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  • Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Leicester Union Workhouse opened in 1839 to help the most poor in society
  • The workhouse was rebuilt to house over 1000 inmates, but living and working conditions were made harsh to keep people away
  • Responsibility for the workhouse passed to the NHS and in 1960 it became Hillcrest Hospital, an elderly people’s home

Help for the Poor

The first half of the 1800s saw an increase in unemployment and rising prices. Many people found themselves needing food and somewhere to live. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act meant that the only way to get help was to move into a workhouse. Inside the workhouse, conditions were harsh, and you had to work hard. This was to stop people going to the workhouse. In 1836 eight local councils joined together to form the Leicester Union and together planned a new workhouse.

Leicester’s New Workhouse

In 1839 the new workhouse was opened. It was designed by William Flint who was from Leicester. It housed 650 people and was one of the largest workhouses in England. Between 1850-1851 it was substantially rebuilt to house over 1,000 people. Inmates had to wear a uniform and were given very plain food including bread and dripping (made from animal fat). In 1879 Joseph Carey Merrick, also known by the stage name The Elephant Man, entered Leicester Union Workhouse.

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Entrance gates and lodges of the Leicester workhouse

The End of the Poor Law

In 1948 the last elements of Poor Law were removed. A new benefit called National Assistance was introduced. In the 1960s the Leicester Union Workhouse became Hillcrest Hospital, a home for older people. However, along with some of the structure of the workhouse, the stigma of its history also remained. Hillcrest closed in 1974 and the building was demolished in 1977. Today, only the gateposts from the old workhouse building remain. The site is now home to Moat Community College which opened in 1981.

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Nursing staff pose for a photograph in one of the women's wards at Hillcrest


Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Victorian Leicester

(1837 – 1901) The industrial revolution had a huge effect on Leicester resulting in the population growing from 40,000 to 212,000 during this period. Many of Leicester's most iconic buildings were erected during this time as wealthy Victorians made their mark on the town.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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