For many, the word ‘workhouse’ conjures up the image of an orphaned Oliver Twist begging for food from a cruel master. The reality, however, was somewhat different, and Britain’s system of poor relief arguably saved thousands of people from starvation over the course of its 300-year history.


The provision of state-provided poor relief was crystallised in the 1601 Poor Relief Act, which gave parish officials the legal ability to collect money from rate payers to spend on poor relief for the sick, elderly and infirm – the ‘deserving’ poor. Labelled ‘out relief’, handouts usually took the form of bread, clothing, fuel or money.

Though they were termed ‘workhouses’ from the 1620s, the early institutions that provided poor relief were, more often than not, non-residential, offering handouts in return for work. Much like today’s taxpayers, those funding poor relief were anxious to see their money well spent, wishing to deter those capable of working from claiming assistance. By the end of the 17th century, providing care under one roof was widely regarded as the most effective way of saving money and, as a result, the early 1700s saw a flurry of workhouses opening.

Yet workhouses only really became part of Britain’s social landscape after 1723, when Sir Edward Knatchbull’s Workhouse Test Act won parliamentary approval. The act embodied the principle that the prospect of the workhouse should act as a deterrent and that relief should only be available to those desperate enough to accept its regime. Its impact on the provision of poor relief was dramatic: by the 1770s the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales had soared to around 2,000.

Entering the workhouse was not simply a matter of turning up at the gate

Conditions during the early 19th century, though, meant the government was forced to reassess the way it helped the most impoverished members of society. The return of unemployed or injured servicemen from the Napoleonic Wars saw the national poor relief bill quadruple between 1795 and 1815, rising from £2 million to £8 million. To make matters worse, new Corn Laws restricted grain imports and pushed up the cost of bread.

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The government’s response was to pass a Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, based on the recommendation of a royal commission. The new system was still funded by rate payers, but was now administered by unions – groupings of parishes – presided over by a locally elected Board of Guardians. Each union was responsible for providing a central workhouse for its member parishes, and out relief was abolished except in special cases. For the able-bodied poor, it was the workhouse or nothing.

“Entering the workhouse was not simply a matter of turning up at the gate,” says Peter Higginbotham, author of The Workhouse Cookbook. “The poor would first meet with a relieving officer who toured the union on a regular basis. In most cases they would be ‘offered the house’ and given a ticket of admission. The family would then make its way to the workhouse where their clothes were put into storage, and they would be issued with a uniform, given a bath and subjected to a medical examination.”

Men and women were separated, as were the able-bodied and infirm. Those who were able to work did so for their bed and board. Women took on domestic chores such as cooking, laundry and sewing, while men performed physical labour, usually stone breaking, oakum picking or bone crushing. Conditions were basic: parents and children were permitted to meet briefly on a daily basis, or on Sundays. Inmates ate simple fare in a large communal dining hall, and were compelled to take regular, supervised baths.

Until 1860, medical provision in the workhouses was often dire, with nursing duties generally performed by elderly female inmates, many of whom could not read, were hard of hearing, visually impaired, and fond of a drink. Medical wards were frequently cramped and poorly ventilated but, following a sustained campaign led by the medical profession during the 1860s, the government passed the Metropolitan Poor Act, forcing London’s workhouses to run separate infirmaries, preferably on separate sites. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Asylums Board (established in 1867) provided care for fever cases that would ordinarily have ended up in the infirmaries. By the 1880s, the unions widely employed trained nurses, and the poor could increasingly visit workhouse infirmaries for treatment without having to formally enter the institution.

Treatment of vagrants varied, but generally they were deemed lower class citizens and subjected to harsher treatment than the ‘deserving’ poor

Another problem faced by unions was the homeless poor. The 1834 act made no provision for vagrants, and workhouses were only allowed to serve people residing permanently in the area of the union. The authorities’ solution to this problem was, during the 1840s, to introduce casual blocks, where the homeless could stay for one night per 30-day period. In the 1880s these rules changed, and vagrants could stay two nights, perform one day’s work and be released at dawn on the third day.

Treatment of vagrants varied, but generally they were deemed lower class citizens and subjected to harsher treatment than the ‘deserving’ poor. The mid-19th century saw many so-called ‘social explorers’ and journalists disguise themselves as vagrants and admit themselves to casual wards to experience this treatment for themselves. One of the best-known of these was James Greenwood, who published A Night in a Workhouse in the Pall Mall Gazette, a piece that generated a huge amount of public interest.

Historians are still debating when exactly the workhouse system came to an end. Some date its demise to 1930 when the Board of Guardians system was abolished and many workhouses were redesignated as Public Assistance Institutions, becoming the responsibility of local councils. Others date it to 1948 and the introduction of the National Health Service, when many former workhouse buildings were turned into public hospitals, many of which still survive today.

Where history happened: 10 locations to visit


Newbury workhouse, Berkshire

Where the unemployed could find work
The building of this former workhouse was funded by a legacy of £4,800 from a wealthy merchant draper in 1624 and opened as a parish workhouse in 1627, providing poor relief in the form of work for unemployed clothiers and training for pauper children.

Most likely a non-residential institution, Newbury’s workhouse provided textile labour for up to 80 workers each year but floundered when it was unable to sell the cloth that it produced and subsequently lost money. The building processed wool through its various stages and even had its own weaving shop with both broad and narrow looms.

Newbury workhouse continued to operate as a pauper school and workhouse during the Civil War but had been partly demolished by 1689. The surviving section now houses the West Berkshire Museum, though this is currently closed for refurbishment until 2014.


Southwell workhouse, Notts

An example of a ‘model’ workhouse
Built to accommodate around 158 inmates, the operation of Southwell workhouse was widely viewed as a model example of what the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had set out to achieve in terms of frugality. Designed by the Reverend John T Becher, Southwell was built in 1824 and run by the Thurgarton Incorporation. A strict regime worked as a successful deterrent to potential ‘scroungers’ – and beer, snuff and tobacco were all banned.

As was customary at the time, men and women were segregated, but Southwell also divided the two groups further into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor – the four units never met and even used separate internal staircases. The master’s quarters were located in the central hub of the building and were designed to allow him a view of the partitioned yards where inmates exercised.

Now preserved by the National Trust, Southwell looks almost exactly the same as it did in the 19th century.


48 Doughty Street, London

Where Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist
The concept of the workhouse has inspired countless songs, works of art, and books – none more famous than Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which first appeared in serial form in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837.

Written shortly after the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act, Oliver Twist presents a rather confused version of a workhouse regime that was still transitioning from the old parish-based system. Just one of its discrepancies lies in Oliver’s famous line: “Please, sir, I want some more”. Although there is evidence of some inmates being underfed, the diet, although plain, should have been sufficient for their needs. In fact, as a nine-year-old boy, Oliver would have received the same rations as an adult woman, which would have added at least a portion of bread to his meals.

Christmas in the workhouse came under scrutiny from many contemporary writers, and the celebration certainly evolved over the years. The 1830s saw a clampdown on any extra costs for rate payers but a Christmas dinner was often provided by the Board of Guardians or local gentry, who would frequently oversee proceedings. By the 1880s, Christmas had become a focal point for workhouse inmates and contemporary newspaper accounts report gifts of tobacco or snuff for male inmates, while females were often treated to dried tea.

Number 48 Doughty Street, once home to Charles Dickens, now houses the Dickens Museum.


Andover union workhouse, Hants

Where starving inmates fought over rotten meat
Despite a strict set of guidelines and rules, workhouses weren’t always run with the welfare of the inmates in mind and, as a result, a number of scandals hit the headlines during the 19th century. One such incident occurred in the Andover union workhouse in 1845 after it emerged that underfed male inmates had been fighting over the rotten shreds of meat and marrow left on the bones they had been told to crush for fertiliser.

Andover had a reputation for strictness, run as it was by a former sergeant major, and expenditure was kept to a minimum. Inmates ate their meals using their fingers and were denied the extra food and drink at Christmas that was customary in most workhouses.

Complaints about the lack of food were common among inmates, and vagrants in particular often claimed they did not receive the rations they were entitled to. Many tramps, in fact, deliberately tore up their workhouse uniforms and were only too happy to be sentenced to a spell in prison where they could expect better food, warmth, a bed, and a cell to themselves – all without having to perform a day’s work.

Andover workhouse has now been converted to residential use, but its exterior remains relatively unchanged.


Rhayader union workhouse, Powys

Where a workhouse was opened after years of resistance
Despite falling under the same laws as England, much of Wales proved particularly resistant to the changes enforced by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, especially those related to the abolishment of outdoor relief.

Although 47 new Welsh unions had come into force by 1838, Poor Law commissioners in 1845 recorded that 17 out of the 47 did not have “efficient workhouses in operation” – compared to just 19 out of the 544 unions in England.

Resistance to the workhouse system was particularly prevalent in central and rural Wales, and the country witnessed a number of related riots between 1842 and 1843. By the 1860s, a handful of unions, including Rhayader, had held out against establishing a system of indoor relief. In fact, Rhayader’s guardians successfully resisted implementing a union workhouse for over 40 years but, under threat of dissolution by the central authorities, its workhouse opened in August 1879 – the last to open in England and Wales under the 1834 act.

Today, the workhouse buildings form part of Rhayader’s country house hotel.


Edinburgh’s charity poorhouse, Edinburgh

Where the Scottish poor could seek help
Scotland operated a separate poor law system to England and Wales, beginning in 1579 with an act issued by the Scottish parliament, which laid the foundations for the care of the country’s poor. In 1597, the responsibility of poor relief was shifted onto the church, and a further act in 1672 ordered the establishment of ‘correction houses’, where beggars could work in return for handouts.

Although Scotland was not affected by England’s 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, an inquiry into Scotland’s poor relief system was set up in 1843 and a number of proposals were put forward two years later, including the exemption of the able-bodied from receiving poor relief, the continuation of outdoor relief and the voluntary operation of poorhouses. Funded by taxes and charitable donations, the Edinburgh charity poorhouse, one of Scotland’s earliest, was established in Port Bristo in 1743, and by 1778 it could house up to 484 adults and 180 children.

Part of the former east wing of the poorhouse, which originally included the men’s section, doctor’s surgery and children’s school, can still be seen at Forest Hill. Other parts of the former workhouse buildings have been incorporated into the nearby Hotel du Vin.


Londonderry union workhouse, Londonderry/Derry

Where many died during the Great Famine
‘Houses of Industry’ existed in Ireland prior to the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, but it was the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 that brought the English workhouse system to Ireland, creating an initial 130 unions, a figure that rose to 163, with a complete exclusion of outdoor relief.

All Irish workhouses were built to the same model, designed by architect George Wilkinson, and 112 had been completed by April 1843. Sources tell us that life in Irish workhouses was even harsher than in their English counterparts with cramped, poorly ventilated dormitories, raised planks and straw mattresses for beds, and toilet facilities that were far from adequate for the numbers housed.

Irish workhouses came under immense pressure during the Great Famine of 1845–50 as the system struggled to cope with the demand for space. Conditions within the workhouse worsened during the period as diseases such as typhus fever and dysentery struck many inmates and many workhouse burial grounds overflowed.

Londonderry union workhouse opened its doors to the poor on 10 November 1840 and was based on one of Wilkinson’s standard workhouse designs, accommodating some 800 inmates. During the years of famine, a building was erected in the women’s yard to accommodate a further 40 people, along with temporary fever sheds for 60 people.

The central part of the original building is now a library with a famine and workhouse museum situated on its upper floors.


Strand union workhouse, London

Where medical care came under fire
This former workhouse originally opened in 1778 but hit the headlines in 1865 after criticisms of its medical care and infirmary were printed in The Lancet medical journal. The Lancet stated that “very few [of the nursing staff] can be considered fitted for their work as far as regards knowledge, and many are mainly incompetent from age or physical feebleness. The helpers are, of course, mere ignorant drudges”.

Dr Joseph Rogers, who became medical officer for the workhouse in 1855, was also appalled at the conditions he encountered and began a campaign to improve medical care. The ensuing outcry was instrumental in the passing of the Metropolitan Poor Act of 1867, which introduced changes for the care of London’s poor.

The mental welfare of workhouse inmates was also under scrutiny during the mid-19th century, and 1858 saw the introduction of the Workhouse Visiting Society for “the promotion of the moral and spiritual improvement of workhouse inmates”, allowing volunteer visitors, as well as small comforts such as flowers and books, into the workhouse. This, together with support from prominent figures such as Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale, led to positive changes in the medical provision for London’s sick poor.

Until recently, the Strand workhouse, on Cleveland Street, housed the outpatients department for the Middlesex Hospital. Much of the original building still stands – though it is currently under threat of demolition.


The Spike, Guildford

Where vagrants were put to work
Vagrants made up a large proportion of most workhouse populations and were usually placed in more basic accommodation than that in the main workhouse. On entering the casual ward, or ‘Spike’ as it was commonly called, a vagrant’s clothes would be seized and fumigated overnight in a sulphur or steam oven to kill any vermin or fleas – often clothes and shoes came out in a worse state than when they went into the oven. Food usually consisted of bread and water, possibly with a little porridge in the more sympathetic institutions, but casuals were expected to work hard for their bed and board.

A popular form of labour assigned to vagrants was the breaking of large stones into smaller pieces, which could then be used on the roads. The casual ward at Guildford Spike comprised a prison-like corridor of cells, many of which were used for stone breaking. The broken particles were then passed through a metal grid.

Some casual wards even show evidence of tramp ‘graffiti’ left in the form of messages and poems, often commenting on the type of relief available in the different unions. There are even suggestions that vagrants used a system of secret signs scratched outside workhouses to warn others of the treatment they could expect.

Guildford Spike is now preserved as a heritage centre that is open to the public.


Chorlton union workhouse, Lancashire

Where the Nightingale Ward was introduced
On its opening on Nell Lane in 1855, the Chorlton union workhouse could house up to 1,500 inmates and was one of the largest institutions of its kind in the country. As well as being renowned for its size, Chorlton boasted England’s first ever ‘pavilion plan’ workhouse infirmary, comprising five well-spaced ward blocks, linked by a covered way, and each accommodating 96 patients.

Later known as ‘Nightingale Wards’, the layout was praised by Florence Nightingale herself who commented: “Your hospital plan is a very good one: when completed it will be one of the best, if not the best, in the country… we shall hasten to imitate you; for you will have set up a model for the whole country.” The design, of elongated wards with beds and windows alternating down either side, was later adopted as a standard infirmary layout.

Although the infirmary blocks have been demolished, the main workhouse building still stands.

Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Peter Higginbotham, creator of and author of The Workhouse Cookbook (Tempus Publishing, 2008)


This article was first published in the Christmas 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine