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“Tory spending cuts send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse,” cried a Mirror headline in 2010. Workhouses were “bleak, grimly austere and oppressive”, wrote the author of a study of one local institution in 2012. Ever since Charles DickensOliver Twist began publication in 1837, the establishment he described, and numerous on-screen representations of it, have become the filter through which the institution is invariably viewed. Portrayals of the workhouse habitually take it as read that it was unremittingly horrific, harsh and dehumanising. But was it really that bad?

The Victorian workhouse first came about as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This act transferred the administration of poor relief from individual parishes to a coordinated national system based on new groupings of parishes, known as Poor Law Unions. Each union, run by a locally elected Board of Guardians, provided a workhouse to serve the whole union area. For the able-bodied destitute and their dependants, the workhouse was intended to be the only help on offer. The operation of the New Poor Law was overseen by a central authority – originally the Poor Law Commission (PLC), later the Poor Law Board (PLB) and then the Local Government Board (LGB).

It’s often assumed that Oliver Twist was set in one of the new union workhouses, or “bastilles”, as critics such as MP and journalist William Cobbett labelled them. However, it is clear that it was actually located in one of the pre-1834 parish-run establishments, where there was no uniformity in matters such as work or diet.

Everyone knows, of course, exactly what workhouse inmates had to eat: gruel. In Oliver’s workhouse, there were “three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays”. But, in the entire workhouse era, before or after 1834, there was never an establishment with such a diet on offer.

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A typical parish workhouse menu was that at Westminster St Margaret, where breakfast was bread with either broth or gruel, and supper was bread with butter or cheese. Midday dinner could be meat and broth, pease pottage, baked puddings, or hasty pudding – oatmeal boiled in milk. In the 1830s, the lucky inmates of the Brighton workhouse received six meat dinners a week, with no limits on quantity, plus two pints of beer a day for the men or one pint for women and children. The inmates were served at table, with the governor carving for the men and boys, and the matron for the women and girls.

Inmates in a Hampshire workhouse laundry room
Hampshire workhouse laundry room, early 1900s. Some inmates arrived in vermin-infested rags, so issuing workhouse clothing was a practical measure. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

The new union workhouses had to adopt one of six standard dietaries issued by the PLC in 1835. Dietary No 1, for example, provided able-bodied men with a daily breakfast of bread and gruel, a dinner of either soup or, on three days a week, meat and potatoes, and a supper of bread and either cheese or broth. The elderly could exchange their gruel for a weekly ration of butter, tea and sugar.

Although this menu compared well to that typically consumed by poor labourers living outside the workhouse, the food was not without shortcomings. Ingredients purchased by workhouses were usually low grade and often suffered from adulteration. A report in 1866 revealed huge variations in the nutritional value of the same dish at different establishments. For instance, a pint of gruel at Scarborough workhouse contained 4 ounces of oatmeal, while at Easingwold it was just 1.5 ounces.

Workhouses could compile their own menu from a list of dishes including Irish stew, pasties, shepherd’s pie and roly-poly pudding

In 1883, in an effort to improve inmates’ health, the LGB suggested that workhouse inmates be given a weekly cooked fish dinner. Although the experiment was successful in some places, such as Bristol, more typical were the reactions at Ludlow, where some inmates claimed that fish “disagreed” with them. In 1897, a trial of dietary improvements at Bethnal Green workhouse hit the headlines after an inmate was said to have died from overeating. From 1901, reflecting the fact that inmates were by then mostly the elderly or sick (and therefore had more limited appetites), workhouses could compile their own weekly menu from a list of approved dishes including treats such as Irish stew, pasties, shepherd’s pie and roly-poly pudding, with an accompanying cookbook to ensure uniformity of ingredients and preparation.

Vermin-infested rags

Another common misconception is that the poor were “sentenced” to the workhouse. Entering a workhouse was essentially a voluntary decision, though many people’s circumstances left them little option other than to accept the offer of a place. The workhouse admission process included the issuing of workhouse clothing, which has sometimes been viewed as a deliberate strategy of dehumanisation. But for new inmates who arrived with just the clothes they stood in, possibly little more than vermin-infested rags, the provision of two sets of clean and serviceable clothes was a very practical – and often welcome – measure.

The clothing did, however, provide officials with a degree of control. Although inmates could discharge themselves at any time, subject to a few hours’ notice, and have their own clothing returned to them, any unauthorised exit from the premises while wearing workhouse clothing could lead to a charge of stealing union property. For those who did decide to leave, there was no financial or other assistance in finding work or accommodation. Thus, to some degree, the workhouse could be viewed as a poverty trap.

For a group known as the “ins and outs”, though, the workhouse clearly held no fear. Such individuals treated the institution like a free lodging house, staying for a few days or weeks at a time and then discharging themselves. During 1901, 81-year-old Julia Blumsun admitted herself into the City of London workhouse on 163 separate occasions. Other individuals appear to have positively preferred to live in a workhouse, such as the inmate of Leigh workhouse in Lancashire, who in 1922 was discovered to have £500 in the bank.

Women sit in a room in St Marylebone workhouse
St Marylebone workhouse around 1902. (Image by Mary Evans Picture Library)

One group for whom the workhouse did attempt to provide a route out of poverty was children. Since Elizabethan times, pauper children had been placed into apprenticeships as part of the poor relief system. Although the impression given by the 1968 film Oliver! is that workhouse boys were “for sale”, this was not the case – in reality, their new masters were paid a premium for taking them on. However, by the late 1830s, there was growing evidence of apprentices being exploited or abused by tradesmen whose only interest was the premium. A report in 1842 found that the boys apprenticed as mine workers by the Dewsbury Board of Guardians included five-year-old Thomas Townend, though he was returned after 16 days.

To replace apprenticeships, James Kay-Shuttleworth, an assistant poor law commissioner, proposed giving such children “a careful training in religion and industry”, with instruction in skills such as carpentry, shoe-making and tailoring or, for girls, domestic work, making them employable in adult life. The training could either be within the workhouse or, ideally, in separate accommodation, to remove children from the “contamination” of adult paupers. A number of unions set up their own separate schools or jointly operated district schools, some housing hundreds of children. In 1850, Charles Dickens visited one such school, at Norwood, and wrote that its inmates might leave the establishment “almost with the certainty of becoming good and prosperous citizens”. However, such institutions began to attract criticism as being impersonal and serving as breeding grounds for disease.

From the 1870s, “cottage homes” developments became popular. These placed children in purpose-built miniature rural villages, complete with a school, chapel, hospital, laundry and workshops, with family-style groups of 10 to 20 children living in each “cottage” under the care of a house mother. From the 1890s, the family-group principle was transplanted to “scattered homes” based in ordinary houses placed around the suburbs of larger towns.

Divided families?

As well as the influence of Oliver Twist, the reputation of the union workhouse in its early years was assaulted by anti-Poor Law sections of the press which publicised any negative story about the institution, no matter how dubious its origins. Opponents of the New Poor Law particularly criticised the separation of husbands and wives and of parents and children required by union workhouses. In 1843, after an infant at Bethnal Green workhouse was reportedly removed from its mother except when being breastfed, Punch published a cartoon titled The “Milk” of Poor Law “Kindness”, showing a baby being torn from its mother’s arms. In fact, workhouse regulations allowed children under seven to reside in the female wards and their mothers to have access to them at all reasonable times. In theory, a parent could request a daily “interview” with their child, although a common arrangement was for parents to have time with their children on Sunday afternoons.

Opponents of the New Poor Law particularly criticised the separation of husbands and wives, and of parents and children

Separation of men and women was said to be enforced for reasons of “discipline”. Since many workhouses had just two live-in staff (the master and matron), the measure no doubt assisted the management of such institutions. Husbands and wives both over 60 could request a separate sleeping apartment, but the provision of such facilities varied widely.

“Unclimbable” fences

Yet inmates still managed to find ways around the restrictions. In 1905, to clamp down on such activities, Steyning workhouse installed “unclimbable” fencing between the men’s and women’s yards. After it became clear that inmates were still somehow managing to arrange secret trysts, an inquiry discovered that the male and female sides of the workhouse were communicating by using the general letter post. On one occasion, some resourceful female inmates at the Ross workhouse dressed themselves in men’s clothing and got into the men’s ward.

Until the 1870s, a workhouse could be an unfortunate place to fall ill. Workhouse infirmaries were often cramped and poorly ventilated, and nursing was mostly carried out by elderly female inmates who, like Mrs Gamp in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, were often illiterate and frequently drunk. Such nurses typically received a daily ration of beer and no doubt dipped into items such as brandy and porter that were often prescribed for patients.

There were exceptions, though. After Dickens visited the Liverpool workhouse infirmary in 1860, he recorded that “all the arrangements of the wards were excellent. They could not have been more humane, sympathising, gentle, attentive, or wholesome.” In the 1860s, a major campaign to improve medical facilities in London’s workhouses gradually led to the widespread provision of new infirmary buildings and employment of trained nurses, something in which Florence Nightingale was influential. And from the 1880s, workhouse infirmaries increasingly provided treatment for non-inmates who couldn’t afford to pay for the services of a doctor, effectively becoming local hospitals for the poor.

Taking a long view, the toughest time for workhouse inmates was probably in the first three decades of the New Poor Law, when the focus was on deterring able-bodied men from claiming poor relief. By the 1890s, however, things had changed considerably. Inmates able to work were more likely to be occupied in gardening or chopping firewood, or something related to their own trade, rather than the stone-breaking and oakum picking of earlier times.

Some aged poor now had brightly decorated wards with comfortable furniture, and were even able to keep their own small pets

The elderly often received a weekly ration of smoking tobacco or snuff and were provided with books and newspapers. At Macclesfield workhouse, the “respectable” aged poor now had brightly decorated wards with comfortable furniture. They could wear their own clothes, retain a few of their own possessions, keep small pets, were served afternoon tea, and could go out to visit friends each day. By 1914, the older inmates at the Ross workhouse had mixed dayrooms and individual cubicles in their dormitories. Fixed mealtimes had been abandoned, and inmates even had weekly trips to the cinema.

Despite popular perceptions, the regime and physical conditions in workhouses evolved enormously over the years. For many people, though, that was irrelevant. It was the overwhelming shame and stigma that had become associated with entering the workhouse that meant they would rather die than pass through its doors.

Songs, semolina and Santa Claus: Two previous inmates reflected on their time in the workhouse as children

“We made our own fun”

In 1916, after a year in the Steyning workhouse, four-year-old John Austin began an 11-year stay in the union’s children’s home at Shoreham-by-Sea, which he called “the orphanage”. In memoirs recorded by his daughter, Pat Mathewson, he would later recall: “We made our own fun. One of the things I really enjoyed was being a member of the local church choir. Apart from the fact that I could go out of the orphanage without supervision, which was a great relief, I also got paid pocket money for singing my little head off.” He got plenty of exercise, too: “A very kind gesture was made by the two Box brothers of Brighton when they supplied a complete set of gymnastic equipment. They also spent at least one night a week teaching us. I did well and in 1926 was Sussex Junior Champion.”

He reflected that some of his friends who didn’t live in the workhouse were less fortunate: “I had one school friend who didn’t come from the orphanage, and when I visited his home I began to think that perhaps the orphanage wasn’t so bad after all. His home was poor, and he often had nothing to eat all day. It was a shock to me: it was not as I imagined an ordinary family home should be.”

“We were regimented like the army”

In 1925, four-year-old William Golding was placed in the Southampton workhouse children’s homes at Shirley Warren. He recalled: “The first home was Oaklands children’s home. It was from age four to eight. Then you went into another home – it was a cottage-type home with about ten children. It was a lot better. You stayed there from eight till twelve.”

From the ages of 12 to 16, children lived in “the Big House, where there was about 70 of us. We were regimented like the army – bugle in the morning and bugle at night.” But it had its upsides, according to William: “It wasn’t too bad. Roly-poly pudding, you know, and the only thing that didn’t go down well was semolina. We had an annual retreat into the New Forest. One year, we went to Stonehenge. We went to the local gasworks. And every year in the second home you had a trip to see Father Christmas. We got no toys, but when you saw Father Christmas you got a bottle of hair oil, or something they wanted to get rid of.”

Peter Higginbotham is the author of The Workhouse Encyclopedia (The History Press, 2014). He has also appeared on our podcast, as an expert on workhouses for our Everything You Wanted to Know series


This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine