The Victorian Workhouse: Paupers Prisons

By Guest Author: Anne Lesley

Charity funded Alms House and Church run homes for the poor and disabled had been around for centuries but technological innovations particularly in agriculture making it less labour intensive and the return of some 200,000 soldiers seeking work following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had increased unemployment massively and the ad-hoc implementation of the Poor Law simply could not cope.

There was now mass unemployment much of which was in rural areas where the law of supply and demand suffered badly because of the introduction of the agricultural machinery and simply less people were needed to work on the farms.

Those still employed by the tenant farmers also suffered due to the farmers continually reducing wages to save money.

The Old Poor Law system which was administered at the local parish level was costly and the belief was that a new centralised and regulated system would reduce the costs of supporting the poor.

It was hoped that this new system would reduce the burden on the property owning middle and upper classes as it was they who were covering the cost of poor relief through the payment of the rates.

The strain on the poor relief system was proving unsustainable and something had to be done to change it.

The Prime Minister Earl Grey established a Royal Commission of Enquiry in 1832 into the current Poor Laws.

The Poor Law Commissioners believed that the current laws were breeding a nation of the lazy and indolent who were not seeking employment and just wanted to avoid work.

The current system was corrupting the poor and it needed a serious overhaul.

Social Reformer Edwin Chadwick was employed by the Royal Commission and was appointed Assistant Commissioner.

His role involved the collection of information and data and when the final report was published it was he who was responsible for writing a large portion of it.

Edwin Chadwick wanted the poor to be able to help and support themselves and he wanted their children to be educated and taught a trade but many of the improvements that Chadwick had requested in the report were never implemented and he was to be disappointed with the way the report was watered down.

The report became the New Poor Law in 1834.

This law stated that each individual parish form a Poor Law Union each of which would be responsible for the building and running of a Union Workhouse.

workhouse poster

These new laws were designed to force the hand of the poor – either find gainful employment or enter the Workhouse. If you did not do so then you would receive no help at all.

If you turn to crime to support yourself and your family then you will go to prison. If you remain on the streets you will starve and die.

These workhouses were to be as harsh as possible to deter only the neediest of people from entering.

They were cruel and brutal places and the poor feared entering one and would only use them as a last resort when they had nowhere else to turn, which was just as the Government had intended.

People entered the Workhouse for many reasons, some because they could not find work and support their families, others were disabled or simply too ill to take care of themselves. Orphaned children would also be placed in Workhouses, often for their own safety.

workhouse2 gate x

So the Workhouses took all – the old and infirm, the disabled and the sick, the unmarried and their bastard offspring. When an unemployed man entered the Workhouse he was required to bring his entire family with him.

Workhouses varied greatly in size some would house as little as 50 inmates, others would house several thousand and they were designed in a way that inmates could be and remain segregated.

workhouse2 women xmas x

Often they would have separate dining areas and washrooms with different entrances designed to keep the sexes apart and times of use would be staggered to ensure this was so.

The buildings would also often be of a central structure surrounded by separate exercise yards for each group.

When entering the workhouse for the first time the inmates would be stripped, bathed, and have their clothes and personal possessions taken from them. They would then be issued with a uniform and boots.

These uniforms could vary slightly for each workhouse but would mainly consist of:

Men – Striped Shirt, Jacket, Trousers, Cap, Boots

Women – Striped Dress, Smock, Boots

In some workhouses there would also be different uniforms for inmates such as pregnant women and prostitutes. This was intended to stigmatise and single them out as a form of punishment.

Men, women and children were housed separately, sometimes as families never to be reunited.

Young children under the age of seven could however be housed with their mother and it was intended that mothers should be given ‘reasonable access to their children at all times’, though a lack of oversight meant that this was often more honoured in the breach.

Inmates were placed in different groups and these would normally be:

Able bodied men sixteen years and above

Able bodied women sixteen years and above

Men – the ill, infirm or disabled

Women – the ill, infirm or disabled

Boys aged between seven and fifteen

Girls aged between seven and fifteen

Children under seven years sometimes housed with their mothers

These groups were fully segregated and would never be allowed to interact with each other at any time. Any interaction including talking or even signalling to one another would result in punishment.

This punishment could include – no food for a certain length of time, solitary confinement’ and even flogging. The Workhouse regime could be very cruel.

Union workhouses were managed by a Board of Guardians.

workhouse2 children crump x

For orphaned children in the workhouse this board would become the legal guardians of the orphans until they were old enough to enter employment. This would usually be around the age of 14 – 16.

Employment for the girls would normally be in Domestic Service and the boys in whatever work was available at the time. Many later joined the Army or the Navy.

Some Poor Law Unions transported the destitute children in the Workhouses to the British Colonies of Canada and Australia.

