Workhouses

Whilst researching for this blog post, I learned that a man I was once at school with had written about workhouses in the town I grew up in, so I have included his findings, with thanks. From Tudor times until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, care of the poor was in fact the concern of individual parishes. Over in Whittlesey there are records of meetings of the charity governors between 1737 and 1825 and it is known that a workhouse was in existence in the old Tavern Street (later Broad Street) in 1804 and this building was virtually a hospital for the aged of the town. Before the inception of the Whittlesey Union, the parishes of Whittlesey levied a rate and doled it out as outdoor relief to people in their own homes, but by 1832 there was quite high unemployment among farm workers, especially in the winter, so the rate levied in Whittlesey was very high. At that time the workhouse housed thirty people, mainly the old and orphans, but sometimes able bodied men were taken in during the winter. Then the 1834 Poor Law Act was passed in order to build more workhouses and to make it more difficult for the poor to obtain cash handouts, so a new building was started on what was at that time Bassenhally field. The new workhouse had accommodation for sixty inmates and was also a lodging house for vagrants who wandered from one workhouse to another. The inmates received three meat dinners a week and the children received no education. Then in 1851 the workhouse was extended to accommodate one hundred and fifty inmates and then in 1874 a further extension was added, at a cost of £8,000. This workhouse, also now known as ‘the spike’ because of its clock tower, housed over two hundred people. Whilst they were staying there, men were employed on a farm or sack making, outdoor relief was still available to some people but able-bodied men had to enter the workhouse with their families in order to obtain relief. Men, women and children were segregated although parents had access to their children for one hour per day, whilst single unemployed women were forced into the workhouse to obtain relief. Some people stayed in the workhouse for the rest of their lives, and indeed the copy of the workhouse register in the local museum shows that in the majority of cases the reason people left was death. On Sunday mornings, inmates attended the local St.Mary’s church, husbands and wives were allowed to meet on Sundays but were segregated in the church, the women sitting in the front of the pulpit and the men along the wall on the other side of the north aisle. In the 1920s the main function of the workhouse seems to have been the care of the sick, infirm and elderly women with young children and orphans. Local people were cared for in the main building, but also overnight accommodation was provided in a separate building for tramps and vagrants who were expected to work, chopping wood or picking oaken, the chopped wood being sold to the townsfolk. Then in 1930 the board of guardians was disbanded. At the end of the 1930s the building was used by Coates school whilst its own building was undergoing repairs and shortly afterwards the building was demolished. The need for poor law institutions disappeared with the introduction of the National Assistance Act in 1948 and this founded the National Assistance Board, which was responsible for public assistance. Derived from national insurance contributions, the Board established means-tested supplements for the uninsured. Then in the early 1950s, the Sir Harry Smith school was built on the site. As a result, my old secondary school is on the site of what was at one time a workhouse where children were not taught!

Whittlesey Workhouse cellar, unearthed beneath the car park of Sir Harry Smith School during renovation work in 2011.

Following the Black Death, a devastating pandemic that killed about one-third of England’s population between 1346 and 1352, the Statute of Cambridge in 1388 was an attempt to address the labour shortage. This new law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. According to a historian, 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 were the origins of state-funded relief for the poor. Then from the 16th century onwards a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were willing 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’s Dissolution of the Monasteries which began in 1536. They had been a significant source of charitable relief 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, they had to work for it. Then the Act for the Relief of the Poor Act in 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through either 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’, the precursor of the workhouse, where the ‘persistent idler’ was therefore to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the impotent poor, the old and the infirm although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as ‘outdoor relief’. This was in the form of money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes, funded by a local tax on the property of the wealthiest in the parish. In Britain, a workhouse was a total institution where those unable to support themselves financially were offered accommodation and employment. In Scotland, they were usually known as poorhouses. The earliest known use of the term ‘workhouse’ is from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon, reporting that “we have erected with’n our borough a workhouse to set poorer people to work”. However, as a result of mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars 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 attempted to reverse the economic trend by discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse and some Poor Law authorities hoped to run workhouses at a profit by utilising the free labour of their inmates. Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones and crushing bones to produce fertiliser. 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 introduction of the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Law finally disappeared and with them the workhouses.

Poor House, Framlingham Castle.

