Road, Guildford, Surrey GU1 3JH
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I am a retired teacher, now a volunteer researcher at The Spike.
I have had articles published in Family History magazines and enjoy researching my family history.
In non-pandemic times I spend 6 weeks each Spring & Autumn in southern Portugal.