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The Workhouses: How the Poor Were Virtually Imprisoned in Victorian Era England

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

A group of children at Crumpsall Workhouse (1895–1897)

A group of children at Crumpsall Workhouse (1895–1897)

As a transition to a new form of manufacturing, in which hand production was replaced by machines, the Industrial Revolution was a force to be reckoned with. It was more of a firestorm than a tornado. It started in the large cities of the United Kingdom, slowly moving through the farmlands and rural areas, displacing workers while exacerbating the gap between the rich and the poor.

Nothing could be done about it. Nobody can stop progress.

The Industrial Revolution

The initial wave, now known as the First Industrial Revolution, started around 1760. By 1840, when today’s academics agree it ended, society had drastically changed. As the migration to major cities from rural and farm areas reached unprecedented levels, London’s population tripled in the period between 1801 and 1861. Other cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool also grew by three- or four-fold.


The beached convict ship HMS Discovery at Deptford. Launched as a 10-gun sloop at Rotherhithe in 1789, the ship served as a convict hulk from 1818 until scrapped in February 1834

The beached convict ship HMS Discovery at Deptford. Launched as a 10-gun sloop at Rotherhithe in 1789, the ship served as a convict hulk from 1818 until scrapped in February 1834

The Separation of the Classes

As people flooded to the cities in search of work at manufacturing, chemical, and iron smelting plants, the ranks of the poor increased. Britain’s prisons became overcrowded, prompting the transportation of some 170,000 convicts to penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868. Thousands of other inmates were placed in prison ships (or prison hulks, as they were called at the time), as traditional jails were full to capacity. Some of these prison vessels would remain at sea near the coast of the British Isles or hoist on dry land.

While the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain allowed it to become the world’s leading commercial nation, conditions at home did not reflect its economic success. By the early 1800s, poverty, social injustice, child labor, harsh and dirty living conditions, and long working hours were prevalent all throughout Britain.

As poverty, homelessness, and hunger became more prevalent, the British Parliament enacted the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, also known as the New Poor Law. The amendment was part of a system of poor relief that had started as early as 1536, eventually codified into law in England and Wales during the Tutor era between 1587 and 1598. These laws were meant to deal with the “impotent poor” as well as vagrants and beggars.

Horse-powered threshing machine

Horse-powered threshing machine

The Poor Laws and the Workhouses

In 1830, a widespread uprising named the Swing Riots erupted. Farmworkers in southern and eastern England, protesting agricultural mechanization and harsh working conditions, destroyed threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Ken. By early December of that year, the rioting had spread throughout all of southern England and East Anglia.

A year later, the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was set up. The commission generated a report dealing with population growth and the fear that the practices of the Old Poor Law were undermining the position of the independent laborer.

Two practices were of particular concern, which the Commission report aimed to end:

  • The practice of employing “roundsmen”, in which a parish would pay local farmers and households to employ the poor at a predetermined wage.
  • The Speenhamland system, which subsidized low wages as a way to mitigate rural poverty.

The report concluded that the existing Poor Laws undermined the prosperity of the country by interfering with the natural laws of supply and demand. It contended that the existing means of poor relief allowed employers to force down wages exacerbating poverty. Consequently, the Commission proposed the New Poor Law, which expanded the usage of the now-infamous workhouses, and was based on two overarching principles:

  • Less eligibility: it provided that the pauper should have to enter a workhouse where conditions were worse than that of the poorest free laborer outside of it.
  • The workhouse test: the relief provided should only be available in the workhouse, and the newly-reformed workhouses were to be uninviting and offering harsh living conditions. This reflected the notion that anyone capable of coping outside of a workhouse would choose not to be in one.

The Workhouses

Workhouses in Britain were all-inclusive institutions, which offered both accommodations and a workplace to those unable to support themselves. Although not known with that name, similar types of institutions go back to the Ordinance of Laborers of 1349. This program provided relief for the poor while addressing labor shortages following the Black Death, which killed 60 percent of the British population.

Because of these labor shortages, the movement of workers to other parishes in search of higher paid work became restricted. This approach created vagrancy and social disorder. As a preventive measure, the state increased its involvement in caring for the poor.

By the sixteenth century, laws began to differentiate between those who were genuinely unemployed and the people who had no intention of working. As the church had traditionally been a major source of relief, the conditions the poor and vulnerable were further exacerbated by King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries decree in 1536. This, in essence, burdened the state further with the responsibility of providing for the poor.

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Sampson Kempthorne’s cruciform design for a workhouse accommodating 300 paupers

Sampson Kempthorne’s cruciform design for a workhouse accommodating 300 paupers

Dire Living Conditions for the Poor

The earliest known usage of the term “workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor or Abingdon, in the county of Oxfordshire, reported that “we have erected with’n our borough a workhouse to set poorer people to work”.
By the end of the 18th century close to 20,000 men, women and children were housed in the eighty workhouses in metropolitan London. All other cities had dozens of workhouses sheltering up to 600 ‘inmates’ each. By the early 19th century, workhouses had become the most common form of relief to the poor in Great Britain. In many ways, workhouses became synonymous with the Victorian era.

While the Victorian workhouses were intended to provide work and shelter for the underprivileged, the New Poor Laws transformed them into prisons detaining the most vulnerable in society.

They became responsible for terrible working and living conditions. Forced child labor, long working hours, malnutrition, beatings and neglect became common occurrences within their walls. Eventually, workhouses became a stain in the social consciousness of the time, leading to opposition from many parliamentarians and social critics, such as Charles Dickens.

In his classic novel Oliver Twist, Dickens points to the many grim aspects of a child’s life in a workhouse. Dickens attempted to demonstrate the failings of a system purported to help paupers but, in reality, meant to punish them through forced labor and abuse.

The novel’s protagonist, Oliver, is forbidden to receive a second helping of food by an official workhouse regulation established by the parishes of London. By his depiction, Dickens provides an important and poignant social commentary that shines a direct light on the unacceptable brutality of the era’s workhouses.

Working Conditions in a workhouse

Working Conditions in a workhouse

Idlers Were Loathed

In 1846, it was estimated there were 1.33 million paupers in Britain. Workhouses sheltered 199,000. Approximately 375,000 were considered able-bodied and receiving some form of welfare. The rest were disabled, infirm, or very old. It was estimated that about 6.5% of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time.

Until the early part of the 20th century, when workhouses were abolished and turned into infirmaries and hospitals, they were bare-bones facilities designed to make poverty seem less attractive. The food in these facilities was not only sparse but also unpalatable. Inmates slept in crowded and unsanitary conditions. They were put to work crushing stones and grinding bones that would be used as a fertilizer. Many of the women spun cloth or were hired out as domestic workers.

Conditions at Workhouses

The British government, as well as the rich and powerful, loathed ‘idlers’ or lazy people. Victorians in general struggled to understand and explain poverty. They were especially unable to make up their minds on one question: whether the poor faced conditions beyond their control, or whether their positions in society represented somewhat of a personal choice. Consequently, in order to discourage dependency, workhouses were structured to create conditions that were worse than the lowest standard of independent laborers.

Crowded sleeping quarters at a London Workhouse

Crowded sleeping quarters at a London Workhouse

Workhouses Were Brutal

Additionally, the Poor Laws ensured that no able-bodied person could get poor relief unless they went to live in a workhouse. However, workhouses’ brutal approach in the treatment of the poor can be said to have created more social problems than it solved. The administrators of these institutions created rules and regulations that today we would consider not only ruthless, but also unproductive. Some of these were:

  • Men, women and children lived and worked in different areas: that meant families were split up. Additionally, they could be punished if they were caught speaking to each other.
  • Children received minimal education. Oftentimes children would not be taught fundamentals like reading and writing; skills they would need to find good jobs later in life, and escape the poverty cycle.
  • Inmates were forced to wear uniforms. This meant they would be recognized as poor and living in a workhouse by society as a whole.
  • Upon entering the workhouse, the poor would be stripped and bathed under supervision. This was seen as the beginning of a process of humiliation that would continue throughout their stay at these institutions.
  • The food was tasteless and there wasn’t much of a variety: the same meal was served every day.
  • Inmates would receive minimal food rations, causing long-term malnutrition.
  • All inmates were forced to work hard and long hours in hard, unpleasant jobs.

Surviving the workhouses proved difficult, mortality rates were high especially with illnesses such as smallpox, measles, mumps, and other communicative diseases. The contagion was worsened by cramped beds, little room to move around, and little sunlight. Factory-style production lines were unsafe for the children that were forced to work in them. Injuries and even death were a common occurrence, in which children were often involved.


Dining fascilities segrated by gender

Dining fascilities segrated by gender

The End of the Workhouses

In 1905, a Royal Commission established to study poverty and pauperism reported workhouses were unsuited to deal with the categories of residents they housed. It recommended that specialized institutions for each class of inmates should be established, in order for them to be treated appropriately by trained staff. It recommended that “deterrent-type” workhouses were to be reserved for “incorrigibles such as drunkards, idlers, and tramps.”

In January of 1918, the Local Government Committee on the Poor Law presented to the Ministry of Reconstruction a report recommending abolition of the workhouses and transferring their duties to other organizations. This led to the Local Government Act of 1929 which gave local authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals.

The workhouse system was entirely abolished in the UK by the same act on April 1, 1930, although many workhouses renamed Public Assistance Institutions continued under control of county governments. In 1939, at the outbreak of World War Two, close to 100,000 people resided in the former workhouses. This included 5,629 children.

Workhouse turned into museum in London

Workhouse turned into museum in London

National Assistance Act Ends

The 1948 National Assistance Act abolished the remaining aspects of the Poor Law and, with it, the workhouses. Many of the remaining workhouse buildings were converted into retirement homes. The Camberwell workhouse, in South London, continued as a homeless shelter until 1985, in which 1,000 men were housed. The Southwell Workhouse, was used to provide temporary accommodation for mothers and children until the early 1990s. It is today a museum.

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