Under the Poor Law systems of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, a workhouse was a place where people who were unable to support themselves, could go to live and work. The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest reference to a workhouse dates to 1652 in Exeter. There is, however, some written evidence that workhouses existed before this date. Records mention a workhouse in 1631 in Abingdon. The vagrants' and casual workers' ward of a workhouse was colloquially known as a spike, from the tool used to unpick oakum.
In 1579, an act of the Scottish Parliament "For Punishment of Strang and Idle Beggars, and Reliefe of the Pure and Impotent" laid the basis of the system of poor relief in Scotland. Each parish had to make a list of its own poor (those who had been born there or who had lived there for seven years or more) "that the aged, impotent, and pure people, suld have ludgeing and abiding places", and to enable "heritors" or land-owners to take the children of beggars into unpaid service until they were eighteen (for girls) or twenty-four (for boys). This was amended by a further act of 1597 to transfer administration to the Kirk Session (Church of Scotland assembly) in each parish.
In 1601 the Elizabethan Poor Law made no mention of workhouses. Nevertheless, the act stated that “materials should be bought to provide work for the unemployed able-bodied". The act did propose the building of housing for the impotent poor, which included the elderly and chronically sick. Most poor relief of the time continued to be in the form of outdoor relief. The system was funded through poor rates, a local tax. The workhouse system began to evolve in the 17th century as a way for (Church of England) parishes to decrease the cost to ratepayers. This form of indoor relief was a deterrent to the able-bodied, who were required to work usually without pay. The Workhouse Test Act made it possible for parishes to deny outdoor relief and provide only indoor relief.
Some parishes contracted out their poor-relief provisions – a private contractor would manage the parish's workhouse system for a fixed annual fee. Workhouses were generally harsh and punitive establishments for which Dickens and other writers used the ironic nickname "paupers' palaces" .
An act of 1672 ordered magistrates to erect "correction houses" or workhouses in which beggars could be detained and made to work, at a low pay or none at all.
From the earliest times it had always been accepted that a proportion of the population were unable to support themselves and had to be provided for. Prior to 1830 most parishes provided outdoor relief, a system of cash payments made to the poor on an ad hoc basis in time of need. However, in the early 19th century the principle of laissez faire was developed. This held that poverty was largely the result of fecklessness, immorality, idleness and drunkenness and that too generous a welfare regime would merely encourage these vices and discourage self-improvement and honest labour.
Gilbert's Act of 1782 simplified the procedures for parishes to set up workhouses and allowed parishes to form unions known as Gilbert Unions. Under the Gilbert's scheme able-bodied paupers were not admitted to the workhouse but were maintained by the parish until work could be found for them. Few workhouses were built under Gilbert's scheme but supplementing wages under a system known as the Speenhamland system did become established.
In 1824, the Minster town of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England constructed their workhouse for the surrounding parish which would additionally cater for the able-bodied poor; these people would no longer be eligible for any support unless they entered the workhouse, where conditions were harsher than those for the "blameless poor". These harsh conditions were in contrast to some of the more asylum-like workhouses in existence at the time, and Southwell became the prototype for all English workhouses as codified in the legislation which followed in 1834.
The workhouse system was set up in England and Wales under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 although many individual houses existed before this legislation. Outdoor relief was discouraged and each group of parishes had to provide a workhouse. Under the 1834 system individual parishes were formed into Poor Law Unions – each Poor Law Union was to have a union workhouse.
Inmates were free to enter and leave as they liked and would receive free food and accommodation. However, the concern was that too liberal a regime would lead to many people who could easily work taking it easy in the workhouse. This would lead not only to an excessive charge on charitable funds but a dilution of the work ethic. To counter this the principle of less eligibility was developed. Workhouse life was deliberately made as harsh and degrading as possible so that only the truly destitute would apply. Attempts were also made to provide moral guidance, training and education to the poor.
Workhouse conditions were governed by the Consolidated General Order, a formidable series of rules governing every aspect of workhouse life such as diet, dress, education, discipline and redress of grievances.
Following consideration of a report by George Nicholls, the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838 was passed in Westminister. It was the first Irish poor law and was loosely based on the model being promoted for England and Scotland. Nicholls' recommendation, following a series of short visits to Ireland, ran counter to that of a Commission of Enquiry which had examined the issue of an Irish Poor Law for three years, though both recommended indoor relief to the complete exclusion of outdoor relief. His misunderstanding of fundamental differences in the two jurisdictions was ignored, and his reasoning on sectarian and racial lines as to the cause of such extreme destitution in Ireland found acceptance amongst decision-makers. One basic difference in the systems as introduced was with respect to the question of parish Settlement. No Law of Settlement was incorporated in the Irish Poor Law as had been included in the English Poor Law of 1662. This was deliberately to ensure that no perceived right of relief accrued to applicants in Ireland; the decision to grant or refuse assistance was at the discretion of the local Board of Guardians. Initially, 130 Irish Unions were created, with an additional 33 being added in 1848-50.
In 1843 a Commission of Enquiry was appointed to consider the operation of poor laws in Scotland. Their report proposed to broadly keep relief organized at the parish level although parishes, particularly in urban areas, should be united for settlement and poor-relief purposes, including the establishment of united poorhouses. They also proposed the creation of a Board of Supervision to oversee the management of each parish's poor relief. These proposals were put into effect on 4 August 1845 in an Act for The Amendment and better Administration of the Laws Relating to the relief of the Poor in Scotland. This act was an enabling act: Parishes could create poorhouses, but were not required to. Parishes could group together to provide common poorhouses.
