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Framlingham's Historic Workshouse

A unique embodiment of Poor Law history, standing within the inner bailey of the famous Suffolk castle.

An aerial view of Framlingham Castle
Aerial view of Framlingham Castle, taken by Damian Grady in September 2012 © Historic England, Damian Grady, image reference 27586_015.TIF

The fairy-tale silhouette of Framlingham Castle – with its wall-walk, turrets and decorative Tudor chimneys – draws visitors from far and wide.

Until the 17th century the inner bailey was filled with stone structures, including a great hall, lodgings and a kitchen. Today, however, this area contains just one two-storeyed building, abutting the west wall. This structure clearly did not form part of the medieval castle complex, although several carved heads have been reset on its façade and some old fabric is buried in its walls.

A detail showing a carved Medieval head at Framlingham Castle
Medieval carved head, reset on workhouse façade. © Historic England, K. Morrison

The building comprises a central range flanked by north and south ranges, forming a U-shape which is open to the east. In order to access the wall-walk, visitors are directed though a shop and café in the central range. The gabled ‘Red House’, lying to its south, served as a private dwelling after Framlingham Castle entered guardianship in 1913, but was altered to provide a catering kitchen and offices in 2017. It is not currently open to the public. The range to the north, known at one time as the ‘White House’, has accommodated the Lanman Museum, a local collection, since 1984. Visitors thus pass through the building on their way up and down from the wall-walk, but few pay it the attention it deserves.

Interior of the English Heritage shop at Framlingham Castle.
English Heritage's shop at Framlingham Castle, in 2016 © Historic England, K Morrison

Poor law history

Recent research by Emily Cole and Kathryn Morrison of Historic England’s Historic Places Investigation Team, carried out at the request of English Heritage, has shown that the building was erected in two main phases. These represent significant steps in the institutionalisation of poor-law provision in the 17th and 18th centuries. No other surviving building illustrates this story.

'The Framlingham Workhouse, as the building should be called, is thus very rare and special'.

The tale begins in 1664, with the erection of the Red House as a workhouse for Framlingham parish. At this time, the wool trade was in decline, spinners were out of work, and poverty was rife. Complying with the Elizabethan poor laws, Framlingham’s overseers had collected relief for the poor of the parish since at least 1568. This would have been dispensed either in cash or in kind.

The workhouse provided a very different approach. Essentially, it was a spinning-house – a workshop or factory – where the poor came each day to spin or weave and thus earn their keep. Unlike the workhouses of the Victorian era, it was not a residential institution. Most 17th-century workhouses of this type occupied converted buildings, but several are known to have been purpose-built. Just one other example survives from the 17th century, built in 1626 in Newbury, Berkshire.

17th century drawing of the North Range at Framlingham Castle.
A drawing by Robert Hawes of the north range of Framlingham Castle, as it stood prior to its demolition in 1700, with the Red House to the left. From Pembroke College N5. © Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Framlingham Workhouse was erected by Pembroke College, Cambridge, fulfilling a bequest from Sir Robert Hitcham (1573–1636), who had owned the castle. The architect may have been Peter Mills, who designed several other buildings for Pembroke College around this time, including almshouses in Framlingham itself. Although not residential, the workhouse has a domestic form, thus replicating the conditions in which the poor worked in their own cottages. The workmaster, John Kilbourne, lived in the north range of the castle, which stood until 1700. The White House – a remnant of the original castle buildings – became a boy’s school, also set up under Hitcham’s will, and overseen by the resident schoolmaster, Zaccheus Leverland.

The Red House © Historic England, Kathryn Morrison

Before long the workhouse was beset by problems. Not least, the workmaster (probably Kilbourne) ran off with the stock. Like most enterprises of its type, it fell into abeyance. The idea of resurrecting the workhouse along more modern principles was broached in 1699, by which time the national trend was for larger residential institutions set up by incorporations of parishes. These accommodated children who were given a rudimentary education alongside training in spinning or another craft skill. The Red House was put to this purpose for several years under the governorship of Thomas Harding, but eventually began to accept adults as well as children.

