The “Workhouse” was designed to provide work and shelter for the extremely poor who could not support themselves. Over time, however, these workhouses became ‘prison systems’ who ‘dealt’ with the same poor. This harsh system first came to light during the Victorian Era. The “Institution” became known for its terrible conditions --- forced child labour / long hours / malnutrition / beatings and neglect.
The idea of helping the extreme poor goes back to 1388 when the Poor Law Act was started. This law increased the involvement of the state in its responsibility towards the poor. In 1576, the Poor Relief Act said that if a person was able to (and willing to), they had to work in order to receive support. In 1601, the legal framework made the parish responsible for ‘enacting the poor relief’ within geographical boundaries. This started the foundation of the principles for the Victorian Workhouse. Jump forward to 1830’s and the majority of parishes had at least one workhouse which acted with prison-like conditions. In 1834, was set the New Poor Law. The consensus at the time was that this ‘system of relief’ was being abused.
Conditions within the Workhouse
What started out to help the extreme poor hundreds of years before, was now becoming a ‘punishment’ for being poor. Families entering the Victorian Workhouse were separated, even children from their parents. An individual was given a uniform which was meant to last their entire stay, whether two days or two weeks --- or two years! Talking was not allowed and the poor people were expected to work long hours doing work such as cleaning, cooking and using machinery.
The rules seemed to be endless:
“Any pauper who shall neglect to observe --- the regulations herein contained as are applicable and binding on him:-
Or who shall make any noise when silence is ordered to be kept
Or shall not duly cleanse his person
Or shall pretend sick
Or shall wilfully disobey any lawful order of any officer of the workhouse
Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. “
One punishment was to withhold the meals for a ‘disobedient’ inmate, although is seems to be made to eat the ‘meal’ was a punishment! The so-called butter, cheese, tea, sugar and broth was usually ‘gruel that was too salty, a piece of dry bread and a mug of water or cold coffee (if you were lucky).
The women were expected to clean, help in the kitchen or do laundry. Some did sewing, spinning or weaving. Some worked in the vegetable gardens which ‘fed’ the workhouse. The children were hired out to work in the factories or mines. As we can imagine, there were many cases of cruelty and abuse towards the children. The youngest of boys were beaten, the girls were also hit, often ‘with a birch-broom.’ These children were very undernourished and many died in the Workhouses, some of these were orphans with no one to mourn them. Education was provided but the school master was so cruel that it is a wonder the children learnt anything. The men did heavy manual work like rock breaking and also rope picking.
Upon entering, the person was stripped of their own clothes, made to bathe and given a uniform to wear. There seemed very little privacy as even bathing was under supervision. It was usually forbidden to leave unless for a special reason, such as visiting a sick or dying relative. Dormitories (same sex dormitories) with chamber pots is where these poor people slept. Health and hygiene was rarely considered, thus it was estimated that 145,000 people died in these Workhouses --- every year!
As we know, Charles Dickens brought these appalling conditions to light with hiss tory “Oliver Twist.” When Charles was a child, the family lived only doors away from a major London Workhouse and heard and saw many things first hand.
In these Workhouses, religion played its part, with communal prayers before breakfast and after supper and a ‘Divine Service’ every Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day. All work stopped on these days except the normal household work and cooking.
It has been said that the Workhouses were so bad to be in to stop the ‘scroungers’ from having a read ride on the system. People would work at anything in order to avoid going into these dreaded places. Also, the upper and middle classes started to complain that they were paying for these ‘lazy poor.’ The money may have been there but very little was actually spent on the poor who entered the Workhouses. Some of the ‘disobedient’ was punished with solitary confinement, or even jail. Although there doesn’t seem to have been that much difference between the Workhouses and the prisons.
Luckily, there have been real-life experiences saved for us to read today. The book “Tales from the Workhouse” has many of these experiences:
Two women needed a bed for the night and not having enough money for a hotel, went to the Workhouse: “(the portress) insisted on a bath, and watched us undress, telling us to leave our clothes, and giving us nightdresses doubtfully clean. (The necks were dirty). We hurried for fear of offending her. She asked if we would sleep together or alone, as the beds were double. We were glad to be together. My friend said she should have cried all night shut up alone in one of these prison-like cells. I was ready first, and was given four blankets.”
Another poor person: “The bathroom, containing our clothes, was locked; the closet was left unlocked; a pail was given us for sanitary purposes. We had no means of assuaging the thirst which grew in us as the night went on; for dry bread, even if washed down with thin gruel, is very provocative of thirst. I no longer wonder that tramps beg two pence for a drink and make for the nearest public house.” “We hastened to the bath-room and drank eagerly at the tap.” We just cannot imagine such terrible conditions --- but they were real !
Another recalled: “One newcomer was a poor old granny, very bad with rheumatism, whom she loudly accused of drink, probably with truth. This old woman signed, groaned and moaned most of the night, and was in real pain. She got out of bed twice with numerous signs and groans, taking a quarter of an hour at least each time.” I would have given up trying to sleep!
Speaking of a portress: “She turned a deaf ear to one poor, tired woman whose feet were swollen, and who wished to remain another night, and tried her best to order poor old granny out. “You won’t stay here, You can walk right enough, You won’t come over me with your tales.”” The portress’ were very hard women!
Another poor soul remembers: “Any dream I had of ideal tramp ward conditions had vanished. I was instead filled with amazement that any enlightened and Christian men and women could consider this refuge for destitution, and wonder at a preference for brickfields and liberty. Prison treatment would be preferable, but my wonder was still to grow.” I think that says it all!
Workhouses officially closed in 1930, q few carried on under a different name = Public Assistance Institutions = and became the responsibility of the local councils. This is one of those times when I read about the past and am glad I was born in this century.