Workhouses: An Introduction

Workhouses in Britain came into existence under the Poor Law Act of 1834. This piece of legislation, although infused with good intentions by the creators, turned out to be another brick in the road that led to hell.  This law was actually an amendment to a previously enacted “poor law” from the sixteenth century. The law targeted not just the general poor, but focused on a subgroup within the lower class. This group included those that were deemed able to work, but refused to do so.

New Poor Law
The New Poor Law poster c1834. National Archives, UK.

During the 1600s in England, the previously mentioned group of poor people would be whipped and paraded through the streets, but by the 1800s this mindset of pure punishment had changed slightly. The government decided to withdraw all governmental aid from the individuals, and made paupers work for their small rations because the government looked down upon these able-bodied people choosing not to work. These actions are what led to the enactment of workhouses. The leaders of the time did not think that they should give assistance to people who were unwilling to put forth effort to provide for themselves, and this led to the harsh mindset behind the workhouses. The general concept of a workhouse was, if you come to work here then the government will provide you with essentials such as: food, shelter, and clothing.


Conditions within the workhouses were deplorable and led to many physical and mental health issues.  Equipment, products, and the people that worked there were constantly dirty and lacking a proper diet.  Workhouses employed a small number of people typically including: a master, matron, medical officer, chaplain, porter, and a schoolteacher.  The staff had little or no training at all and usually failed to meet the conditions outlined in the Poor Law Act; though there were Poor Law Commissioners that were hired to make sure that the law was enforced, they too, often lacked training and only learned by experience.  The combination of inexperienced leaders and a dirty atmosphere created a disorganized and exceedingly unpleasant place to work and live.

The decision for a man, woman or child who decided to enter a workhouse was one that was not taken lightly. Though entering a workhouse was a strictly voluntary decision, it was usually brought about by dire circumstances and only used as a last resort.  There was a lengthy application that began with multiple interviews to discuss the circumstances of the applicant, including one with the Board of Guardians, which was an extremely intimidating experience.  The conditions within were not easy going by any stretch of the imagination. The government did this deliberately so that they would deter all but the extremely desperate from applying to enter. The design and purpose of the incredibly harsh conditions is evident by the principle of ‘less eligibility’. This principle is best described by a Report from the Poor Law Commission:

“All labour is irksome to those who are unaccustomed to labour; and what is generally meant by the expression ‘rendering the pauper’s situation irksome’, is rendering it laborious. But it is not by means of labour alone that the principle is applicable, nor does it imply that the food or comforts of the pauper should approach the lowest point at which existence may be maintained. Although the workhouse food be more ample in quantity and better in quality than that of which the labourer’s family partakes, and the house in other respects superior to the cottage, yet the strict discipline of well-regulated workhouses, and in particular the restrictions to which the inmates are subject in respect to the use of acknowledged luxuries, such as fermented liquors and tobacco, are intolerable to the indolent and disorderly, while to the aged, the feeble, and other proper objects of relief, the regularity and discipline render the workhouse a place of comparative comfort.”  (As cited in Marjie Bloy, The principle of ‘less eligibility’)

In a bit of more simple terms ‘Less Eligibility’ was the idea that jobs available inside of a workhouse should be less desirable than the least desirable job within a community, outside of the workhouse. This philosophy is one that drove the workhouses into existence, but also drove them to their inevitable extinction. Although the government was trying to deter the able-bodied poor population by the harshness of the workhouse, at the same time it was promoting the workhouse as a refuge to the desperate. This contradiction in the design of the workhouse is ultimately what led to the downfall of their operation.

When a family entered a workhouse, generally, they separated the men, women and children from each other. The master of the workhouse saw this as an acceptable act because the man was no longer the provider for the family, and as such, the family unit did not need one another to survive. Their survival was now in the hands of the workhouse; therefore the paupers should do as they were told. Once admitted, all personal belongings were taken and only returned when the individual or family were discharged from the workhouse. A typical workhouse day began at 5 A.M. in the summer and 6 A.M. in the winter.  It started with prayers and breakfast, followed by several hours of work; a short lunch was taken, more work, then prayers and supper. Though the workday seems typical of any job, the work done by many of the inmates was brutal and backbreaking.  Men typically performed manual labor while women did all the domestic work required to keep the workhouse running. The work tended to be considered extremely undesirable and very physically demanding for the men. The men were assigned to perform was the same type of work they many prisoners were forced to participate in. Men would perform a variety of tasks, these included: stone breaking, corn grinding, bone crushing, gypsum crushing, oakum picking, and wood chopping. As one can see, all of the tasks were extremely labor intensive. Women would be put to a different sort of labor-intensive jobs that included: cleaning, cooking and kitchen work, laundry, sewing and even occasionally growing vegetable gardens. Children were assigned various tasks and jobs to do as well during their time in workhouses. Also during their stay, inmates were required to wear uniforms; they were made of coarse materials that were durable but lacked any comfort.  It is likely that the depersonalization that comes with uniforms greatly impacted the depressing, prison-like atmosphere that existed inside workhouses.

Workhouse Uniforms
On the left, 23 boys at Crumpsall Workhouse, ca. 1895-1897. On the right, St. Pancras Workhouse, London, undated. Credit: Wikipedia.

In many ways, the treatment of the workhouse residents was analogous to the treatment of prisoners; they even referred to the inhabitants as “inmates.” The residents there had no freedom to do as they pleased, because they agreed to work for the government institution in return for basic needs.  In order to control inmates, masters created strict rules with tough punishments.  Inmates were deemed disorderly if they made excessive noise while asleep, used obscene language, failed to clean himself thoroughly, feigned illness, played cards, disrupted public worship, directly disobeyed an order, and many other nuanced rules; punishment included a severe restriction of food for two days and sometimes different clothing to identify a wrongdoer.  Repeat offenders faced diet restrictions and temporary confinement.  Strict rules also played a role in making workhouses a place of last resort.

Prison and Workhouse
Newgate Prison, ca. 1800 and Sampson Kempthorne workhouse design for 300 paupers, 1835

While in the workhouse, inmates were not permitted to leave without “reasonable notice” and usually some sort of justification.  Justifications included a child’s baptism, death of family member, or to seek work (if you were an eligible man).  However, if someone chose to leave without consent, he/she could be charged with theft of property because the uniform belonged to the workhouse.  This kept most people inside the workhouse until they chose to discharge themselves.  The discharge process was another lengthy procedure that included lots of paperwork, especially if children were involved; this also discouraged inmates from discharging themselves for the day and re-admitting the same night or the following day.  However, there were many cases of inmates willing to go through the paperwork in order to have a day on the outside; one example of such an experience was of the famous silent movie actor Charlie Chaplin and his family:  Charlie, his mother, and his older brother were admitted into a workhouse in Lambeth in 1896.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

 During the three-week probationary period, the sons stayed in the workhouse, but were then transferred to a school in London while their mother remained behind.  Two months later, the boys returned to visit, but their mother had discharged them all in desperation to see them; after a day together, the Chaplin family returned to the workhouse to begin the admissions process (including the three-week probationary period) once again.  Actions like these were not uncommon among workhouse inmates, who were already despondent not only from the circumstances that led them to the workhouse but also the conditions within the workhouses.

Written by Landon Hope and Emily Erdman

Principle of ‘Less Eligibility’
A Dismal Prospect: Workhouse Healthcare
Elizabethan Poor Law
Workhouse Work
Workhouse Officers
Entering and Leaving the Workhouse
A Typical Workhouse Daily Regime
Workhouse Uniforms
Workhouse Rules