The site on which Ashwell is built started life in 1782 as St. Luke’s Workhouse in the Parish of St Luke’s near Hoxton, built at a cost of £2,000.
The Workhouse is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. When David came to live with the Micawbers in Windsor Terrace, it is told that there was a servant “a dark-complexioned young woman, with a habit of snorting; and informed me, before half an hour had expired, that she was ‘an Orfling,’ and came from St Luke’s Workhouse, in the neighbourhood.”
Around 1868, the workhouse made way for a Union Hospital. In 1870-71 building works began, designed by the architect Henry Saxon Snell, who specialized in schools and hospitals. Most of the hospital patients, called inmates, were female. Visitors were forbidden to bring anything except flowers, oranges, grapes and acid drops.
Further building works continued from 1879 to 1892. Among these seem to be works to the dining hall in 1882. This spacious area was nearly 20 feet high, with 2 large roof-lights. This is now Ashwell’s Hall, used for concerts, socials and other formal events.
In 1936, the hospital was renamed St Matthew’s; it closed down in 1986 and was demolished 2 years later. What remained of the original buildings was the Nurses’ Home, a solidly built five storey building about 150 feet long and 33 feet wide which has since been converted into Ashwell House.
The former dining hall retains some of the original Victorian features including the wrought iron columns and the two skylights. The gallery containing the sitting room and studies were added when the building was refurbished in 1990.