Living conditions were harsh with inmates cramped into dormitories where they often had to share a bed and had no individual personal space of their own.

It was not unknown for four or more children to share one bed and the beds themselves would be plain wooden or iron with a flock filled sack used as a mattress and thin blankets. No pillows would be issued as these were classed as a luxury.

Inmates were not permitted any luxuries so items such as newspapers, books, toys or games were banned.

With the strict rules within the workhouse, there was never any time for rest and relaxation anyway.

The restriction were lifted somewhat when from the 1860’s Workhouses were permitted to receive donations of books and magazines.

The regime was very strict and ran to exact times, for example:

5 – 6am Rise

6 – 7am Prayers and Breakfast

7 – 12pm Work

12 – 1pm Dinner

1 – 6pm Work

6 – 7pm Prayers

7 – 8pm Supper

8pm Bed

There was always a strict set of rules and regulations and signs were placed throughout the workhouse reminding the inmates of this.

These rules were also read aloud each week so there could be no excuse for disobedience. Even the illiterate inmates would then be able to understand and obey them.

workhouse2 men x

Inmates were also used as free labour to make money for the Workhouse.

The men’s jobs included:

Breaking Stones, Picking Oakum, Bone Crushing, Wood Chopping and Corn Grinding.

The women’s jobs were mostly domestic and included:

Cooking, Cleaning and Laundry, Sewing, Weaving and Gardening.

The children were given jobs and were sometimes hired out to local mines and factories. They also spent much of their time being educated with the Workhouses often having their own internal schoolrooms although the teachers that were employed were often not well educated themselves so the level of teaching could be poor.

In 1839 half the population of Workhouses were children.

Even famous people in their early life where known to have entered the Workhouse.

In 1847 a five year old orphan named John Rowlands entered St Asaph Workhouse in Flintshire Wales. He later became famous as Henry Morton Stanley who tracked down the missing explorer Dr David Livingstone whom he greeted with the immortal words ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’. He was to remain in the Workhouse for nine years leaving in 1856.

In 1896, Charlie Chaplin, his mother and his younger brother spent time in Newington Workhouse in London.

The menu in a workhouse was not very varied and could be bland and tasteless. There would also be different levels of food for the different group of inmates.

The food would include:

Bread and Cheese

Potatoes and Vegetables

Possibly Meat (though mainly bones and marrow to make soup)

And Gruel – A thin soup like dish made of Cereal (wheat, oat or rye flour) or rice boiled in milk or water.

The food given was normally grown within the confines of the Workhouse as they were mainly self-sufficient establishments.

They would have their own:



Vegetable Garden

Bake House





Sometimes they would even have their own cemetery.

Disease was often rife within the cramped dormitories and illnesses such as measles, typhoid fever, dysentery, scarlet fever, and smallpox were commonplace.

The diseased inmates would often be cared for in the sickroom but the old, infirm and disabled already weak and vulnerable were still housed with the diseased even if they were not sick themselves, causing circumstances of very great distress.

As a result the Mortuary and Burial Ground within the Workhouse could be kept very busy.

The lives of the ill, mentally and physically disabled and the infirm were classed as hopeless and it seemed a waste to spend money on trying to help them. They were still given jobs that they were able to do but received little if any actual care at all.

Although many people entered the workhouse voluntarily, they really didn’t have any choice as it was that or become destitute.

For most it was a short-term stay, however a Parliamentary Report of 1861 showed that 20% remained more than 5 years.

There were many workhouse scandals and reports of mistreatment. One of these was the Andover Workhouse Scandal of 1845 – 1846.

Around the Andover area rumours were circulating about the regime of mistreatment in the Workhouse. The inmates were being deprived of the most basic of amenities in particular food and the men were employed in the work of Bone Crushing were discovered to be so hungry that they were fighting each other to strip the marrow from the rotting bones they were crushing.

The Board of Guardians accepted an urgent request to visit and check for themselves if the rumours were true. When they did it was found that they were and a Public Inquiry soon followed.

One thing that emerged from the Public Inquiry was that the Andover Workhouse had not been inspected since 1840 even though the Poor Law stated that Workhouses were to be inspected annually.

Many Boards of Guardians were only interested in saving and even in some cases making money from the Workhouse under their jurisdiction.

In the Workhouse inmates were stripped of their dignity, families were completely broken up and separated and some would die without ever seeing their loved ones again.

The Workhouses were designed primarily as a form of punishment rather than of care and in the end they became places of exploitation.

The various Social Security Acts introduced by the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George including unemployment benefit and first old age pension saw the requirement for a parish Workhouse diminish and the Workhouse system of poor relief was effectively abolished in 1928, much to the delight of those for whom admittance to one remained a very real prospect for most of their lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked