In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town, with...

 reporting that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke".

The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 in England by restricting the movement of labourers, and ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor.
In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town, with...

 reporting that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke".

The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

 in England by restricting the movement of labourers, and ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor. But mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

 in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable. The New Poor Law of 1834
Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, sometimes abbreviated to PLAA, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Lord Melbourne that reformed the country's poverty relief system . It was an Amendment Act that completely replaced earlier legislation based on the...

 attempted to reverse the economic trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse. Some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates, who generally lacked the skills or motivation to compete in the open market. Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, bone crushing to produce fertilizer, or picking oakum
Oakum is a preparation of tarred fiber used in shipbuilding, for caulking or packing the joints of timbers in wooden vessels and the deck planking of iron and steel ships, as well as cast iron plumbing applications...

 using a large metal nail known as a spike, perhaps the origin of the workhouse's nickname.

Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. But in areas such as the provision of free medical care and education for children, neither of which was available to the poor in England living outside workhouses until the early 20th century, workhouse inmates were advantaged over the general population, a dilemma that the Poor Law authorities never managed to reconcile.

As the 19th century wore on workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals. Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared, and with them the workhouses.

Medieval to Early Modern period

The Poor Law Act of 1388 was an attempt to address the labour shortage caused by the Black Death
Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350. Of several competing theories, the dominant explanation for the Black Death is the plague theory, which attributes the outbreak to the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Thought to have...

, a devastating pandemic
A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that is spreading through human populations across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or even worldwide. A widespread endemic disease that is stable in terms of how many people are getting sick from it is not a pandemic...

 that killed about one-third of England's population. The new law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes
Civil parish
In England, a civil parish is a territorial designation and, where they are found, the lowest tier of local government below districts and counties...

 for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. According to historian Derek Fraser, the fear of social disorder following the plague ultimately resulted in the state, and not a "personal Christian charity", becoming responsible for the support of the poor. The resulting laws against vagrancy
Vagrancy (people)
A vagrant is a person in poverty, who wanders from place to place without a home or regular employment or income.-Definition:A vagrant is "a person without a settled home or regular work who wanders from place to place and lives by begging;" vagrancy is the condition of such persons.-History:In...

 were the origins of state-funded relief for the poor. From the 16th century onwards a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were able to work but could not, and those who were able to work but would not; between "the genuinely unemployed and the idler". Supporting the destitute was a problem exacerbated by King Henry VIII
Henry VIII of England
Henry VIII was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death. He was Lord, and later King, of Ireland, as well as continuing the nominal claim by the English monarchs to the Kingdom of France...

's Dissolution of the Monasteries
Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Dissolution of the Monasteries, sometimes referred to as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was the set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 by which Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland; appropriated their...

, which began in 1536. They had been "a significant source of alms" and provided a good deal of direct and indirect employment. The Poor Relief Act of 1576 went on to establish the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support then they had to work for it.

The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through age or infirmity, were unable to work. The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction
House of Correction
The house of correction was a type of establishment built after the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Law , places where those who were "unwilling to work", including vagrants and beggars, were set to work. The building of houses of correction came after the passing of an amendment to the Elizabethan...

 (the precursor of the workhouse), where the "persistent idler" was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the impotent poor
Classifications of poor used in the Poor Law system
Classifications of poor used in the Poor Law system classified people into categories for those considered deserving of poor relief and those who were not considered deserving of poor relief....

, the old and the infirm, although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief
Poor relief
Poor Relief refers to any actions taken by either governmental or ecclesiastical bodies to relieve poverty experienced by a population. More specifically, the term poor relief is often used to discuss how European countries dealt with poverty from the time just around the end of the medieval era to...

 known as outdoor relief
Outdoor relief
This article refers to Britain's welfare provision after the 1601 Poor Law. For welfare programmes see Social securityAfter the passing of the Elizabethan Poor Law , outdoor relief was that kind of poor relief where assistance was in the form of money, food, clothing or goods, given to alleviate...

 – money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax
Poor rate
In England and Wales, under the 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law the poor rate was a tax on property levied on the parish which was used to provide poor relief to the parish poor. The tax was collected by local magistrates or Overseers of the Poor, and later by Local Authorities....

 on the property of the wealthiest in the parish.

Georgian era

The workhouse system evolved in the 17th century as a way for parishes to reduce the cost to ratepayers of providing poor relief. The first authoritative figure for numbers of workhouses comes in the next century from The Abstract of Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor, which was drawn up following a government survey in 1776. It put the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales at more than 1800 (approximately one parish in seven), with a total capacity of more than than 90,000 places. This growth in the number of workhouses was prompted by the Workhouse Test Act of 1723; by obliging anyone seeking poor relief to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually for no pay (a system called indoor relief), the Act helped prevent irresponsible claims on a parish's poor rate. The growth in the number of workhouses was also bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782
Relief of the Poor Act 1782
The Relief of the Poor Act 1782 , also known as Gilbert's Act, was a British poor relief law proposed by Thomas Gilbert which aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis, counties being organised into parishes which could set up workhouses between them. However, these workhouses were intended...

