When landowners found that using the poor rate to supplement employers’ below-subsistence wages too expensive, they found another solution...
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a massive increase in unemployment. With the introduction of the Corn Laws that set high tariffs on imported corn and led to huge price rises, the numbers claiming “outdoor poor relief” (see Workers March 2014) soared. This caused growing criticism from landed ratepayers who contributed the poor rate. So our rulers changed course.
Wanting to curtail “outdoor relief” (payments to workers outside the workhouse), the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act centred on intensifying the system of workhouses, aiming for fewer claimants. There had been workhouses before 1834 but they were not the sole method of “poor relief”. Poor Law Commissioners, who ran the new scheme, divided the country up into groups of parishes (known as poor law unions), and required them to set up workhouses providing only the most basic level of comfort. Workhouses were intended to be forbidding in order to deter both would-be inmates and outside workers. Ratepayers in each poor law union elected a Board of Guardians to manage their workhouse.
New workhouses were usually erected towards the edge of the union’s main town. Early union workhouses were deliberately plain as a deterrent, though as time passed more decoration appeared. They varied greatly in size, from tiny ones of 30 up to one in Liverpool that housed over 3,000.
Buildings were specifically designed to separate the different categories of inmate (known as “classes”) – male and female, infirm and able-bodied, boys and girls under 16, children under seven. Buildings, doors and staircases were arranged to prevent contact between these classes.
Apart from concessions made for some contact between mothers and children, the different categories lived in separate sections and had separate exercise yards divided by high walls. The one communal area was the dining-hall. But segregation still operated with different seating areas and sometimes there was a central screen dividing men and women.
You were not “sent” to the workhouse. Theoretically entry was voluntary – you were only impelled by the prospect of starvation, homelessness and general misery. Before the social provisions introduced much later, many elderly, chronic sick, unmarried mothers-to-be, abandoned wives or orphaned children had no other option. However, it was viewed as a last resort because of the social stigma attached and the general fear of never getting out. Particularly for the elderly, it was a place you never came out of, only concluded by burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave, often without mourners. Workhouses were not prisons; inmates could leave at any time after giving a brief period of notice. As with entry, however, families had to leave together.
It was a harsh regime. On arrival people’s clothes were taken away and a workhouse uniform issued. Daily life was strict with early rising from 6am and early bedtimes at 8pm. Sleeping was in dormitories with beds packed together. In London’s Whitechapel workhouse in 1838, 104 girls were sleeping four or more to a bed in a room 88 feet long, 16 and a half feet wide and 7 feet high. Life was governed by rules with penalties for those who broke them.
In return for board and lodging, adult workhouse inmates were required to do unpaid work in the workhouse and its grounds six days a week. Women were employed either in workhouse domestic chores such as cleaning, preparing food, laundry work, making and maintaining uniforms, or nursing and supervising young children. Able-bodied men were employed in manual labour, often strenuous but with little practical value such as stone-breaking, corn grinding, oakum picking or bone-crushing. Rural workhouses cultivated surrounding land. For older or less physically able inmates a common task was the chopping and bundling of wood for sale. Some poor law unions sent destitute children to British colonies such as Canada or Australia. Food was very basic and intended to make life outside seem an attractive option: bread was a staple, porridge or gruel for breakfast, meals were often cheese or broth.
There was resistance to the new poor law in northern manufacturing districts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire and parts of Wales, where workhouses were often viewed as ineffective, either standing empty in good times or overwhelmed by claimants in periods of downturn. Employers preferred to give short-term handouts (dole) allowing families to stay in their houses until conditions improved. Towns such as Bradford and Huddersfield saw opposition with attacks on poor law officials and running battles with army troops.
According to an 1861 parliamentary report, 14,000 of the total adult workhouse population of 67,800 had been there for more than five years. By 1901, 5 per cent of the nation’s over-65s were living in a workhouse. In rural areas, workhouse populations generally rose in winter and fell in the summer.
In later decades various campaigns including one by the Workhouse Visiting Society brought some improvements. Workhouse responsibilities were transferred to local councils and then abolished in 1929 and 1930. Memories of workhouse indignities were so loathed they were passed on to succeeding generations. ■