Published: 06:00, 13 October 2020
On February 15, 1911, a happy couple exchanged their vows and walked down the aisle as man and wife. But this was no ordinary love story.
William Hennan, a sprightly 94, and Fanny Wadhams, 80, were no strangers to marriage - both had been wed three times before. But their eyes had met and love blossomed while both were inmates of the Medway Union workhouse in Chatham.
Courtesy of the introduction, two years earlier, of the old age pension, both were able to see out their years independent from the rather grim-sounding precursor of the benefits system we know today.
But the venue for a love story is not quite the image many of us have of life in the workhouse.
For most, the picture we conjure up derives from the pen of Kent's most celebrated literary son, Charles Dickens; captured by Oliver Twist asking 'for more' gruel from his mean taskmasters.
Certainly Dickens was no fan of the workhouse - he believed conditions were dragged down to deter the most in-need of attending and thus save money - but a little over 100 years ago they were the refuge for the poorest and most infirm in society.
The Victorian workhouses were the evolution of a system which had been called upon due to plague and war over the previous 200 years. Publicly-funded, they were an effort to cope with rising levels of poverty - putting people to use in exchange for meagre rations and a roof over their head. For many it was an unpalatable option but the only one available to them in an era before state hand-outs and social housing.
Today, many of those buildings - many grand and imposing by modern standards - still exist, albeit long since repurposed. Many more demolished in the name of progress.
And while Willy and Fanny (no sniggering at the back) found love in one of the dozens which once stood in Kent, for many they stand as a reminder of a by-gone era often only today remembered courtesy of Dickens' pen.
So before we look at just where they once were in Kent a (very brief, don't be put off) history lesson on just how the workhouse came to exist and what the conditions were like.
Their roots can be traced all the way back to the late 14th century when the Poor Law Act of 1388 was introduced to tackle appalling labour shortages following the Black Death (think Covid on acid). It aimed to prevent labourers from leaving their towns and would ultimately result in the state making efforts to care for the poor.
The first workhouse, as such, would emerge in the mid-17th century and the idea was relatively simple; to provide a place where those unable to support themselves could do work in exchange for food and eventually accommodation too.
Paid for through local taxes, the facilities were basic but designed to reward work and deter idleness.
In 1723 the Workhouse Test Act was passed into legislation. Often known as Knatchbull's Act, it was spearheaded by Sir Edward Knatchbull, a Kent MP who lived in Mersham Le Hatch, near Ashford, to ensure those who wanted to receive 'poor relief' had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. The test was intended to prevent irresponsible claims on a parish's ‘poor’ funds and act as a deterrent against not finding work. It saw a huge boom in workhouses around the country.
By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, there was mass unemployment and matters were made worse by a series of poor harvests which left many struggling to make ends meet as agricultural jobs dried up.
Enter the New Poor Law of 1834, which rubbed Dickens up the wrong way but paved the way for the workhouse boom during the Victorian era. It aimed to only give aid to those who toiled in exchange for a roof over their head and food.
Each workhouse was run by a union - a collection of local parishes - and overseen by a board of guardians.
In short, if you were able to work and needed support, you had no option but to attend the workhouse. For many it was seen as a great source of shame.
The workhouses were self-contained communities offering everything from classrooms for the young to mortuaries for the deceased. They often had farms with livestock to raise food, baked bread on site and would provide a base for families - although parents and children were often separated from one another during their stay. Indeed, much of the work offered went towards ensuring the workhouses' smooth running.
But this was no holiday camp.
Other jobs those attending were expected to do included wood-chopping, grinding corn or stone-breaking. Often back-breaking stuff but designed to generate the funds to keep the workhouses breaking even.
As time went on, the workhouses would increasingly become a place of refuge for the sick and elderly and it is perhaps little wonder that many would become the sites of future hospitals after an act of law in 1929 saw workhouse infirmaries taken over by local authorities.
By 1948 the National Assistance Act ushered in a new era of government support for those in need and the last of the workhouses disappeared. Worth noting is that was just a little over 70 years ago.
But their imprint remains on many of the county's towns and cities.
Author Peter Higginbotham's workhouses.org.uk site is a valuable source of information and can provide a full list of Kent's workhouses big and small over the centuries.
And there were dozens across the county - some capable of accommodating hundreds of people, others far less.
Some of those listed include:
Canterbury: The former heritage museum in Stour Street - now a creative space known as the Marlowe Kit - was once a workhouse. Another would become Nunnery Fields Hospital which closed in 2001. Much of the original workhouse was demolished but the remainder was converted into residential units.
Ashford: Driving towards the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, past the Julie Rose athletics stadium, takes you past another former site in Willesborough capable of accommodating 350 people. It included an infirmary which would later become Willesborough Hospital before the site was converted for residential use. A chapel built on the side of the site is now a children's nursery.
Meanwhile, drive a little further towards the village of East Brabourne and the Five Bells pub was once better known as the parish workhouse. How times change.
Thanet: One of Thanet's biggest workhouses was in Minster, near Ramsgate, and could take in 400 down at heel folk. It eventually became the Hill House Hospital which closed and was demolished in the 1980s. A housing estate now stands in its place.
Maidstone: The Baptist Church in Knightrider Street in Maidstone was once an early workhouse in the 18th century, but the town's main site was in nearby Coxheath on a site capable of taking up to 700 people.
It would morph into Linton Hospital in the 20th century, a building which would eventually be knocked down during the 1990s.
Sheppey: Minster's workhouse had a long history after being first built in the 17th century and becoming the home to many over the following centuries. Continuing under the control of its guardians until 1930, it came into the ownership of Kent County Council and then became a variety of other buildings including the island's hospital before closing 20 years ago.
Dover: The site of Buckland Hospital has seen plenty of changes over recent years as the site has been modernised. But in the 19th century it was home to a workhouse capable of holding 500 people and sprawling across a large site.
Over the years many of the buildings have been knocked down although a children's wing, a little up the road from the hospital, has now been turned into residential accommodation.
Gravesend: As is so often the case in this day and age, if you notice a large patch of relatively new development, the chances are the history behind the site will yield much interest. So for the good folks living at the St James Oaks retirement housing site in Trafalgar Road, Gravesend, it may come as a surprise to learn what once stood on the site was the town's workhouse.
It was a classic Victorian design and after its use was changed it first became St James Hospital before the demolition teams moved in.
Medway: As we know, the happy couple of William Hennan and Fanny Wadhams met at the Chatham workhouse which in later years would become the All Saints Hospital - replacing the previous workhouse on Chatham Hill. Today the buildings are gone and a housing estate is in its place.
But that was not the only Medway site. St Margaret's in Rochester took less than 100 inmates and would be turned into a school once its days caring for the poor were after. It was taken over by King's School in 1960 and in constant use ever since.
Tunbridge Wells: Next time you visit the swanky multi-million pound Tunbridge Wells at Pembury Hospital it is worth remembering that it was once a refuge for the poor. Admittedly, that is a vision far more understandable for those old enough to remember what the old hospital site looked like - far more a relic of the workhouse era.