The new workhouse was built between the Red House and the White House in 1729. Photographed in 2006. © Historic England, K. Morrison

As the need for residential workhouse accommodation grew, plans were laid for a larger institution. The central block was erected in 1729 on the site of the great hall of Framlingham Castle. It included work rooms and dormitories, and for the first time a ‘workhouse test’ was applied. This concept had gained ground after the passage of Knatchbull’s Act (1723), which triggered a great increase in workhouse provision across the country. People were now compelled to live and work in Framlingham Workhouse in order to receive relief in the form of bed and board: the ultimate test of their poverty. Inevitably, the building filled with those who struggled to look after themselves – the very young, the very old, the sick or infirm, and unmarried mothers. In parallel, so-called ‘outdoor relief’ (or dole) was dispensed to assist Framlingham’s industrious poor.

Eventually Hitcham’s school quit the White House which, in 1797, became part of the workhouse, with its bakehouse on the ground floor. It was only in 1813, however, that the Red House was also absorbed into the workhouse.
Everything changed in 1834, when the New Poor Law was introduced. A network of Poor Law Unions covered the entire country, and Framlingham was assigned to Plomesgate Union. A new workhouse was built at Wickham Market on a double-cruciform plan, designed to segregate different classes of inmate, indoors and out. The notorious Victorian workhouse system was born, leaving hundreds of parish workhouses empty across England.

After its inmates moved out, the centre of Framlingham Workhouse was gutted to create a ‘Town Hall’ or ‘Castle Hall’, with a gallery at its south end. The hall was put to various uses: for public gatherings, as a court house, and as a drill hall.

Black and white archive image of the interior of Framlingham Castle Hall in about 1930
The Castle Hall, showing the gallery, formerly the organ loft of the parish church, in about 1930. © Historic England Archive, reference AL0686/004/02

The attic was retained – possibly, initially, as a dormitory for a girl’s school that occupied the upper floor of the White House. Beneath this, next to the former bakery, was a fire engine house. Beneath this, next to the former bakery, was a fire engine house. As for the Red House, it became home to the master of Hitcham’s school until 1882, when the schoolmaster Samuel Lane died and it was taken over by the drill instructor and his family.

The workshouse attic at Framlingham Castle.
The attic of the 1729 workhouse. © K. Morrison


When Pembroke College placed Framlingham Castle in guardianship in 1913, on the eve of the Great War, the tarnished and over-stretched Victorian workhouse system was slowly being superseded by the modern system of old age pensions and other social security benefits. Politically-correct language is not a wholly recent phenomenon: the term ‘workhouse’ was already loaded with stigma and, in 1911, was formally replaced by ‘poor-law institution’. Correspondence relating to Framlingham Castle referred euphemistically to the ‘poorhouse’, rather than the ‘workhouse’, and the central block was persistently called ‘Great Hall’ for much of the 20th century. Because of this prejudice, it was difficult for its 20th-century custodians and visitors to value Framlingham Workhouse as a building, or appreciate its history.

The Red House, though of supreme importance as a rare relic of the Old Poor Law, was allowed to decay to such an extent that extensive repairs were needed in the 1950s. Fortunately, it survived with much of its plan-form intact and was eventually listed at Grade I.

A new scheme has recently been completed to improve the visitor experience at Framlingham Castle, with a kitchen, café and first-floor exhibition space. With more information available about the site’s history as a workhouse, and incentives to spend more time at Framlingham Castle, visitors will also be able to pause to consider those unfortunates who – despite the sublime setting – suffered for their poverty within the castle walls.


Kathryn Morrison

Kathryn A Morrison MA (Hons) MA FSA

Joint Head of Historic Places Investigation at Historic England

Kathryn studied art history before embarking on a career as an architectural investigator. Her publications include The Workhouse: A Study of Poor-Law Buildings in England (English Heritage 1999), English Shops and Shopping: An Architectural History (Yale University Press, 2003)  and Woolworth’s: 100 Years on the High Street (Historic England, 2015).

Further information

Cole, E and Morrison, K 2013 Red House (formerly Framlingham Workhouse), Framlingham Castle, Suffolk. Historic England Research Report 23/2016

Framlingham Castle visitor information

A tinted postcard from about 1900 showing the north range at Framlingham Castle.
A tinted postcard of c.1900 showing the double doors on the ground floor of the north range which served as Framlingham’s fire engine house. © K. Morrison.
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