The Workhouse was a building made to house the poor. They were built all over the country as a result of the 1834 New Poor Law’s introduction. This act of Parliament said that people who were very poor, old, sick or unemployed should be looked after in a Workhouse. These buildings were often very large and grew to be feared by the poor and old. The workhouse would provide food, drink and work for it’s inmates. There were often strict rules and the people running the establishments were often cruel.
The Workhouse was a development introduced in the 1834 Poor Law. It replaced the provision set out in previous schemes that had emerged from the Elizabethan Poor Law. Under the previous scheme the poor were assisted either in their homes, in a poor house if too old, young or infirm to work or via punishments if they were unwilling to work. The new Workhouse set out to make the system more efficient by bringing the poor into the Workhouse and providing them with food and shelter in return for them working.
Workhouses were managed by local Workhouse Unions. Each Workhouse had a committee, the Guardians, who managed the running of the Workhouse. It would employ somebody to manage the Workhouse on a day to day basis.
One image of the workings of the Workhouse is that seen in the book and film adaptations of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Here the regime is not so sympathetic for the poor, leading Oliver to beg for more. Though a work of fiction, it does give an insight into the way that some of the Workhouses were run. This is because the Workhouse, following the 1843 Act, was specifically designed to deter people from wanting to claim Poor Relief.
Separate sections of a Workhouse were established for different categories: The Able Bodied Poor, The Elderly, The Young, The Infirm. Any Able Bodied man wishing to claim Poor Relief would have to go to the Workhouse after this Act. There was no longer any relief from Poverty in the home. The entire family would have to enter the Workhouse. They were then split up, based on the categories mentioned.
The people in Workhouses were called inmates. They lived on a basic diet such as Bread, Cheese and Gruel. Gruel is what Oliver Twist asks for a second helping of, it’s a kind of porridge, though not quite as tasty. Inmates had uniforms, had supervised bathing time and restricted visiting. Families were able to meet up for just a few hours in the week.
The ‘Work’ part of the name is there because the able bodied were expected to do some. Much of the work was based on the needs of the Workhouse itself. People would be given jobs in the kitchens, the boiler room, emptying the toilets etc. Other work included breaking up stones or gypsum, grinding corn, sewing or laundering.
Hunger – The Andover Scandal
Oliver Twist shows the boy hungry and wanting more food. The sad truth is that in some Workhouses, hunger was a huge problem. The Poor Law set out minimum dietary requirements. Not every Workhouse met these. One Workhouse, in Andover, became the centre of a scandal as a result of this.
One job that inmates sometimes did was crushing animal bones so that they could be used in fertilisers. This was quite common and Bone Meal is still used for that purpose today. One Guardian of the Andover Workhouse discovered that some inmates working on bone crushing were actually eating some of the animal bones. Not only is this quite an unhealthy diet for humans but the bones being ground down for fertiliser were often quite old. The Board of Guardians dismissed the issue. The Guardian with concerns was not satisfied though. He and some others questioned the paupers. Their fears were confirmed.
The issue had to be taken to the Poor Law Commission, then Parliament, as the Board of Guardians was not willing to take action. It’s investigation found malpractice was rife. In 1847 a Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced as a consequence of this scandal.