This ‘Red House’ at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk was founded as a workhouse in 1664. The workhouse system evolved in the 17th century, allowing 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 1,800, or about one parish in seven, with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. This growth in the number of workhouses was prompted by the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, which obliged anyone seeking poor relief to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually for no pay. This system was called indoor relief and the Act helped prevent irresponsible claims on a parish’s poor rate. The growth was also bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act in 1782 which was intended to allow parishes to share the cost of poor relief by joining together to form 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. Workhouses were established and mainly conducted with a view to deriving profit from the labour of the inmates, and not as being the safest means of affording relief by at the same time testing the reality of their destitution. The workhouse was in truth at that time a kind of manufactory, carried on at the risk and cost of the poor-rate, employing the worst description of the people, and helping to pauperise the best. By 1832 the amount spent on poor relief nationally had risen to £7 million a year, more than ten shillings per head of population, up from £2 million in 1784 and 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 in the early 19th century resulted in increasing numbers of unemployed and 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’ of 1830, reform was inevitable. In 1832 the government established a Royal Commission 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 in 1834, also known as the New Poor Law, which discouraged the allocation of outdoor relief to the able-bodied, with all cases offered ‘the house and nothing else’. Individual parishes were grouped into Poor Law Unions, each of which was to have a union workhouse. More than 500 of these were built during the following fifty 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, five hundred and seventy-three Poor Law Unions had been formed in England and Wales and these incorporated 13,427 parishes, but it was not until 1868 that unions were established across the entire country. 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 as the weekly cost per person was about half that of providing workhouse accommodation. Also, outdoor relief was further restricted by the terms of the 1844 Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order which aimed to end it altogether for the able-bodied poor. As a result, 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% of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time. 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 between the aged and impotent, children, able-bodied males, and able-bodied females.

The Carlisle Union Workhouse, opened in 1864. It later part of the University of Cumbria.

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 was followed by dinner, which might consist of cooked meats, pickled pork or bacon with vegetables, potatoes, dumpling, soup and suet then rice pudding. Supper was normally bread, cheese and broth, sometimes butter or potatoes. The larger workhouses had separate dining rooms for males and females, but workhouses without separate dining rooms would stagger the meal times to avoid any contact between the sexes. 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, and he was invariably expected to be from the established Church of England. Religious services were generally held in the dining hall, as few early workhouses had a separate chapel. But in some parts of the country there were more dissenters 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’ and 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 ministers increasingly began to conduct services within the workhouse, but Catholic 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 of 1605 in the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot that year. Though almost all restrictions on Catholics in England and Ireland were removed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, a great deal of anti-Catholic feeling remained. Even in areas with large Catholic populations the appointment of a Catholic chaplain was unthinkable. Some guardians went so far as to refuse Catholic priests entry to the workhouse. The education of children presented a dilemma. It was provided free in the workhouse, but had to be paid for by the ‘merely poor’. Instead of being ‘less eligible’, conditions for those living in the workhouse were in certain respects ‘more eligible’ than for those living in poverty outside. By the late 1840s, most workhouses outside London and the larger provincial towns housed only those considered to be the incapable, elderly and sick. By the end of the century only about twenty per cent of those admitted to workhouses were unemployed or destitute, but about thirty per cent of the population over 70 were in workhouses. Responsibility for administration of the poor passed to the Local Government Board 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. The Diseases Prevention Act of 1883 allowed workhouse infirmaries to offer treatment to non-paupers as well as inmates. The introduction of pensions in 1908 for those aged over 70 did not reduce the number of elderly housed in workhouses, but it did reduce the number of those on outdoor relief by twenty-five per cent. By the beginning of the 20th century some infirmaries were even able to operate as private hospitals. 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 those considered as incorrigibles, such as drunkards, idlers and tramps. On 24 January 1918 the Daily Telegraph reported that the Local Government Committee on the Poor Law had presented to the Ministry of Reconstruction a report recommending abolition of the workhouses and transferring their duties to other organisations. That same year, free primary education for all children was provided in the UK. Then the Local Government Act of 1929 gave local authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals, although outside London few did so. The workhouse system was officially 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. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 almost 100,000 people were accommodated in the former workhouses, 5,629 of whom were children. Then the 1948 National Assistance Act abolished the last vestiges of the Poor Law, and with it the workhouses. Many of the buildings were converted into retirement homes run by the local authorities, so by 1960 slightly more than half of local authority accommodation for the elderly was provided in former workhouses. Camberwell workhouse in Peckham, South London continued until 1985 as a homeless shelter for more than 1,000 men, operated by the Department of Health and Social Security and renamed a resettlement centre. Southwell workhouse, also known as Greet House, in Southwell, Nottinghamshire is now a museum but was used to provide temporary accommodation for mothers and children until the early 1990s. How often we can pass by these buildings and not give a thought to their historical significance.

This week, a thought.
Life is a presentation of choices. Wherever you are now exactly represents the sum of your previous decisions, actions and inactions.

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