Thorncombe Village Trust - caring for Thorncombe's environment

Home Home The Trust News and Events Nature History  Local Walks Links to other sites Contact  Us




School House Farm, location of Thorncombe’s first parish workhouse

Income support and housing benefit funded by tax goes back nearly 600 years.  From 1536 until 1834 the dole was administered by parishes. Half of those listed in 1674 Thorncombe Hearth tax return are ‘paupers’, those dependent on the dole 1. Surviving Overseers of the Poor and workhouse account books for Thorncombe, in the Dorset History Centre,  cover most of the period, between 1722-1807 . The workhouse accounts  detail  payments  of  rent,  provision of clothing,  shoes,  money for food and stays  in the parish workhouse of named individuals.  Supporting parish paupers in their own homes was  known as outdoor relief. Indoor relief referred to the provision of workhouse accommodation. The cost of poor relief was met out of the poor rate which was paid by local landowners into the parish pot.  

  An elegant system, the poor law subsidy drip fed its way back into tax payers’ pockets directly and indirectly. It maintained their rental income flow, and kept a work-force of men, women and children on-call at short notice at various times of year to work in the fields, which kept wage bills down. However, the early 18th century population explosion and lack of jobs put  the poor relief system under severe strain.  Knatchbull’s  1722  act attempted to address  the problem through the abolition of outdoor relief so that only indoor relief was on offer. Thorncombe  set up a parish workhouse for the purpose  in 1734.  

Thorncombe’s Parish Workhouse

   The new workhouse was donated  by  Thorncombe’s parish priest Thomas Cook,  in trust to the parish for use  as a school and  parish workhouse in perpetuity, provided it was maintained and the ‘great house now known by the names of the school and workhouse,’ was used ‘for the use and better maintenance of the poor’ 2. Otherwise it would revert to Cook or his heirs.  Although its name suggests that Workhouse Farm on High Street (pictured above) was the location of the 1734 parish workhouse, while it dates back to the 18 th century if not earlier,  the building bears no resemblance to the  detailed description  of the new parish workhouse on the inside the back cover  of  Volume 2 of Thorncombe’s  parish registers.  An entry  in the 1794 Land Tax return refers to the Workhouse Estate. Given its owner was also liable for payment of the poor rate, such is the lack of evidence discovered to date, whether it was ever used as a parish workhouse is doubtful The description of its  ‘great hall, and two butteries on the right side of the entry with three chambers over them for a schoolmaster to teach poor children together with the orchard and plot in the garden’ fits the old part of School House Farm. The two butteries and three chambers above are still visible todaySeen  today in the layout of the windows to the  left of the Queen Anne front door. The school and workhouse were  part of Thomas Cook’s estate. In his 1747 will, Cook  bequeaths ‘to my servant Joan Bennet  my Estate at School house called or known by the name of Witherells’3. Samuel Witherell is listed in Thorncombe’s  parish registers as having  married Hannah Fowler in 1675. Although it has not survived,  Hannah Witherell of Thorncombe’s will is listed as being proved by the Archdeanery of Exeter in 1714 4.  

  The location of the parish school and workhouse  thus gives its name to the hamlet. Workhouse account books covering the period 1734-44 record who ran it, and reading between the lines it is possible to work out  how it was set up and  was organised 5.  Outdoor relief payments stopped  in 1734. The only outgoings  listed are for  running  costs of  ‘the House’ which tells us that until 1738 when outdoor relief payments resume anybody in need of relief was sent to ‘the house’.

  In 1820 The Charity Commissioners reported that the  property continues ‘to be divided according to  Thomas Cook’s directions, one part still being used ‘for a school and the habitation of the schoolmaster and the remainder, for a workhouse … inhabited by poor persons supported by the parish’6.   A further passing reference to ‘the Great House’  in a letter  from parish priest Charles Egerton to Devon antiquarian Daniel Lysons  suggests that School House continued as a school and parish workhouse until at least 1821 7.

Axminster Poor Law Union

 In an attempt to reduce costs, the provision and administration of poor relief was centralised  under the Poor Law Commission in 1834. New union workhouses were set up which amalgamated several parishes under one umbrella. Tough conditions designed to persuade  able-bodied paupers to actively seek employment wherever they could find it, were also designed to force  farmers  to pay a regular living wage to maintain a  local workforce, rather than using poor relief  to subsidise the quiet times of year.

   Thorncombe’s  able-bodied parish paupers and their families were now sent to Axminster Poor Law Union workhouse.  To fund the union workhouse,  parishes were legally obliged to sell any  parish property.  In 1837 Thorncombe sold Forsey and Peadon’s tenements for £62 to mason Bernard Phelps. Parish ownership of Forsey’s dates back to 1636 and Peadon’s to 1726 8,9. However no mention is made of School House in the documentation which suggests it may have been disposed of prior to 1837. Reference to the 1839 Tithe Map and the 1841 Census tentatively locates  both properties  on Fore Street, with Forsey’s on the site of Jubilee House, and Peadon’s among  buildings behind what is now the Old Crown 10,11. Poor House Yard,  marked next to the  new school in Chard Street, opposite the church  on the 1839 Tithe Map may have been used for elderly paupers who were initially maintained in the parish following the establishment of  union  workhouses.  


October 2012


1. Stoate, T. (1982), Devon Hearth Tax Return, Lady Day 1674, Bristol, T.L.Stoate, pp. 14-15

2. DHC  PC/THO RE1.2 Thorncombe Parish Register 1734

3. TNA PROB 11/759 Will of Thomas Cook 1747

4. (accessed 22.08.2011)

5. DHC PC/THO 3.5 Thorncombe Parish  Overseers of the Poor Workhouse accounts 1734-44

6. 1820 (312) Coms.  of Inquiry into Charities in England and Walles, Fourth Report, Appendix, pp. 30-31

7. BL  Add. MSS. 9427,  p. 116

8. TNA MH12/2095/155 Internal memorandum Thorncombe Parish

9. TNA MH12/2095/176 Sale of Parish Property Form 8 … Thorncombe Parish Workhouse

10. DHC  PE/THO Thorncombe  Parish tithe map & apportionment 1841

11 Transcription of  Thorncombe Parish 1841 Census  (accessed 21.08.2011)


DHC: Dorset History Centre

DRO: Devon Records Office

TNA: The National Archive

Thorncombe Village Trust