Sunday, 30 June 2019

Watford Workhouse Bricks

Watford Workhouse Bricks

The building fronting Vicarage Road next to the football ground, formerly known as Shrodells, was initially the Watford Union Workhouse. One of the courtyards at the rear was the exercise yard for the male inmates and on two of the walls are a number of bricks etched with a name and a date (approximately 50 in all). They were likely inscribed by the same person (perhaps a particular inmate with stone mason training) during the years from 1845 to 1858 and show the names of those who died in the workhouse and a date. They are probably the only memorial these men had and as such, are unique not only to workhouse history, but to social history as a whole. Although graffiti has been found in some former workhouses, usually in the day wards/rooms used by casuals, there does not appear to be any other place with etched bricks such as those at Watford.

Work has been done by one member in particular to match up the names on the bricks with the actual people who resided in the House. Using workhouse death records for the Watford area and census records, all the bricks have been researched and the Group has put together a Book of Remembrance (held in the Group's Archives).

Photographed by group members in about 2013 (and on successive occasions), the bricks are, six years later, showing signs of deterioration and erosion. It is strongly felt that there is a duty to preserve these memorials and therefore following the group’s exhibition in 2017, a campaign was initiated to “Save the Bricks”. Members met with the Herts Heritage Hub at the University of Hertfordshire, where a presentation was given showcasing the bricks and advice received as to the way forward. A first step would be contacting a specialist architectural conservator, but any professional advice would come at a cost and it has to be remembered that the building is part of the NHS and, as such, on private land. Any future steps towards the conservation of the bricks will be done with the consent of the hospital and the support of Watford Museum and WBC.  

Before we can proceed we need to raise the profile of the bricks and increase funds. We were lucky enough to have the memorials featured by Historic England and they were shown briefly on an early evening News programme. Our last two exhibitions produced a few donations to the campaign, but we are not currently in a position to accept more at the moment.. Or if there are any conservators out there who can help with advice, we would love to hear from you.  (The email address in on the Home Page).

It is hoped to arrange more short excursions to see the bricks in the future. Please check back regularly for dates and times if you are interested.

Alongside the names of the deceased inmates can be found some other unique etchings; one is a train. The railway came to Watford with the opening of the London to Birmingham railway in 1837. The construction of the line would have caused huge interest in the town and was clearly commemorated by a crude, but endearing depiction of the engine.

Another etched brick, found more recently by a member of staff at Watford General Hospital, is that of a horse. In 1862, the Epsom Derby was won by a horse called Caractacus, owned by Mr Charles Snewing of Holywell Farm. (See full story in Blog menu). Following the win, Mr Snewing held a magnificent feast at his farm in honour of the win.  From records of the occasion it was noted:  "apart from his own extensive circle of friends, there were invited a large gathering of the labouring men of Watford and male inmates of the Union Workhouse." It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that the horse depicted on the brick is quite likely Caractacus. 

Yet another etching of a horse was discovered (in 2018) by a member of the WWHG while taking a small group of interested people to see the bricks. It is exciting, but frustrating that we seem unable at present to do the conservation work that is needed,  but we will persevere. 


Piece by Lynda Bullock


  1. I have just read the article in Herts Past & Present. How do I donate to your appeal?

    1. Unfortunately we are not in a position to accept donations at the moment. We are trying to establish if the building will remain if the redevelopment of the hospital goes ahead. Should that not happen, we have asked for the bricks to be saved and used in some form of memorial.


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