Thursday, April 23, 2009

Workhouses in the U.K.

Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire

When one thinks of workhouses in England , Oliver Twist and the dire circumstances of the poor, immediately comes to mind.

WORKHOUSE. The word alone was calculated to send a shudder down the spine of any honest 19th century worker. It signified the end of the line, the final indignity. It said: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’

The workhouse is an establishment offering relief for the destitute poor in an area, funded from the local poor rate (tax), which — under the supervision of a Master and/or Matron — provided some combination of communal accommodation and a requirement for inmates, particularly the able-bodied, to perform work which was often deterrent in nature, e.g. stone-breaking or oakum-picking. Workhouses usually also had a prescribed dietary regimen.

The "houseless poor" — variously known as vagrants, tramps, rogues, vagabonds, and travelers, have always lived on the edge of society often the subject of distrust. They were also regularly the target of legislation — as early as the seventh century a law was framed to make those who entertained travelers responsible for any misdemeanors they committed.

Recently, I was introduced to the Workhouse web site by a third cousin in England. Our common ancestor, Sarah Middleton Holding, a widow with seven children, had a good friend in the Chester Union Workhouse. Ann Evans had an illegitimate baby girl, Elizabeth, who she gave to Sarah to raise to avoid the life of sorrow and anguish in the workhouse.

When she was seven-years-old, Elizabeth Evans sailed to America with Sarah Holding. Lizzie’s mother hoped her daughter would enjoy the American dream of health and prosperity. Unfortunately, Lizzie died as a child and never realized that dream.

The web site is a great historical overview of all areas of workhouses including poor laws, locations, administration, rules, buildings, the asylum board institutions, Quaker and Salvation Army refuges, children, education, migration, vagrants, workhouse records, timeline and a glossary. Here are some examples from the glossary which were very helpful to me.

An establishment, usually funded by a charitable endowment, providing free or subsidized accommodation for the elderly poor of good character, and typically constructed as a row of small self-contained cottages. A wealthy person might bequeath money for the setting up of some almshouses in the hope that the residents might then regularly pray for his soul.

Bone Crushing
The pounding of old bones into dust for use as fertilizer. In the 1840s, there was a public scandal when it was discovered that malnourished inmates at Andover workhouse had been fighting over scraps of rotting meat left on some bones they were supposed to be crushing.

Casual Poor ("Casuals")
The Casual Poor (usually known just as "Casuals") were those to which a workhouse gave temporary accommodation for one or two nights. Casuals — typically vagrants, tramps, or the "houseless poor" — did not need to be settled in the union. They were required to perform a task of work such as stone-breaking or oakum-picking before being allowed to leave. Casuals were housed in a separate area of the workhouse, usually near the entrance, known as the casual ward.

The fixed (and often basic and monotonous) diet prescribed for workhouse inmates. The dietary specified the food to be served to each class of inmate (male/female, adult/children etc.) for each meal of the week, often including the exact amount to be provided. After 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners devised a set of six slightly different standard dietaries from which each union could select the one it preferred, based on the local availability of various foodstuffs.

Foul Wards
Workhouse wards for those suffering from venereal diseases.

House of Correction
An early form of disciplinary institution dating back to the 16th century. In addition to its function of a jail for the rogue, it might also include a workhouse for the poor, hospital for the old, and industrial school for the young.

Ins and Outs
"Ins and Outs" were people who frequently entered and left the workhouse. Workhouses were never prisons, and inmates could leave with "reasonable notice", so long as they had been given back their own clothes — leaving the premises while wearing the workhouse uniform constituted theft of union property. "Ins and Outs" were a great irritation to workhouse staff since, upon readmission, they had to undergo all the administrative formalities required of new inmates, even though they may have only been absent for a few hours.

The term poorhouse was often used in England prior to 1834 for parish establishments housing paupers where there was no resident master or matron, no prescribed dietary, and where there little or no work was required of the inmates.

Pauper establishments in Scotland were also invariably known as poorhouses (or poor's houses), perhaps reflecting that fact that they did not cater for the able-bodied and therefore imposed no requirement for deterrent work. However, the words poorhouse and workhouse were often used fairly interchangeably.

After 1834, the institutions established by Poor Law Unions were always known as workhouses and always required the able-bodied inmates to perform work. In other countries, e.g. the USA, there was a similar distinction between the poorhouse (for the destitute, old and sick) and the workhouse (a place where hard labor was required of able-bodied paupers, including petty criminals serving a short sentence there).

Poor Rate
A compulsory local tax, dating from 1597, based on an official assessment of the value of the property in which one lived. It was collected by Parish Overseers and distributed under the jurisdiction of the Vestry.

A thin oatmeal soup or gruel - a regular part of the workhouse diet.

A slang name for bread, often of poor quality.

A grouping of adjacent parishes jointly administering poor law affairs. The "union" was one of the slang names for the workhouse.

The governing body of a parish. Its name derived from the room in a church building in which it usually met, which in turn came from its function as a room where the priest put on his vestments. Its membership comprised a chairman (the minister of the parish), the churchwardens, and a number of respected householders of the parish.

I also found unusual items on the web site such as Casual Ward Graffiti. Below are a couple of graffiti collected from the casual wards of various workhouses by Poor Law Inspector Andrew Doyle in 1865.

"Private notice.—Saucy Harry and his moll will be

at Chester to eat their Christmas dinner, when they hope Saucer

and the fraternity will meet them at the union.—14th November 1865."

"Never be ashamed of cadging. I was worth five hundred pounds once,
and now I am glad to cadge for a penny or a piece of bread.—Lanky Tom."

Gowers Workhouse, Glamorganshire, Wales

The End of the Workhouse

From 1913 onwards, the term "workhouse" was replaced by "poor law institution" in official documents but the institution itself was to live on for a good many years after that date.

During the First World War, many Boards of Guardians offered workhouse premises for military use, mostly as hospitals, but also for accommodating military personnel and prisoners of war.

Today many of the former workhouses are used for hospitals or schools.


Travelin'Oma said...

We've been watching "Little Dorritt" on Masterpiece for the past few weeks, and the first episodes focus on a debtor's prison. We're fascinated because, of course, we might have been in debtor's prison if we lived in those days!

Your descriptions here are so interesting. You have such unique expertise!

Laurie said...

Really fascinating to read about the workhouse. My greatgrandfather was a poor law guardian in Birmingham in Victorian times.
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Starvation, abuse and families split up. They were said to be voluntary, but I see the poorhouse/workhouse from old days shall be considered a crime against humanity.

dinah said...

I like your blog - but the workhouse pictured is not "Stillwell", it's "Southwell". A National Trust property in Nottinghamshire, UK, it's open to visitors and educational groups. A fascinating place - do visit!