The Fir Vale Workhouse

The early history of the Northern General Hospital is not always obvious to many people visiting the large modern complex today. However, if bricks could talk, some of the older hospital buildings, like the old clock tower, could tell a story or two about their origins as the Fir Vale Workhouse, a place that inspired fear and dread in the hearts of many.

Opened in 1881, the workhouse was built to house anyone who was unable to look after themselves due to poverty, old age or ill health. It had a main section for ‘general paupers’, an asylum, a fever hospital and later a vagrants’ ward (known as the Tramps’ Palace). It also had a home for orphans, abandoned children and the children of inmates. The inmates had to do farm work, laundry, cook, clean and sew. Being sent to the workhouse was a sign of having fallen on hard times and people living there endured great stigma.

When it was first built, the workhouse was situated far beyond the boundaries of the city of Sheffield and surrounded by countryside. Its name changed over the years but it wasn’t until 1967 that it became the Northern General Hospital. It was hoped the change would finally erase horrid memories of the workhouse from the minds of older generations.

Stories about the workhouse have been collected by the Northern General Hospital History Project. One rather sad tale, recalled by the district nurse who visited them, was the story of two sisters, Martha and Elisa, who had entered the workhouse as children in 1890, shortly before their mother died. They were so affected by workhouse conditions that they lived an extraordinarily frugal existence, long after leaving the institution.

“Their flat was very clean but lacked any sort of comfort and although the sisters kept themselves tidy, they had very few clothes. Neither of them had ever heard a radio or seen the television. Because their stomachs had become accustomed to the workhouse diet, they were unable to eat normal foods. Bread had to be two days old – eating it fresh would give them stomach ache. Dinner would be boiled mutton with the fat skimmed off and used to make dumplings. For tea they would have bread and jam but the jam would be scraped on and off to make it last longer.And when they received their £10 Christmas bonus for the first time, they said they had never had so much money before and felt they should save it towards their funerals. But they always said of the workhouse:

‘We were fed, had a clean bed and a roof over our heads so we were lucky really’.”

The hospital has moved on from ‘the grim old days’ when its inhabitants received only the most basic provisions, and now provides its patients with the best care possible. Many older people, however, still refer to it as the ‘old workhouse’.

In an effort to ensure its past is not forgotten and to record how medical practices have changed, the NGH History Project is gathering stories, photographs and memorabilia related to both the workhouse and the hospital, from throughout its history. Are you willing to share with us any memories, stories, memorabilia or photos of the hospital or the people who worked there? We can copy and return any precious photographs if you wish to keep them. Contact Lyn Howsam at the Northern General Hospital History Project, c/o Clock Tower Reception, Northern General Hospital, Herries Road, Sheffield S5 7AU. email:

“Memories of the Workhouse and Old Hospital at Fir Vale” by Lyn Howsam can be purchased from the Clock Tower Reception at the hospital, price £4.95, or copies can be borrowed from Burngreave Library.

by Lyn Howsam and Nikky Wilson

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The content on this page was added to the website by John Mellor on 2012-06-21 15:17:33.
The content of the page was last modified by John Mellor on 2012-06-21 15:27:09.

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