The system of indoor relief by means of workhouses dates from the early 17th century. Those who found themselves destitute towards the end of the century had their difficulties compounded by the Act of Settlement which prevented people moving from one parish to another in order to find work.
The accommodation of the Torrington poor house was totally inadequate so in 1737 a new one was built on the north side of Calf Street which served its purpose for nearly a century. Then in 1836/7 a piece of land was bought on the south side of New Street on the western edge of town for a new workhouse with room for 250 inmates. It was built of stone and designed by Sampson Kempthorne who was also the architect for other Devon workhouses at Axminster, Barnstaple, Crediton, Exeter, Okehampton and South Molton. An infirmary was added in 1867 and a chapel was built in the grounds behind the workhouse in 1870. A governor was appointed as well as a chaplain, medical officer and matron.
In 1871 there were 113 inmates, twice as many women (32) as men (16) and twice as many children (65) as women. George Sellick was the governor, John Budd the porter and Elizabeth Williams the nurse. There was also a schoolmaster, Henry Nichols, and a schoolmistress, Emma Acford, for the 36 children listed as ‘scholars’. There were 24 children aged under 5, the youngest being just 2 weeks old. One child is listed as ‘illegitimate’, another as an ‘idiot’ and a third as an ‘imbecile’.
Among the male inmates were a former mason, accountant, cabinet maker, innkeeper, farmer, railway labourer and 9 agricultural labourers. Amongst the women were a former needlewoman, shoebinder, cook, plumber and glazier’s wife, 11 gloveresses and 13 servants. All had fallen on hard times, through lack of work or care from family or general incapacity, and were unable to support themselves or their children. Such was life for the poor and disadvantaged before the welfare state.
In 1894 there were around 95 inmates in the Torrington workhouse and by 1910 there were 48.
An elderly woman, who was a child in the 1930s, remembers attending a concert and tea party each year which was held to raise funds for comforts for the occupants. Dr Bickford (after whom the Bickford Centre for the over 60s was named) was the star turn at the concerts and always sang ‘Widecombe Fair’.
When the building ceased to be a workhouse it became the Torrington Public Assistance Institution. Then it was Torridge View nursing home and ‘housing with care’ – eight bungalows which were built where the chapel used to be. The old, rather forbidding workhouse building was demolished in the mid-1990s and the single storey Woodland Vale was built on the same site and opened in January 1997. This residential care home and day care centre is run by Devon County Council.