The workhouse system was the mainstay of poor relief through the Victorian era across the UK. Overall they were places of dread to the labouring and indigent poor. Reformers like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree revealed that there was widespread poverty in Victorian Britain and that the workhouse system was not helping. Books such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist highlighted workhouse abuse. John Ruskin's "The Lamp of Memory" includes a Morning Post (1865) newspaper clipping telling of the death of Michael Collins, a hard working "translator" of boots, who died without relief rather than to go to the workhouse and die in it. George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" includes first-hand accounts of workhouses in the 1920s and of people he met therein.
The workhouse system underwent several administrative reforms in the United Kingdom, and was abolished on 1 April 1930, being replaced by other social legislation for the unemployed and retired. Despite abolition, many workhouses, renamed as "Public Assistance Institution" or commonly "P. A. Institution", continued under the local County Council until the implementation of the National Assistance Act, 1948. David Johnston describes the East Preston workhouse in the 1950s in 'City Streets to Sussex Lanes'
Notable workhouse architects were:
According to a recent BMJ review , diet was dreary but generally nutritionally adequate. According to records from the time, great care was taken in preparing meals, and issues such as training staff to serve and weigh portions were well understood. Gruel was a notable workhouse food, and was a staple of the workhouse diet.
The workhouse master could implement rules in order to create a system of rewards and punishments which aimed to instil discipline. For breaking rules paupers could be punished with the type of job they had to do that day. There were specific punishments which are set out by the Poor Law Commission. Examples were beatings on the hands and backs (for all male inmates), cells and reductions in rations. Inmates could leave with about three hours notice.
Workhouse conditions were deliberately harsh to deter the able-bodied idle poor from relying on them. Men and women were segregated and children were separated from their parents. Aged pauper couples, who by definition were neither idle nor criminal, were not allowed to share a bedroom. By entering a workhouse, paupers were held to have forfeited responsibility for their children. Education was provided, but pauper children were often forcibly apprenticed without the permission or knowledge of their parents. Inmates surrendered their own clothes and wore a distinctive uniform.
There were many well-meaning measures, such as education for children and the provision of doctors and chaplains. However, most workhouses were run on a shoestring, and these philanthropic gestures often fell far short. In many ways the treatment in a workhouse was little different from that in a prison, leaving many inmates feeling that they were being punished for the crime of poverty. The terrible conditions in some workhouses may have led to depression. There were references to workhouse women who would not speak and children who refused to play. Some workhouse masters embezzled the money intended for blankets, food and other important items for their own personal use. Visitors reported rooms full of sick or elderly inmates with threadbare blankets and the windows wide open to the freezing weather. Work was provided to keep the inmates busy. It was usually boring, hard and degrading. Examples included crushing bones, stone breaking and picking oakum. Cooking and cleaning in the workhouse kept many busy.
Workhouse infirmaries did steadily improve. In Wakefield in 1854 the superior facilities offered by the workhouse led to the closure of the local hospital. In 1865 Florence Nightingale dispatched Agnes Jones and 12 nurses to sort out the Liverpool Workhouse. Many of the illiterate pauper nurses were terminated and many improvements instituted. The Crumpsall infirmary, opened in 1878, was of a high standard. By 1900 many people were voluntarily entering workhouse infirmaries, drawn by the better standards of care.
In 1846 the notorious Andover scandal revealed a shocking state of affairs at this Hampshire workhouse. The Master, an ex-sergeant major named Colin M'Dougal, ran a reign of terror. Starving paupers were reduced to sucking the marrow from the bones they were supposed to be grinding for fertiliser.
Workhouse conditions did improve as the nineteenth century wore on, although few lived up to the high-minded ideals of many of the founders of the system.
In order to save money the Poor Law Commissioners in England and Wales paid poorly. For example, the Governor of a Victorian prison received £600 a year. A workhouse master and matron running a similarly sized organization received on average £80 a year between them. Often the posts of master and clerk were combined on the one salary.
Workhouse chaplains and doctors were paid less than half of what they could expect anywhere else. Medical officers had to pay for the drugs they supplied. The practice of employing illiterate paupers as nurses also led to problems.
Workhouse teachers were a particular problem. Workhouse guardians were keen to educate pauper children for the very good reason that if they could read and write they were less likely to return to the workhouse as adults. In Salisbury, Coventry and Deptford it was revealed that the appointed teacher (usually one of the paupers) was illiterate. Prior to Forster's Education Act 1870, poor children received no education at all, so essentially the workhouse was an improvement.
Simon Fowler in Workhouse:the People, the Places, the Life behind Doors has developed this theme. He points out that workhouses need to be judged by the standards of the time and that whatever their shortcomings, they did save many from starvation. He also points out that as economic conditions improved throughout the 19th century, workhouses took in very few of the able bodied poor. By the late 19th century the overwhelming bulk of workhouse inmates were the elderly, orphaned or abandoned children, deserted wives and the mentally and physically ill. There was no need to deter these unfortunate people by harsh conditions and there was some improvement.
Things did gradually improve over time, and most of the real workhouse horror stories date from the first half of the nineteenth century. Some workhouses were models of efficiency and compassion. At Ashford the paupers wept at the retirement of the master, an ex-naval officer.
The Andover workhouse scandal occurred in 1846, but the 1846 report from the Poor Law Commissioners stated: "The Workhouse is a large household... it resembles a private family on an enlarged scale." The Poor Law Commissioners were replaced by the Poor Law Board in 1847. This put the system under closer public scrutiny and government control. The Huddersfield workhouse scandal (1848) investigation found that conditions were worse than those in Andover which had hit the headlines two years earlier.