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Encyclopedia > Workhouse
Former workhouse at Nantwich, dating from 1780
Former workhouse at Nantwich, dating from 1780

A workhouse was a place where people who were unable to support themselves could go to live and work. The earliest recorded example of a workhouse dates to 1652 in Exeter. Image File history File links Wiki_letter_w. ... Image File history File linksMetadata Download high-resolution version (1200x924, 454 KB)[edit] Summary Former workhouse at Nantwich, Cheshire, constructed in 1780. ... Image File history File linksMetadata Download high-resolution version (1200x924, 454 KB)[edit] Summary Former workhouse at Nantwich, Cheshire, constructed in 1780. ... // Events April 6 - Dutch sailor Jan van Riebeeck establishes a resupply camp for the Dutch East India Company at the Cape of Good Hope, and founded Cape Town. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this articles infobox may require cleanup. ...

Form the earliest times it had always been accepted that a proportion of the population were unable to support themselves and had to be provided for. Prior to 1830 most parishes provided outdoor relief a system of cash payments made to the poor on an ad hoc basis in time of need. However, in the early Nineteenth Century the principal of laissez faire was developed. This held that poverty was largly the result of fecklessness, immorality, idleness and drunkenness and that too liberal a welfare regime would merely encourage these vices and discourage self improvement and honest labour. For specific national programs, see Social Security (United States), National insurance (UK), Social Security (Sweden) Social security mainly refers to a field of social welfare concerned with social protection, or protection against socially recognized needs, including poverty, old age, disability, unemployment, families with children and others. ... Laissez-faire (IPA: ) or laisser-faire is short for laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer, a French phrase meaning let do, let go, let pass. ...

Coupled with this, the Industrial Revolution, a rising population and urbanisation was resulting in increased levels of perceived poverty that the old parish system was unable to cope with. A Watt steam engine in Madrid. ... Urbanization is the degree of or increase in urban character or nature. ...

The workhouse system was set up under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 although many individual houses existed before this legislation. Outdoor relief was discouraged and each group of parishes had to provide a workhouse. Inmates were free to enter and leave as they liked and would receive free food and accommodation. However, the concern was that too liberal a regime would lead to many people who could easily work taking it easy in the workhouse. This would lead not only to a excessive charge on charitable funds but a dilution of the work ethic. To counter this the principle of less eligibility was developed. Workhouse life was deliberately made as harsh and degrading as possible so that only the truly destitute would apply. Attempts were also made to provide moral guidance, training and education to the poor but it would be fair to say that the principal of less eligibility combined with the ever present desire to save money scuppered any real chance of success in this area. Less eligibility One of the principles of the new system of poor relief that was introduced by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was that of less eligibility. The principle did not apply to children, who were held to be blameless for their predicament. ...

The workhouse system was the mainstay of poor relief through the Victorian era. Overall they were places of dread to the labouring and indigent poor. Reformers like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree revealed that there was widespread poverty in Victorian England and the Workhouse system was not helping. Books such as Oliver Twist highlighted workhouse abuse. Charles Booth can refer to: Frederick Charles Booth a Victoria Cross winner Charles Stephen Booth a Canadian member of parliament from 1940 to 1945 Rt Hon Charles Booth Philanthropist, known for his surveys of poverty This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might... Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree often known simply as Seebohm Rowntee (7 July 1871 - 7 October 1954) was a British sociological researcher, social reformer and industrialist. ... Oliver Twist (1838) is Charles Dickens second novel. ...

The workhouse system was abolished in 1929.


Workhouse design

Sampson Kempthorne designed many British workhouses and was very famous for this. Sampson Kempthorne(1809-1873) was a workhouse architect. ...

Workhouse diet

The meals supplied in the workhouse had to meet the condition of less eligibility - While adequete the food was boring and of poor quality. Until 1842 all meals were eaten in silence and in the 1830's some workhouses did not allow cutlery to complete the humiliation. Less eligibility One of the principles of the new system of poor relief that was introduced by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was that of less eligibility. The principle did not apply to children, who were held to be blameless for their predicament. ...

Breakfast in a workhouse usually consisted of 7oz of bread and 1 1/2 pints of gruel. Dinner was not much better and often consisted of a maximum of 1 1/2 pints of poor quality vegetable soup. For supper a workhouse member would expect 6oz of bread and 2oz of cheese. Due to this poor diet the members of a workhouse often suffered from malnutrition.

In the 1850s the then vicar of Stoughton and Racton in West Sussex wrote to the Guardians of the Westbourne Workhouse requesting that (as a matter of Christian Charity) second helpings of gruel were provided on Christmas Day. He was informed in no uncertain terms that if the rations were raised above the minimum required to keep body and soul together the result would be laziness fecklessness and hordes of otherwise able bodied people clamouring to get in.

