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Cardiff Union Workhouse- an example of the state of the poor in the UK in Victorian Times.

Updated on October 1, 2014

What was a Workhouse?

In England and Wales a workhouse was an institution paid for by the local parish to house paupers who could not support themselves. Workhouses were in existence from the 1300's and became an increasing financial burden on parishes as the numbers needing assistance increased. The New Poor Law Act of 1834 attempted to discourage the miss use of the poor relief to able bodied paupers by discouraging outdoor relief i.e. money given to paupers living in their own homes and offer only 'in' (work)house relief. Individual parishes were formed into Unions, each having a union workhouse.

Cardiff South Wales

Cardiff Union Workhouse

Cardiff Union Workhouse was built on Cowbridge Road, Cardiff in 1839 and later rebuilt in 1880-81. The building was added to and extended several times through its history and eventually became St Davids Hospital in1948. The building of the new Workhouse was a consequence of the changes brought in by the 1834 Poor Law. The Cardiff Poor Law Union was formed in 1836.

Peter Higginbotham, considered an expert in the field of workhouses states that

'its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 53 in number representing 44 constitiuent parishes.'

There is evidence of an earlier workhouse on the west side of St Mary Street opposite the town gaol. However the building most Cardiff residents would reference is the building on Cowbridge Road.

What did it look Like?

Cardiff Workhouse was described in The British Medical Journal April 4th 1896

'The workhouse buildings consist of the house proper, the hospital, and isolation wards, and cover an area of about 8 acres. The house is built in blocks, three stories high, and the hospital on the pavilion plan in two storeys'.

An article in a pamphlet made produced by the Western Mail Newspaper in 1896 describes it in more detail. it lists the administrative department as having a frontage of about 250 feet on Cowbridge Road, containing a board room, committee room, attendants offices and waiting rooms. 'It is lighted with lancet and square headed windows and deep mullions, and the center portion is surmounted by a handsome clock tower and a bell turret rising to the height of 72 feet.'

It also describes the heating of the workhouse and the large chimney dominating the front of the building.

Different types of Poor Relief

There were two main types of Poor relief, indoor and outdoor.

Outdoor relief consisted of a means tested payment. One challenge for the local parishes was that many of the able bodied poor who were willing and working earned such low wages that they still needed assistance. This meant many people were seeking supplementary relief. The poor law report of 1834 did not define what was an able-bodied pauper, it did however state that outdoor relief could be provided if one third or one half of it was in kind. Outdoor relief was available to able-bodied men and their dependents if men did manual work. It was also provided for a variety of situations including sickness, accident, mental infirmity, burial, families of paupers in gaol, the armed forces or living outside of a union. It was standard practice to support elderly paupers with outdoor relief where possible. Not all Unions followed the part payment in kind regulations.

In many unions it was also a regular practice to board out pauper children. This occurred in Cardiff Union. From the 1900s children were increasingly fostered out or boarded in scattered homes throughout the city. These included homes at Cowbridge Road East, Victoria Park Road East, Woodvile Road and Church Terrace.

Indoor Relief was accommodation and food for those unable to support themselves. Able-bodied paupers were given a bed and food in exchange for work. This often involved hard labor such as picking oakum, hand grinding, wood chopping and rock breaking. This was the Union Workhouse.

Return of the Number of Paupers in Receipt of Relief in Cardiff Union on the second week of the Quarter ending the 25th day of March 1853.

The National Archives have published many documents relating to the workhouses in England and Wales.
The National Archives have published many documents relating to the workhouses in England and Wales. | Source

Transcription of the Document

Cardiff Union

Return of the Number of Paupers, exclusive of Lunatics in Asylums and Vagrants, in receipt of Relief on the last day of the second week of the Quarter ending the 25th day of March 1853.

This suggests that although the 1834 Act had discouraged outdoor relieve the workhouse in Cardiff was either unable to or chose not to provide indoor relief for its paupers.

Letter on the reverse of the return document

The Situation in Cardiff Workhouse

It was clear in the Return figures in 1853 that Cardiff Union Workhouse was not coping with the volume of paupers and that the other parishes in the Union were not happy with the financial burden. On the back of the Return described above was a letter dated 16th February 1853. It discusses the need for an infirmary and tramp ward, and that the country parishes will likely oppose it. The document is transcribed as -

16th Feb 1853

I have visited the Cardiff Union, and have drawn the attention of the guardians to the necessity of ( ? ) the number of inmates to the prescribed limit. The excess has now been reduced, and there is room in the main wing for nearly 30 more.

Besides the main W.H. there is a place called the refuge, used chiefly for foul cases and tramps.- The site of a has been left to the poor by the Trustees of Lord Bute, but it is now wanted for building purposes and will probably soon be reduced by the trusties. In that event, it would be most desirable to add to the W.H. and some of the gns. have it in contemplation propose the purchase of some land adjoining the W.H. for the purpose of erecting there on an infirmary and tramp wards. I highly approve of this plan and it is likely to meet with considerable opposition from some of the country Guardians, who think that the country parishes do not derive equal benefit with the town parishes from expenditure in the improvement of the W.H.

Last page of the letter transcribed above

Letter from a series of documents available from The National Archives website
Letter from a series of documents available from The National Archives website | Source

Consequences for Cardiff Workhouse

This proved to be an accurate assumption. The burden of the workhouse became an increasing issue for the country parishes in particular. There are many letters surviving discussing the need for a separation of the country parishes from Cardiff. The following is a transcription of a letter discussing the issue dated April 1853.

Cardiff Union

Separation of County Parishes form Cardiff

9th April 1853

In the first place the proposed separation would in my opinion be inexpedient (?) as a (?). There are many other Unions - several in South Wales - where a separation of the town from the country might be used on - similar grounds. The experience of the Poor Law Board has not I believe,been favorable to such separation in the majority of those cases where it has taken place. I am informed at least that the detached parishes have in some instances neglected to provide workhouse accommodation for the poor. In a Union formed of town and country parishes, the elected Guardians usually comprise men of different modes of thought, and the administration of relief in such Unions has often been more judicious and impartial, or is regarded by the poor with more confidence than when it is left entirely to a particular class of employers agricultural, mining, manufacturing or farming. A separation is attended with complicated financial arrangement as the claims of the several parishes on the Union property have in that case to be adjusted by Act of Parliament. This operation is attended with trouble and some ( ? ), and is not always satisfactory in its results. The difficulties of readjustment are so considerable that a clear and strong case of existing (?) and suspected advantages ought to be substantiated before the Poor Law Board consent to an alteration. The chief ground used for separating Cardiff from the Country Parishes is the disproportionate share of claimants on the Common Fund, who are furnished by the town, either as residents or vagrants. But this is a result contemplated and intended by resent legislation. The legislature has devised it just to spread over a wider area charged that formerly fell upon single parishes. From the (unmovable ?) poor residing in Cardiff, the appointing country parishes deserve some benefit in labor as they do likewise from the Cardiff markets and public institutions. The expected attendant on the visitation of Cholera, and on the immigration of Irish vagrants who flock to the port of Cardiff, are instances of charges which it is more just and politic to diffuse over the Union than to saddle entirely on a limited locality. The country Guardians locality. The country Guardians complain that their parishes have not the same benefit from the workhouse that the town parishes have, but, independent of relief charged to the common fund, the pauperisms of Cardiff town is not I believe greater in proportion to the population and property than the pauperism of the country parishes. If the poor cases are becoming heavier in the country parishes, (as is alleged) if yet the indoor poor chargeable to those parishes are fewer in proportion to than the indoor poor, chargeable to Cardiff, the inference must be that the country parishes do not avail themselves as they might of the workhouse. The Workhouse indeed is occasionally overcrowded, and they object to enlarge it because they have not a proportionate share of its benefits. This is alleging their own indisposition to indoor relief as a reason for declining to contribute to the improvement of the workhouse. Besides, the benefit of the Workhouse to a parish is not measured solely by the inmates sent to it from a particular parish. The very knowledge of the existence of a Workhouse operates to prevent many from becoming chargeable who would otherwise be so. The Guardians who now object to the expense of adequately enlarging the Workhouse and improving the education of the children, can scaresly be counted upon as likely to provide adequate accommodation and good industrial housing if their prayer were complied with. If the country parishes were detached form Cardiff, they could not well be attached to surrounding Unions. It wont be necessary that they should form a Union of themselves, and LLandaff appears to me to be the only centre that could be chosen. THe new Union would have nearly all the evils arriving from distances of the old, and the work Guardians would find it more inconvenient to repair to Llandaff in that case than they do now to come to Cardiff.

Admitting that the share of (conium ?) changes borne by the country parishes is greatly increased by their union with Cardiff, I think that the evils they complain of would be much more beneficially remedied by a legislative enactment causing a gradual approximation to their union rating by all equable assessment upon rateable property leave the country parishes unprovided with a workhouse, and under an imperfect system of administration. If the separation were made, and a suitable Workhouse provided, the additional expense of fresh establishments and others would I believe contradict charges if occasioned by Cardiff irremovable poor could be expected to confer.

On the whole, I think that the change ought not to be acceded to. Though the present Workhouse is not too large for the town parishes alone, the remedy for this defect lies in an enlargement which I trust is not hopeless. I come to this conclusion, notwithstanding the great importance which I attribute to the signature of the moralists for change, among whom are many eminent men, whose opinions are entitled to the utmost respect. In coming to this conclusion, I am influenced not so much by the injury which the change would inflict on Cardiff, as by the difficulties of a satisfactory adjustment. Though the change would entail upon the town charges which might occasionally be oppressive, and it has been the object of the legislature to diffuse, Cardiff is so rapidly increasing in wealth and population that it could perhaps, without difficulty bear the increased burden.


Who entered the Workhouse?

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 stated that anyone who wanted to get poor relief must enter a workhouse and this became known as the workhouse test. This was not however fully carried out and outdoor relief continued. The Act focused on less eligibility, so that a pauper had to be destitute to qualify for relief. Most people saw this as the last resort and would avoid the workhouse at all costs.

Although voluntary it would have been a difficult decision to enter the workhouse, people were often destitute, sick, too old to work, abandoned or mentally ill. The Census of 1881 lists inmates ages, the majority are either under 18 or over 50 years of age. The large number of infants/scholars listed shows a large number of children at that time. Abandoned mothers and their children, and unmarried mothers had nowhere to turn to during times of hardship and were forced to take themselves and their children to the workhouse. The 1881 Census also lists a wide range of occupations for its residents. Hawker, Chimney Sweep, Laborer to name a few. Also listed is place of birth. As a roughly calculated percentage, 21%of the inmates were born in Cardiff, 26% born in Ireland, 16% from other areas in Wales, 32% from England 1% from Scotland and 4% from overseas. Interestingly the largest being from England and Ireland. This suggests a large movement of people looking for work and not finding it.

Occupations of Inmates

The 1881 Census of the inmates in Cardiff Union Workhouse lists 439 inmates. Not all the inmates have occupations listed. Of those that do, the numbers of high frequency listed occupations are show below.

Common Of ccupations of Paupers in the Workhouse

Number of inmates
Agricultural Laborer
Domestic Servant
Dock Laborer

Entering the Workhouse

Although entering the workhouse was on a voluntary basis, the Union made it as demoralizing as possible to discourage paupers from entering. Most people entering the workhouse were already pretty desperate. They may have been hungry, cold, tired and been through a harrowing experience. Typically the paupers would be interviewed by the Workhouse Master or Relieving officer. They would review the paupers situation to determine if they were in need of urgent relief. They would need formal admission form the Board of Guardians so would be sent to a receiving ward. There they would be examined by a doctor to check for illness. Inmates would then remove their clothes wash and dress in union clothing. These types of clothes were all similar almost like a uniform and their original belonging would be washed and sterilized for when they left.

Life in the Workhouse

The design of the workhouse often made it feel like a prison. The windows were often high and walls were built around them. The paupers were called inmates and had to ask permission to leave the workhouse. On entrance men, women and children were separated. In many houses they were further separated. In Merthyr Tydfil Workhouse inmates were separated into-

Men infirm through age or any other cause

Able-bodied males over 15 years

Boys ages 7-15 years

Women infirm thorough age or any other cause

Able-bodied females over 15 years

Girls 7-15

Children under 7

In many workouses children were separated from their mothers as little as 2 years old.

Tydfil Thomas in her book Poor Relief in Merthyr Tydfil Union in Victorian times describes the conditions and daily routine as basic and boring. Furniture was basic and beds were tightly packed together. There was nothing on the walls besides regulation notices and books, newspapers and toys were not permitted. There was usually a strict timetable, with hard physical work, and Paupers had to ask permission to leave If they wanted to look for work.


In the early years of the Workhouses, the Guardians paid little attention to the education of pauper children, and there was very little reference to them in the 1834 Act. However Higginbotham notes that by 1839 half the population of the workhouses were children. Orphans entering the Workhouse often became the wards of the Board of Guardians and they realized they needed to get them ready for employment.

The solution to this in Cardiff was the Ely Industrial School. From 1862 children lived at the industrial school that was approximately a mile and a half from the Workhouse. The children were given a basic education and taught skills for employment. Boys would learn trades and girls housework and needlework skills. There are also references to children from other workhouses being sent to the Industrial school. Children from Merthr Tydfil Workhouse were sent to Cardiff, with the workhouse house paying Union for their lodgings.

There was also an Industrial or Ragged School in Cardiff at this time. The 1881 Maritime records lists a HMS Havannah School in Cardiff, Glamorgan. It lists 80 students ages between 8 and 15, all boys. Industrial schools were established to help children who were facing the possibility of a life of crime or without any education. In 1857 the Industrial Schools Act was passed to give magistrates the power to send children ages 7-14 who were in court for vagrancy charges to an Industrial school. Another Act in 1861 identified children into different categories. Children under the age of fourteen found begging or receiving poor relief, any child under the age of fourteen found wandering and not having any home or visible means of support, or in company of reputed thieves. Any child apparently under the age of twelve who, having committed an offence punishable by imprisonment or less. And any child under the age of fourteen whose parents declare him to be beyond their control.


The conditions in the workhouse varied from institution to institution. The continued references to the overcrowding at Cardiff suggests the conditions would have been cramped at best. The diet would have been similar to other workhouses. In Merthyr Tydfil workhouse the children were given the following allowances on admission (1853).

4oz Bread 1/2 pint of Gruel daily
2oz of Meat on Monday, Wednesday and Friday
4oz bread everyday
1/2 pound of potatoes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday
1/2 pint of broth Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
1 pint of Rice Pudding on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday
1 pint of soup on Tuesday
Bread 4oz on Saurday
1oz cheese on Sunday
Cheese 1oz on Sunday

In conclusion, life was desperate in the workhouse and Cardiff was no exception. Only the destitute would hand themselves over to the mercy of the Workhouse union and those who entered the workhouse faced an equally desperate life inside.

© 2014 Ruthbro


Submit a Comment

  • Ruthbro profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from USA

    Thank You, I fear once you were admitted, it was almost impossible to get yourself in a position to be able to leave. A vicious circle!


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