The Bridgwater Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and covered the Somerset parishes of Ashcot, Asholt, Bawdrip, Bridgwater (5), Broomfield, Cannington (2), Catcot, Charlinch, Chedzoy, Chilton-under-Poldon, Chilton Trinity, Cossington, Durleigh, Edington, Hamlets of Edstock and Beer, Enmore, Fiddington, Goathurst, Greinton, Huntspill (2), Lyng, Michael Church, Middlezoy, Moorlinch, Othery, Pawlet, North Petherton (3), Otterhampton, Overstowey, Puriton with Woollavington, Shapwick, Spaxton, Stockland Bristol, Stowell, Nether Stowey, Sutton Mallet, Thurloxton, Wembdon, Woolavington, Western Zoyland.
To begin with the old parish workhouses in Bridgwater and North Petherton were pressed into service as workhouses for the new union. Bridgwater was calculated as being able to accommodate 112, although as it only had 40 beds, this relied on at least two adults or six children sharing each bed. North Petherton was estimated as being able to accommodate 100 children. In the winter of 1836-7, a severe outbreak of dysentery led to many deaths amongst the inmates. Local anti-new-poor-law activist John Bowen began a campaign against conditions in the workhouse which he described as “murderous pesthouses”. He blamed the inmates’ diet diet for their illness, especially its large component of gruel. Bowen also accused the Bridgwater Guardians of deliberating placing a vagrant with fever in the workhouse with the aim of infecting and killing inmates. New inmates had also continued to be admitted to the workhouse while an outbreak of typhus fever was raging, resulting in the death of three children from one family.
A new Bridgwater Union workhouse was erected in 1836-7 at the west side of Northgate in Bridgwater. Although much larger than the old buildings it replaced, the new workhouse building was another target of John Bowen’s attacks. He quoted official figures which showed that prison cells gave convicts 1000 cubic feet of space each, whilst workhouse dormitories provided only 103 cubic feet per head. Convicts also received 292 ounces of food per week while workhouse inmates received 145 ounces, half the amount.
In the early 1900s, the Bridgwater Union established a cottage home in a house at the southern end of Rodway in Cannington. The home accommodated the union’s pauper children away from the influence of workhouse.