Workhouse discipline

The workhouse master could implement rules in order to create a system of rewards and punishments which aimed to instil discipline. For breaking rules paupers could be punished with the type of job they had to do that day. There were specific punishments which are set out by the Poor Law Commission. Examples were beatings (for male inmates only) cells and reductions in rations. The Poor Law Commission was a body established to administrate poor relief after the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834). ...

There can be little doubt that workhouses were rowdy places. The petty regulations and the requirement of less eligibility meant that relations between staff and inmates were often bad. Low level violence, verbal and sexual abuse were common.

Inmates could leave with three hours notice. Inevitably a transient population bringing in all the problems of the outside world cannot have made for calm.

Workhouse conditions

Workhouse conditions were deliberately harsh to deter the able bodied idle poor from relying on them. Men and women were segregated and children were seperated from their parents. Aged pauper couples who by definition were neither idle nor criminal were not allowed to share a bedroom. By entering a workhouse paupers were held to have forfeited responsibility for their children. Pauper children were often forcibly apprenticed without the permission or knowledge of their parents. This may well have been done for the best motives but was desperately cruel nonetheless. Inmates surrendered their own clothes and wore a distinctive uniform.

There were many well meaning measures such as education for children and the provision of doctors and chaplains. However most workhouses were run on a shoe string and these philanthropic gestures often fell far short.

In many ways the treatment in a workhouse was little different than in a prison leaving many inmates feeling that they were being punished for the crime of poverty.

The terrible conditions in some workhouses may have led to depression. There was reference to workhouse woman who would not speak and children who refused to play.

Some workhouse masters used the money intended for blankets, food and other important items for their own personal use.

Visitors reported rooms full of sick or elderly inmates with threadbare blankets and the windows wide open to the freezing weather.

In 1846 the notorious Andover Scandal revealed a shocking state of affairs at this Hampshire workhouse. The Master an ex sergeant major called Colin M'Dougal ran a reign of terror. Starving paupers were reduced to sucking the marrow from the bones they wwere supposed to be grinding for fertiliser.

Work was provided to keep the inmates busy. It was usually boring hard and degrading. Examples included crushing bones, stone breaking and picking oakum. Cooking and cleaning in the workhouse kept many busy.

To be fair workhouse conditions did improve as the nineteenth century went on although few lived up to the high minded ideals of many of the founders of the system.

Typical workhouse day==

5 a.m. - Rising bell
6 a.m - Prayers and breakfast
7 a.m. - Work
12 noon - Dinner
1 p.m. - Work
6 p.m. -Prayers
7 p.m. - Supper
8 p.m. - Bed

Workhouse images

 Exeter workhouse Hull Workhouse Image File history File links Exeter1. ... Image File history File links Hull1. ...

Workhouse staff

In order to save money the Poor Law Commissioners paid abominably badly. To give an example the Governor of a Victorian Prison received £600:00 per annum. A Workhouse Master and Matron running a similar sized organisation recived on average £80:00 per annum between them. Often the posts of Master and Clerk were combined on the one salary. Inevitably workhouse service often attracted ill qualified, brutal, drunken incompetent failures from other walks of life. Like the inmates many were there because they couldn't get anything better. It often attracted rootless ex army NCOs and their wives with no experience of running large institutions. George Catch an ex policemen ran a regime of corruption, tyranny and murder in several workhouses until he threw himself under a train.

Workhouse chaplains and doctors were paid less than half of what they could expect anywhere else. In addition medical officers had to pay for the drugs they supplied - hardly an incentive to follow the Hippocratic Oath.

Workhouse teachers were a particular problem. In Salisbury, Coventry and Deptford it was revealed that the appointed teacher (usually one of the paupers) was illiterate.

To be fair the bad examples are not the whole picture and it needs to be set against conditions for the poor generally. However bad workhouse education and medical facilities were, they were an improvement on what was offered outside to pauper children(which was nothing). Things did gradually improve over time. At Ashford the Master an ex naval officer ran a model of efficiency and the paupers wept at his funeral.

The 1846 report from the Poor Law Commissioners stated: The Workhouse is a large household.....it resembles a private family on a enlarged scale. Pious and laudable though these sentiments were, one is left wondering just what kind of family the commissioners had in mind. Even the most repressive Victorian patriach did not aim to make life as unpleasant for members of his family so that their main purpose in life was to leave.

 Further reading 
 [Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948 Rosemary Rees] [Poverty and Welfare 1830 - 1914 Peter Murray] 

External links

  • http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
  • Horsham Workhouse A site dedicated to the workhouse in Horsham
  • Horsham Workhouse today Recent photographs of Horsham's 1839 workhouse now converted into apartments

See also

  Results from FactBites:
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The primary aim of the Workhouse is to operate as a one-stop shop for various community groups and agencies operating in the area, to allow them to integrate together to offer services such as, information provision, training, and employment opportunities to our community.
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