Building of the Month January 2018: Hexham Workhouse needs to be put to work again

The Hexham Poor-Law Union was formed in 1836, and the Hexham Union Workhouse at Peth Head was erected in 1839.  It is an early example of a purpose-built workhouse and large parts of the original complex remains, including its three parallel ranges, integral courtyards and service yards. In 1842 a contract approved by the Poor Law Commissioners, allowed for the addition of an extra floor to provide sleeping wards and day-rooms separately for men and women.

In 1883 the complex underwent considerable enlargement at a cost of £8000 and was then capable of accommodating 300 inmates. A Master’s House and a dining room were provided - the finely carved doorway of the house, bearing the date 1883 is still there. Most of this plan form remains intact and the site remains legible. Internally the men’s and women’s accommodation is simple and unadorned, but features survive throughout, notably the original fenestration.

English Heritage rejected an application to list the building in 2005, citing the 1883 alterations  i.e. replacement of the original western façade with the 1883 Master’s house and administration block. However, the contrary argument is that this illustrates the evolution of the complex and does not detract from it. 

After the creation of the NHS in 1947, the workhouse buildings were used as Hexham hospital administration buildings. On completion of a new hospital in 2005, the land and buildings were sold to a private developer who it appeared intended to convert to care home use - 12 years later, this has still not come to fruition.

The buildings are in Hexham Conservation Area but are not listed.  A 2010 application for Conservation Area Consent was made by the owners for the demolition of several buildings at the eastern end of the site, including the three storey tower. This was withdrawn without determination – no proposals had been tabled for what was to replace the demolished structures. 

The buildings have been unoccupied since September 2015 and have suffered from neglect and vandalism.  In 2017 the site had a section 215 Amenity Notice served on the owners. Press articles in 2017 indicated that the supermarket chain Lidl wished to purchase the site with a view to total clearance of the buildings. The section 215 Notice has recently been withdrawn following some making good of a collapsed wall and some clearance of debris from the site. The buildings remain at risk.

A group of Hexham residents would like to convert the workhouse buildings into genuinely affordable community-led housing, and to this end, and using a grant from Locality, have been able to survey the site to determine the structural soundness of the buildings and their suitability for conversion. They determined that it would be possible to create 28 units of either 2, 3 or 4 bedrooms, plus some associated small business or community spaces, and to construct a further 20-30 new-build homes on the remainder of the site.  SAVE has not seen any specific proposals.

These Hexham residents are encouraging the County Council to acquire the site through compulsory purchase. The owners continue to state that they have development plans for the site, but as yet there has been nothing submitted either in pre-application or full application.

A statement of significance of the Hexham Workhouse buildings has been written to be included in Hexham’s Neighbourhood Plan.