, proposed by Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert's Act was intended to allow parishes to share the cost of poor relief by forming unions known as Gilbert Unions to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. The able-bodied poor were instead either given outdoor relief or found employment locally. Relatively few Gilbert Unions were set up, but supplementing inadequate wages under the Speenhamland system did become established towards the end of the 18th century. So keen were some Poor Law
English Poor Laws
The English Poor Laws were a system of poor relief which existed in England and Wales that developed out of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws before being codified in 1587–98...

 authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish. In one such case in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham
Effingham is an English village in the Borough of Guildford in Surrey, bordering Mole Valley. There is a railway station at Effingham Junction , at the point where a branch of the Sutton & Mole Valley Line joins the New Guildford Line - these are both routes between London Waterloo and Guildford.-...

 workhouse, were sold at Croydon
Croydon is a town in South London, England, located within the London Borough of Croydon to which it gives its name. It is situated south of Charing Cross...

 market for one shilling; the parish paid for the cost of the journey and a "wedding dinner".

By the 1830s most parishes had at least one workhouse, but many were badly managed. In his 1797 work, The State of the Poor, Sir Frederick Eden, wrote:
In lieu of a workhouse some sparsely populated parishes placed homeless paupers into rented accommodation, and provided others with relief in their own homes. Those entering a workhouse might have joined anything from a handful to several hundred other inmates; for instance, between 1782 and 1794 Liverpool's workhouse accommodated 900–1200 indigent men, women and children. The larger workhouses such as the Gressinghall House of Industry generally served a number of communities, in Gressinghall's case 50 parishes. Writing in 1854, Poor Law commissioner George Nicholls viewed many of them as little more than factories:

1834 Act

By 1832 the amount spent on poor relief nationally had risen to £7 million a year, more than 10 shillings per head of population, up from £2 million in 1784. The large number of those seeking assistance was pushing the system to "the verge of collapse". The economic downturn following the end of the Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

 in the early 19th century resulted in increasing numbers of unemployed. Coupled with developments in agriculture that meant less labour was needed on the land, along with three successive bad harvests beginning in 1828 and the Swing Riots
Swing Riots
The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising by agricultural workers; it began with the destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Kent in the summer of 1830, and by early December had spread throughout the whole of southern England and East Anglia.As well as the attacks on...

 of 1830, "reform of the Old Poor Law was inevitable". Many suspected that the system of poor relief was being widely abused, and in 1832 the government established a Royal Commission
Royal Commission
In Commonwealth realms and other monarchies a Royal Commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry into a defined issue. They have been held in various countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia...

 to investigate and recommend how relief could best be given to the poor. The result was the establishment of a centralised Poor Law Commission in England and Wales under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, sometimes abbreviated to PLAA, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Lord Melbourne that reformed the country's poverty relief system . It was an Amendment Act that completely replaced earlier legislation based on the...

, also known as the New Poor Law, which discouraged the allocation of outdoor relief to the able-bodied; "all cases were to be 'offered the house', and nothing else". Individual parishes were formed into Poor Law Union
Poor Law Union
A Poor Law Union was a unit used for local government in the United Kingdom from the 19th century. The administration of the Poor Law was the responsibility of parishes, which varied wildly in their size, populations, financial resources, rateable values and requirements...

s, each of which was to have a union workhouse. More than 500 were built during the next 50 years, two-thirds of them by 1840. In certain parts of the country there was a good deal of resistance to these new buildings, some of it violent, particularly in the industrial north. Many workers lost their jobs during the major economic depression of 1837, and there was a strong feeling that what the unemployed needed was not the workhouse but short-term relief to tide them over. By 1838, 573 Poor Law Unions had been formed in England and Wales, incorporating 13,427 parishes, but it was not until 1868 that unions were established across the entire country, the same year that the New Poor Law was applied to the Gilbert Unions.

Despite the intentions behind the 1834 Act, relief of the poor remained the responsibility of local taxpayers, and there was thus a powerful economic incentive to use loopholes such as sickness in the family to continue with outdoor relief; the weekly cost per person was about half that of providing workhouse accommodation. Outdoor relief was further restricted by the terms of the 1844 Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order
Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order
The Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order was an Order from the Poor Law Commission issued on 21 December 1844 which aimed to finally end the distribution of outdoor relief to the able-bodied poor.-External links:*...

, which aimed to end it altogether for the able-bodied poor. In 1846, of 1.33 million paupers only 199,000 were maintained in workhouses, of whom 82,000 were considered to be able-bodied, leaving an estimated 375,000 of the able-bodied on outdoor relief. Excluding periods of extreme economic distress, it has been estimated that about 6.5 per cent of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time.

Early Victorian workhouses

After 1835 many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind brick walls, so-called "pauper bastilles". The commission proposed that all new workhouses should allow for the segregation of paupers into at least four distinct groups, each to be housed separately: the aged and impotent, children, able-bodied males, and able-bodied females. A common layout resembled Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...

's prison panopticon
The Panopticon is a type of building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched...

, a radial design with four three-storey buildings at its centre set within a rectangular courtyard, the perimeter of which was defined by a three-storey entrance block and single-storey outbuildings, all enclosed by a wall. The basic layout, one of two designed by the architect Sampson Kempthorne
Sampson Kempthorne
Sampson Kempthorne was a workhouse architect. He began practising in Carlton Chambers on Regent Street in London. His father was a friend of the Poor Law Commissioner Thomas Frankland Lewis, which may have helped him to get the commission to build workhouses.Kempthorne came up with two designs –...

 (the other design was hexagonal), allowed for four separate work and exercise yards, one for each class of inmate. Separating the inmates was intended to serve three purposes: to direct treatment to those who most needed it; to deter others from pauperism; and as a physical barrier against illness, physical and mental. Kempthorne's design was considered by the Poor Law Commissioners to be an improvement on the older workhouses found in many towns and villages, about the majority of which the commissioners were scathing. They complained in particular that "in by far the greater number of cases, it is a large almshouse, in which the young are trained in idleness, ignorance, and vice; the able-bodied maintained in sluggish sensual indolence; the aged and more respectable exposed to all the misery that is incident to dwelling in such a society".

The commissioners argued that buildings based on Kempthorne's plans would be symbolic of the recent changes to the provision of poor relief; one assistant commissioner expressed the view that they would be something "the pauper would feel it was utterly impossible to contend against", and "give confidence to the Poor Law Guardians". Another assistant commissioner claimed the new design was intended as a "terror to the able-bodied population", but the architect George Gilbert Scott
George Gilbert Scott
Sir George Gilbert Scott was an English architect of the Victorian Age, chiefly associated with the design, building and renovation of churches, cathedrals and workhouses...

 was critical of what he called "a set of ready-made designs of the meanest possible character". Some critics of the new Poor Law noted the similarities between Kempthorne's plans and model prisons, and doubted that they were merely coincidental. Augustus Pugin compared Kempthorne's hexagonal plan with the "antient poor hoyse", in what Professor Felix Driver calls a "romantic, conservative critique" of the "degeneration of English moral and aesthetic values".

By the 1840s some of the enthusiasm for Kempthorne's designs had waned. With limited space in built-up areas, and concerns over the ventilation of buildings, some unions moved away from panoptican designs. From 1840–1870 about 150 workhouses with separate blocks designed for specific functions were built. Typically, the entrance building contained offices, while the main workhouse building housed the various wards and workrooms, all linked by long corridors designed to improve ventilation and lighting. Where possible, each building was separated by an exercise yard, for the use of a specific category of pauper.

Admission and discharge

Each Poor Law Union employed one or more relieving officers, whose job it was to visit those applying for assistance and assess what relief, if any, they should be given. Any applicants considered to be in need of immediate assistance could be issued with a note admitting them directly to the workhouse. Alternatively they might be offered any necessary money or goods to tide them over until the next meeting of the guardians, who would decide on the appropriate level of support and whether or not the applicants should be assigned to the workhouse.

Workhouses were designed with only a single entrance guarded by a porter, through which inmates and visitors alike had to pass. Near to the entrance were the casual wards for tramps and vagrants and the relieving rooms, where paupers were housed until they had been examined by a medical officer. After being assessed the paupers were separated and allocated to the appropriate ward for their category: boys under 14, able-bodied men between 14 and 60, men over 60, girls under 14, able-bodied women between 14 and 60, and women over 60. Children under the age of two were allowed to remain with their mothers, but by entering a workhouse paupers were considered to have forfeited responsibility for their families. Clothing and personal possessions were taken from them and stored, to be returned on their discharge. After bathing they were issued with a distinctive uniform: for men it was a striped cotton shirt, jacket and trousers, and a cloth cap. Women were given a blue-and-white striped dress worn underneath a smock. Shoes were also provided. Some workhouses had a separate "foul" or "itch" ward, where inmates diagnosed with skin diseases such as scabies
Scabies , known colloquially as the seven-year itch, is a contagious skin infection that occurs among humans and other animals. It is caused by a tiny and usually not directly visible parasite, the mite Sarcoptes scabiei, which burrows under the host's skin, causing intense allergic itching...

 could be detained before entering the workhouse proper.

Conditions in the casual wards were worse than in the relieving rooms and deliberately designed to discourage vagrants, who were considered potential trouble-makers and probably disease-ridden. Vagrants presented themselves at the door, and it was the porter's decision as to whether or not to allocate them a bed for the night in the casual ward. A typical early 19th-century casual ward was a single large room furnished with some kind of bedding and perhaps a bucket in the middle of the floor for sanitation. The bedding on offer could be very basic: the Poor Law authorities in Richmond in the mid-1840s provided only straw and rags, although beds were available for the sick. In return for their night's accommodation vagrants might be expected to undertake a certain amount of work before leaving the next day, such as at Guisborough
Guisborough is a market town and civil parish within the unitary authority of Redcar and Cleveland and the ceremonial county of North Yorkshire, England....

, where men were required to break stones for three hours and women to pick oakum, two hours before breakfast and one after.

Inmates were free to leave as they wished after giving reasonable notice, generally considered to be three hours, but if a parent discharged him or herself then the children were also discharged, to prevent them from being abandoned. The comic actor Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin
Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I...

, who spent some time with his mother in Lambeth
Lambeth is a district of south London, England, and part of the London Borough of Lambeth. It is situated southeast of Charing Cross.-Toponymy:...

 workhouse, records in his autobiography that when he and his half-brother returned to the workhouse after having been sent to a school in Hanwell
Hanwell is a town situated in the London Borough of Ealing in west London, between Ealing and Southall. The motto of Hanwell Urban District Council was Nec Aspera Terrent...

, he was met at the gate by his mother Hannah, dressed in her own clothes. Desperate to see them again she had discharged herself and the children; they spent the day together playing in Kennington Park
Kennington Park
Kennington Park is in Kennington in London, England, and lies between Kennington Park Road and St Agnes Place. It was opened in 1854. Previously the site had been Kennington Common. This is where the Chartists gathered for their biggest 'monster rally' on 10 April 1848...

 and visiting a coffee shop, after which she readmitted them all to the workhouse.


Daily workhouse schedule
6:00 Rise
6:30–7:00 Breakfast
7:00–12:00 Work
12:00–13:00 Dinner
13:00–18:00 Work
18:00–19:00 Supper
20:00 Bedtime
Sunday was a day of rest. During the winter months inmates were allowed to rise an hour later and did not start work until 8:00 am.

Some Poor Law authorities hoped that payment for the work undertaken by the inmates would produce a profit for their workhouses, or at least allow them to be self-supporting, but whatever small profits could be produced never matched the running costs. Eighteenth-century inmates were poorly managed, and lacked either the inclination or skills to compete effectively with free market industries such as spinning and weaving. Some workhouses operated not as places of employment, but as houses of correction, a role similar to that trialled by a Buckinghamshire magistrate, Matthew Marryott. Between 1714 and 1722 he experimented with using the workhouse as a test of poverty rather than a source of profit, leading to the establishment of a large number of workhouses for this purpose. Nevertheless, local people became concerned about the competition to their businesses from cheap workhouse labour. As late as 1888, for instance, the Firewood Cutters Protection Association was complaining that the livelihood of its members was being threatened by the cheap firewood on offer from the workhouses in the East End of London.

Many inmates were allocated tasks in the workhouse such as caring for the sick or teaching that were beyond their capabilities, but most were employed on "generally pointless" work, such as breaking stones or removing the hemp
Hemp is mostly used as a name for low tetrahydrocannabinol strains of the plant Cannabis sativa, of fiber and/or oilseed varieties. In modern times, hemp has been used for industrial purposes including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food and fuel with modest...

 from telegraph wires. Others picked oakum
Oakum is a preparation of tarred fiber used in shipbuilding, for caulking or packing the joints of timbers in wooden vessels and the deck planking of iron and steel ships, as well as cast iron plumbing applications...

 using a large metal nail known as a spike, which may be the source of the workhouse's nickname. Bone-crushing, useful in the creation of fertilizer
Fertilizer is any organic or inorganic material of natural or synthetic origin that is added to a soil to supply one or more plant nutrients essential to the growth of plants. A recent assessment found that about 40 to 60% of crop yields are attributable to commercial fertilizer use...

, was a task most inmates could perform, until a government inquiry into conditions in the Andover workhouse in 1845 found that starving paupers were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were supposed to be grinding, to suck out the marrow. The resulting scandal led to the withdrawal of bone-crushing as an employment for those living in workhouses and the replacement of the Poor Law Commission by the Poor Law Board
Poor Law Board
The Poor Law Board was established in the United Kingdom in 1847 as a successor body to the Poor Law Commission overseeing the administration of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act...

 in 1847. Conditions thereafter were regulated according to a list of rules contained in the 1847 Consolidated General Order
Consolidated General Order
The Consolidated General Order was a book of workhouse regulations which governed how workhouses should be run in England and Wales....

, which included guidance on issues such as diet, staff duties, dress, education, discipline and redress of grievances.

Some Poor Law Unions opted to send destitute children to the British colonies, in particular Canada and Australia, where it was hoped the fruits of their labour would contribute to the defence of the empire and enable the colonies to buy more British exports. Known as Home Children
Home children
Home Children is a common term used to refer to the child migration scheme founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869, under which more than 100,000 children were sent to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa from the United Kingdom....

, the Philanthropic Farm School alone sent more than 1000 boys to the colonies between 1850 and 1871, many of them taken from workhouses. In 1869 Maria Rye
Maria Rye
Maria Susan Rye, , was an English social reformer and a promoter of emigration, especially of young women living in Liverpool workhouses. She was the daughter of solicitor Edward Rye and Maria Tuppen.-Achievements:...

 and Annie Macpherson
Annie Macpherson
Annie MacPherson was born in Campsie by Milton, Stirlingshire, in Scotland and educated at the Home and Colonial Training College in Gray's Inn Road, London. She is a philanthropist who is accepted as the pioneer of child emigration to Canada....

, "two spinster ladies of strong resolve", began taking groups of orphans and children from workhouses to Canada, most of whom were taken in by farming families in Ontario
Ontario is a province of Canada, located in east-central Canada. It is Canada's most populous province and second largest in total area. It is home to the nation's most populous city, Toronto, and the nation's capital, Ottawa....

. The Canadian government paid a small fee to the ladies for each child delivered, but most of the cost was met by charities or the Poor Law Unions.

As far as possible elderly inmates were expected to undertake the same kind of work as the younger men and women, although concessions were made to their relative frailty. They might alternatively be required to chop firewood, clean the wards, or carry out other domestic tasks.


In 1836 the Poor Law Commission distributed six diets for workhouse inmates, one of which was to be chosen by each Poor Law Union depending on its local circumstances. Although dreary the food was generally nutritionally adequate, and according to contemporary records was prepared with great care. Issues such as training staff to serve and weigh portions were well understood. The diets included general guidance, as well as schedules for each class of inmate. They were laid out on a weekly rotation, the various meals selected on a daily basis, from a list of foodstuffs. For instance, a breakfast of bread and gruel
Gruel is a food preparation consisting of some type of cereal—oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice—boiled in water or milk. It is a thinner version of porridge that may be more often drunk than eaten and need not even be cooked...

 was followed by dinner, which might consist of cooked meats, pickled pork or bacon with vegetables, potatoes, yeast dumpling
Dumplings are cooked balls of dough. They are based on flour, potatoes or bread, and may include meat, fish, vegetables, or sweets. They may be cooked by boiling, steaming, simmering, frying, or baking. They may have a filling, or there may be other ingredients mixed into the dough. Dumplings may...

, soup and suet
Suet is raw beef or mutton fat, especially the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys.Suet has a melting point of between 45° and 50°C and congelation between 37° and 40°C....

, or rice pudding
Rice pudding
Rice pudding is a dish made from rice mixed with water or milk and sometimes other ingredients such as cinnamon and raisins. Different variants are used for either desserts or dinners. When used as a dessert, it is commonly combined with a sweetener such as sugar.-Rice pudding around the world:Rice...

. Supper was normally bread, cheese and broth
Broth is a liquid food preparation, typically consisting of either water or an already flavored stock, in which bones, meat, fish, cereal grains, or vegetables have been simmered. Broth is used as a basis for other edible liquids such as soup, gravy, or sauce. It can be eaten alone or with garnish...

, and sometimes butter or potatoes.

The larger workhouses had separate dining rooms for males and females, and those that did not staggered meal times to avoid any contact between the sexes. Rations provided for the indoor staff were much the same as those for the paupers, although more generous. The master and matron, for instance, received six times the amount of food given to a pauper.

Education and discipline

Education was provided for the children, but workhouse teachers were a particular problem. Poorly paid, without any formal training, and facing large classes of unruly children with little or no interest in their lessons, few stayed in the job for more than a few months. In an effort to force workhouses to offer at least a basic level of education legislation was passed in 1845 requiring that all pauper apprentices should be able to read and sign their own indenture
An indenture is a legal contract reflecting a debt or purchase obligation, specifically referring to two types of practices: in historical usage, an indentured servant status, and in modern usage, an instrument used for commercial debt or real estate transaction.-Historical usage:An indenture is a...

 papers. A training college for workhouse teachers was set up at Kneller Hall
Kneller Hall
Kneller Hall is a stately home in the Twickenham area of west London, and takes its name from Sir Godfrey Kneller, court painter to British monarchs from Charles II to George I...

 in Twickenham
Twickenham is a large suburban town southwest of central London. It is the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and one of the locally important district centres identified in the London Plan...

 during the 1840s, but it closed in the 1850s.

Some children were trained in skills valuable to the area. In Shrewsbury
Shrewsbury is the county town of Shropshire, in the West Midlands region of England. Lying on the River Severn, it is a civil parish home to some 70,000 inhabitants, and is the primary settlement and headquarters of Shropshire Council...

, the boys were placed in the workhouse's workshop, while girls were tasked with spinning
Spinning (textiles)
Spinning is a major industry. It is part of the textile manufacturing process where three types of fibre are converted into yarn, then fabric, then textiles. The textiles are then fabricated into clothes or other artifacts. There are three industrial processes available to spin yarn, and a...

, making gloves and other jobs "suited to their sex, their ages and abilities". At St Martin in the Fields, children were trained in spinning flax
Flax is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent...

, picking hair and carding
Carding is a mechanical process that breaks up locks and unorganised clumps of fibre and then aligns the individual fibres so that they are more or less parallel with each other. The word is derived from the Latin carduus meaning teasel, as dried vegetable teasels were first used to comb the raw wool...

 wool, before being placed as apprentices. Workhouses also had links with local industry; in Nottingham
Nottingham is a city and unitary authority in the East Midlands of England. It is located in the ceremonial county of Nottinghamshire and represents one of eight members of the English Core Cities Group...

, children employed in a cotton mill earned about £60 a year for the workhouse. Some parishes advertised for apprenticeships, and were willing to pay any employer prepared to offer them. Such agreements were preferable to supporting children in the workhouse: apprenticed children were not subject to inspection by justices, thereby lowering the chance of punishment for neglect; and apprenticeships were viewed as a better long-term method of teaching skills to children who might otherwise be uninterested in work. Supporting an apprenticed child was also considerably cheaper than the workhouse or outdoor relief. Children often had no say in the matter, which could be arranged without the permission or knowledge of their parents. The supply of labour from workhouse to factory, which remained popular until the 1830s, was sometimes viewed as a form of transportation. While getting parish apprentices from Clerkenwell
Clerkenwell is an area of central London in the London Borough of Islington. From 1900 to 1965 it was part of the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury. The well after which it was named was rediscovered in 1924. The watchmaking and watch repairing trades were once of great importance...

, Samuel Oldknow
Samuel Oldknow
thumb|Samuel OldknowSamuel Oldknow was an English cotton manufacturer.Samuel Oldknow Jnr, the eldest son of Samuel Oldknow Sr and Margaret Foster, was born 5 October 1756 in Anderton, near Chorley, Lancashire, and died 18 September 1828 at Mellor Lodge, Derbyshire. He had an elder sister named...

's agent reported how some parents came "crying to beg they may have their Children out again". Historian Arthur Redford suggests that the poor may have once shunned factories as "an insidious sort of workhouse".

Discipline was strictly enforced in the workhouse; for minor offences such as swearing or feigning sickness the "disorderly" could have their diet restricted for up to 48 hours. For more serious offences such as insubordination or violent behaviour the "refractory" could be confined for up to 24 hours, and might also have their diet restricted. Girls were punished in the same way as adults, but boys under the age of 14 could be beaten with "a rod or other instrument, such as may have been approved of by the Guardians". The persistently refractory, or anyone bringing "spirituous or fermented liquor" into the workhouse, could be taken before a Justice of the Peace
Justice of the Peace
A justice of the peace is a puisne judicial officer elected or appointed by means of a commission to keep the peace. Depending on the jurisdiction, they might dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions...

 and even jailed. All punishments handed out were recorded in a punishment book, which was examined regularly by the workhouse guardians.


Religion played an important part in workhouse life; prayers were read to the paupers before breakfast and after supper each day. Each Poor Law Union was required to appoint a chaplain to look after the spiritual needs of the workhouse inmates, who was invariably expected to be from the established Church of England
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

. Religious services were generally held in the dining hall, as few early workhouses had a separate chapel. But in some parts of the country, notably Cornwall
Cornwall is a unitary authority and ceremonial county of England, within the United Kingdom. It is bordered to the north and west by the Celtic Sea, to the south by the English Channel, and to the east by the county of Devon, over the River Tamar. Cornwall has a population of , and covers an area of...

 and the north of England, there were more dissenter
The term dissenter , labels one who disagrees in matters of opinion, belief, etc. In the social and religious history of England and Wales, however, it refers particularly to a member of a religious body who has, for one reason or another, separated from the Established Church.Originally, the term...

s than members of the established church; as section 19 of the 1834 Poor Law specifically forbade any regulation forcing an inmate to attend church services "in a Mode contrary to [their] Religious Principles", the commissioners were reluctantly forced to allow non-Anglicans to leave the workhouse on Sundays to attend services elsewhere, so long as they were able to provide a certificate of attendance signed by the officiating minister on their return.

As the 19th century wore on non-conformist
Nonconformity is the refusal to "conform" to, or follow, the governance and usages of the Church of England by the Protestant Christians of England and Wales.- Origins and use:...

 ministers increasingly began to conduct services within the workhouse, but Catholic
The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase , meaning "on the whole," "according to the whole" or "in general", and is a combination of the Greek words meaning "about" and meaning "whole"...

 priests were rarely welcomed. A variety of legislation had been introduced during the 17th century to limit the civil rights of Catholics, beginning with the Popish Recusants Act 1605
Popish Recusants Act 1605
The Popish Recusants Act 1605 was an Act of the Parliament of England which quickly followed the Gunpowder Plot of the same year, an attempt by English Roman Catholics to assassinate King James I and many of the Parliament....

 in the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot
Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in earlier centuries often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason, was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.The plan was to blow up the House of...

 that year. But although almost all restrictions on Catholics in England and Ireland were removed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, a great deal of anti-Catholic feeling remained. Even in areas with large Catholic populations, such as Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...

, the appointment of a Catholic chaplain was unthinkable. Some guardians even refused Catholic priests entry to the workhouse.

Management and staffing

Although the commissioners were responsible for the regulatory framework within which the Poor Law Unions operated, each union was run by a locally elected board of guardians, comprising representatives from each of the participating parishes, assisted by six ex officio members. One of the guardians' roles was the contracting out of the supply of goods to the workhouse, which could prove lucrative to them and their friends. Simon Fowler has commented that "it is clear that this [the awarding of contracts] involved much petty corruption, and it was indeed endemic throughout the Poor Law system".

Every workhouse had a complement of full-time staff, often referred to as the indoor staff. At their head was the governor or master, who was appointed by the board of guardians. His duties were laid out in a series of orders issued by the Poor Law Commissioners. As well as the overall administration of the workhouse, masters were required to discipline the paupers as necessary and to visit each ward twice daily, at 11 am and 9 pm. Female inmates and children under seven were the responsibility of the matron, as was the general housekeeping. The master and the matron were usually a married couple, charged with running the workhouse "at the minimum cost and maximum efficiency – for the lowest possible wages".

A large workhouse such as Whitechapel
Whitechapel is a built-up inner city district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, England. It is located east of Charing Cross and roughly bounded by the Bishopsgate thoroughfare on the west, Fashion Street on the north, Brady Street and Cavell Street on the east and The Highway on the...

, accommodating several thousand paupers, employed a staff of almost 200; the smallest may only have had a porter and perhaps an assistant nurse in addition to the master and matron. A typical workhouse accommodating 225 inmates had a staff of five, which included a part-time chaplain and a part-time medical officer. The low pay meant that many medical officers were young and inexperienced. To add to their difficulties, in most unions they were obliged to pay out of their own pockets for any drugs, dressings or other medical supplies needed to treat their patients.

Later developments and abolition

A second major wave of workhouse construction began in the mid-1860s, the result of a damning report by the Poor Law inspectors on the conditions found in infirmaries in London and the provinces. Of one workhouse in Southwark, London, an inspector observed bluntly that "The workhouse does not meet the requirements of medical science, nor am I able to suggest any arrangements which would in the least enable it to do so". By the middle of the 19th century there was a growing realisation that the purpose of the workhouse was no longer solely or even chiefly to act as a deterrent to the able-bodied poor, and the first generation of buildings was widely considered to be inadequate. About 150 new workhouses were built mainly in London, Lancashire and Yorkshire between 1840 and 1875, in architectural styles that began to adopt Italianate or Elizabethan features, to better fit into their surroundings and present a less intimidating face. One surviving example is the gateway at Ripon, designed somewhat in the style of a medieval almshouse. A major feature of this new generation of buildings is the long corridors with separate wards leading off for men, women, and children.

By 1870 the architectural fashion had moved away from the corridor style in favour of a "pavilion" style based on the military hospitals built during and after the Crimean War
Crimean War
The Crimean War was a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining...

, providing light and well-ventilated accommodation. Opened in 1878, the Manchester Union's infirmary comprised seven parallel three-storey pavilions separated by 80 feet (24.4 m) wide "airing yards"; each pavilion had space for 31 beds, a day room, a nurse's kitchen, and toilets.

As early as 1841 the Poor Law Commissioners were aware of an "insoluble dilemma" posed by the ideology behind the New Poor Law:
The education of children presented a similar dilemma. It was provided free in the workhouse but had to be paid for by the "merely poor"; free elementary education for all children was not provided in the UK until 1918. Instead of being "less eligible", those living in the workhouse were in certain respects "more eligible" than those living in poverty outside.
By the late 1840s most workhouses outside London and the larger provincial towns housed only "the incapable, elderly and sick". Responsibility for administration of the Poor Law passed to the Local Government Board
Local Government Board
The Local Government Board was a British Government supervisory body overseeing local administration in England and Wales from 1871 to 1919.The LGB was created by the Local Government Board Act 1871 The Local Government Board (LGB) was a British Government supervisory body overseeing local...

 in 1871, and the emphasis soon shifted from the workhouse as "a receptacle for the helpless poor" to its role in the care of the sick and helpless. By the end of the century only about 20 per cent admitted to workhouses were unemployed or destitute, but about 30 per cent of the population over 70 were in workhouses. The introduction of pensions for those aged over 70 in 1908 did not result in a reduction in the number of elderly housed in workhouses, but it did reduce the number of those on outdoor relief by 25 per cent.
A Royal Commission of 1905 reported that workhouses were unsuited to deal with the different categories of resident they had traditionally housed, and recommended that specialised institutions for each class of pauper should be established, in which they could be treated appropriately by properly trained staff. The "deterrent" workhouses were in future to be reserved for "incorrigibles such as drunkards, idlers and tramps". The Local Government Act of 1929
Local Government Act 1929
The Local Government Act 1929 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that made changes to the Poor Law and local government in England and Wales....

 gave local authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals, although outside London few did so. The workhouse system was abolished in the UK by the same Act on 1 April 1930, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils. Even as late as the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 there were still almost 100,000 people accommodated in the former workhouses, 5629 of whom were children. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law disappeared, and with them the workhouses. Many of the buildings were converted into old folk's homes run by local authorities; slightly more than 50 per cent of local authority accommodation for the elderly was provided in former workhouses in 1960. Southwell workhouse, now a museum, was used to provide temporary accommodation for mothers and children until the early 1990s.

Modern view

The Poor Law was not designed to address the issue of poverty, which was considered to be the inevitable lot for most people; rather it was concerned with pauperism, "the inability of an individual to support himself". Writing in 1806 Patrick Colquhoun
Patrick Colquhoun
Patrick Colquhoun was a Scottish merchant, statistician, magistrate, and founder of the first regular preventive police force in England, the Thames River Police.-Early life:...

 commented that:
Historian Simon Fowler
Simon Fowler (author)
Simon Fowler is an English social historian and author.Fowler is currently editor of Ancestors, the family history magazine of the National Archives, and has written many books relating to family and social history. He edited Family History Monthly from 2000 to 2004. He was archivist at the...

 has argued that workhouses were "largely designed for a pool of able-bodied idlers and shirkers ... However this group hardly existed outside the imagination of a generation of political economists". Workhouse life was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply, a principle known as less eligibility
Less eligibility
Less eligibility was a condition of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. It was intended to make workhouses a deterrent . It stated that working conditions in the workhouse had to be worse than the worst job possible outside the workhouse...

Writing ten years after its introduction, Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels was a German industrialist, social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher, and father of Marxist theory, alongside Karl Marx. In 1845 he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations and research...

 described the motives of the authors of the 1834 New Poor Law as "to force the poor into the Procrustean
In Greek mythology Procrustes or "the stretcher [who hammers out the metal]", also known as Prokoptas or Damastes "subduer", was a rogue smith and bandit from Attica who physically attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, so as to force them to fit the size of an iron bed...

bed of their preconceived notions. To do this they treated the poor with incredible savagery."

The purpose of workhouse labour was never clear according to historian M. A. Crowther. In the early days of workhouses it was either a punishment or a source of income for the parish, but during the 19th century the idea of work as punishment became increasingly unfashionable. The idea took hold that work should rehabilitate the workhouse inmates for their eventual independence, and that it should therefore be rewarded with no more than the workers' maintenance, otherwise there would be no incentive for them to seek work elsewhere.

External links

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