Living in a Victorian Workhouse
By the Victorian era, workhouses had been in existence in England for more than a century. But, early in the 19th century the cost of housing and feeding the poor, even though it was done on a miserly basis, was rising. Wounded and unemployable soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars were swelling the numbers needing help, and the price of bread had been pushed up by the Corn Laws that restricted grain imports.
Each parish was responsible for helping the “deserving poor” on its own so, by the 1770s, there were more than 2,000 workhouses in Britain; such proliferation was clearly inefficient. The developing middle class and the upper crust that paid the bills were unhappy. Politicians, as ever attentive to the wishes of their more affluent constituents, took action in the form of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
Cutting the Cost of Poor Relief
The underlying philosophy of the workhouse had been set by Sir Edward Knatchbull’s Workhouse Test Act of 1723; it was to make conditions within the walls so miserable that only the truly desperate and destitute would even think of knocking on the door and asking for a bed.
Amending the poor laws in 1834 did not change that approach. As Britain’s National Archives puts it, “The new Poor Law was meant to reduce the cost of looking after the poor, prevent scroungers, and impose a system which would be the same all over the country.”
Parishes were encouraged to join together the better able to raise funds for the building of a central workhouse. The institutions were overseen by locally elected Boards of Governors. There was to be no more support for the needy outside the workhouse; it was enter the workhouse or starve.
By going into the institution, the poverty stricken were forced to surrender their freedom and submit to the regimentation of their lives as if they were in a prison. Thousands of the nearly destitute lived in dread that an accident or illness might befall them and send them into a workhouse.
Peter Higginbotham, author of Workhouse Cookbook, says that on arrival a family’s “clothes were put into storage, and they would be issued with a uniform, given a bath, and subjected to a medical examination.” All possessions were taken away in an effort to dehumanize the residents.
Separation of Families Inside Workhouses
Britain’s National Trust keeps an old workhouse in Southwell, Nottinghamshire as an historical exhibit (below). The Trust notes that “Families were split up: children and adults; men and women were kept apart and were further separated into groups called the ‘idle and profligate’ or ‘blameless and infirm.’ ” Children were separated from their parents and allowed to see them only for a couple of hours on Sundays.
In keeping with the belief that the penniless should not get something for nothing the able-bodied were put to work. Men might spend monotonous hours breaking stones for use in building roads, or crushing bones from a slaughterhouse for fertilizer. The women were put to domestic labour, sewing, laundry, cooking, cleaning, or picking oakum (unravelling old rope for use in caulking ship’s planks).
Children might receive some education, but they might also be sent to work in factories or mines. Some boys were forced into the lowest ranks of the armed forces and girls were sent into service in big houses.
In some workhouses medical care ranged from primitive to non-existent. As BBC History notes “nursing duties [were] generally performed by elderly female inmates, many of whom could not read, were hard of hearing, visually impaired, and fond of a drink.”
Stern Enforcement of Workhouse Rules
Residents were referred to as inmates and had to wear a uniform. Masters and matrons controlled their lives, and some of these overseers could be arbitrary and sadistic. Punishments for breaking the rules and regulations might be a flogging or solitary confinement.
Visitors from the outside were rare and a resident could not leave without permission.
In 1850, Charles Dickens paid a visit to a workhouse and concluded an inmate would be better off in prison. He wrote about what he saw in his publication Household Words: “We have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper.”
According to the National Trust, “There was a repetitive and dull diet. A strict daily menu was provided, with every portion measured or weighed. The daily main meal might be a stew or suet pudding, supplemented by gruel twice daily.”
The diet was adequate if unappetizing. Historians say Oliver Twist’s plea of “Please sir, I want some more” was a bit of dramatic licence on the part of Charles Dickens. As a nine-year-old boy he would have received the same rations as an adult woman and should not have been hungry.
Seventy or more people would sleep in a single dormitory, with men and women strictly separated. Victorian taxpayers did not want any more children being fed and housed from the public purse. But, the urge to procreate being what it is, inmates found time and space for a furtive coupling now and then. If a pregnancy resulted there would be trouble.
Concern about Workhouse Conditions
While workhouses were unpleasant places to be inside they were better than the alternative, which was homelessness and starvation. That could not be said of all workhouses; the infamous Andover Workhouse in Hampshire is an example of the worst.
It was under the charge of a former army sergeant-major, one Colin McDougal, and his wife, Mary Ann.
According to workhouses.org the McDougals ran the place “like a penal colony, keeping expenditure and food rations to a minimum, much to the approval of the majority of the [Governors]. Inmates in the workhouse had to eat their food with their fingers.”
The people were so hungry that they fought over scraps of gristle, rotting flesh, and marrow salvaged from the bones they were crushing.
The awful conditions of Andover Workhouse became public 1845 and led to an inquiry. As a result of the findings, the government brought in tighter rules to control those who operated the places, and a system of regular inspections was also introduced.
Christopher Hudson writes in The Mail (August 12, 2008), “The workhouses were officially closed in 1930. But since there was nowhere else to house thousands of institutionalized people who could not be expected to adjust to the outside world, they continued under other names well into the second half of the 20th century.”
So, in the modern era there were still plenty of people who experienced life inside workhouses and were able to retell the stories. In her 2008 book Shadows of the Workhouse Jennifer Worth recounts the tales of inmates she met in her work as a nurse and midwife.
Charlie Chaplin had several spells in London workhouses and he drew on the experience in creating his little tramp character. In his autobiography he wrote about punishments dished out to boys who misbehaved. They were caned in front of their fellow inmates; sometimes the beatings were so harsh the boys fainted and had to receive medical treatment.
Being born in a workhouse brought great shame to a child. By the early 20th century authorities tried to minimize the indignity by putting fake addresses on birth certificates.
In 1848, there was a public outcry when it was revealed that 10 children were sharing a single bed in the Huddersfield workhouse.
“The Rise and Fall of the Workhouse.” BBC History Magazine, Charlotte Hogdman, undated.
“A Walk in a Workhouse.” Charles Dickens, 1850.
“Workhouse Cookbook.” Peter Higginbotham, Tempus Publishing, 2008.
“The Workhouse, Southwell.” The National Trust.
“Workhouse of Horrors: How this Medieval Hell of Beatings and Sack Cloth Exists within Living Memory.” Christopher Hudson, The Mail, August 12, 2008.
“Shadows of the Workhouse.” Jennifer Worth, George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008.
“What Did People Think of the New Poor Law?” British National Archives.