"Life in the Workhouse "

November 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Wendy Freer


The November 2009 meeting of The Keyworth & District Local History Society took place in The Centenary Lounge on Friday, November 6th. The guest speaker for the evening was Wendy Freer, no stranger to our society having visited us several times before.

Wendy began by apologizing beforehand for the fact that her talk tonight would raise few, if any laughs. The workhouse was a grim place and her talk would reflect this. Wendy began by explaining what, if any, provisions were made for the poor prior to the advent of the Victorian workhouse. By ‘poor’, Wendy explained, she was referring to those unfortunate persons who were no longer able to provide for themselves, perhaps from infirmity, illness, old age or senility. The State made no provisions for these unfortunate persons. That responsibility often fell on monasteries that, in many cases, would provide a free meal and a bed for the night for people who could not pay for such things. However, when Henry V’s government dissolved the monasteries this vital lifeline for the poor vanished.

In Tudor times, for various reasons, England experienced a period of high inflation. This led to an increase in the numbers of persons that found themselves out of work and unable to provide for their families. In those days it was illegal for the common persons to leave their own parishes without permission so it wasn’t always easy to go and look for work in other neighbourhoods. It was also illegal to beg without a licence so the lot of the destitute was hard indeed. As times became harder so attitudes towards the poor also hardened. An example of this could be found in the Statute of Legal Settlement (dated 1547) decreed that vagrants could be branded with a branding-iron and made slaves for up to two years. However, during the second half of the 16th Century Parishes became responsible for the welfare of their own poor. An overseer was appointed and he was responsible for raising the money to make provisions for those persons in need of assistance. In 1574 legislation was passed allowing parishes to open a poor house in their district where the poor could be looked after. However this legislation was voluntary and many parishes ignored it. Interestingly, where these houses were built they were known as ‘houses of correction’, and this tells us something of how the poor were looked upon. Authority looked of these people as somehow being responsible for their own plight and, as such, in need of ‘correction’ to mend their wicked ways.

Wendy then went on to show a selection of images portraying some of the premises that were used to house the poor in Tudor and Stuart times. The introduction of the legislation known as the 43rd Elizabeth, more commonly known as the Poor Law, was the main law that governed the welfare of the poor until the Victorian Poor Law was introduced. Under this law the poor were referred to as ‘paupers’ and were required to wear a badge with a letter ‘P’ shown on it. The badge also had an initial to identify the pauper’s parish and also a number to further identify them. When first introduced this badge entitled the pauper to beg but it wasn’t very long before the system became to be abused and the wearing of the badge became a mark of shame on the wearer.

A further important piece of legislation was passed in 1723 and was known as the Workhouse Test Act. This law gave parishes the right to refuse to help people who would not, or did not want to, reside in those premises that parishes were using for looking after the poor. It was a common view throughout the population at large that most people who were seeking assistance were simply ‘swinging the lead’. Today we would call them benefit cheats. Obviously there were some people who desperately needed aid and these were referred to as the ‘deserving’ poor. It was the deserving poor that the system tried to help.

Whilst conditions in these ‘poor’ houses were less than ideal they did attempt to give the inmates a decent meal. Indeed, compared to the provisions that were to be implemented later, with the Victorian Poor Laws, the provision of food was quite generous. As an example breakfast consisted of a pint and a half of milk porridge and four ounces of bread. This was the same every-day; the diet might have been repetitive but at least it was filling and nutritious. Likewise, the main meal, which was eaten at lunchtime, was equally filling. Meat was provided on five days of the week, usually accompanied by potatoes, again in substantial amounts. The intention was to provide a diet that was adequate but also filling.

With the advent of the 19th Century the very poor were becoming increasingly worse off. Civil unrest began to manifest itself in the form of food riots and social unrest. At the same time those who were funding the system, through their taxes, were becoming more and more dissatisfied with paying for people who simply a drain on their resources. The situation was causing so much concern that a Royal Commission was instigated to look into the problem. The outcome of this was the 1834 Poor Law Act. One of the main aims of this new legislation was to target those persons who were not classified as the deserving poor. The undeserving poor, as they were called, needed to be taught a lesson and made to do as much as they could to look after themselves. Thus anyone able-bodied but not working could only be provided for in the workhouse. It was one of the aims of the law that conditions in the workhouse must not be better than those that obtained outside.

Prior to the 1834 Poor Law parishes had run their own poor houses. This was not always the best way to run the system, for one thing it could be very expensive for an individual parish so local parishes banded together to form a type of ‘union’ and build a workhouse that would provide cover for all of those in that union. In this way the cost devolving on an individual parish could be greatly reduced. These establishments became known as ‘Union Workhouses’. From the outset they were designed to be forbidding places. They were also run by a very regimented system. Upon admission to the workhouse you were classified as old men, adult men, young boys, old women, adult women, young girls, infants and babies. All of these groups were strictly segregated. They were not allowed to associate with each other at all. Once or twice a month families were allowed to meet together for a few hours, but that was all.

One aspect of the ‘regimentation’ that was found in the workhouse was the clothing that all of the residents had to wear. All of the inmates of the workhouse had to wear the clothes that the workhouse provided. Inmates of the workhouse were allowed to discharge themselves at any time of their choosing. They were not like those who were being kept in prison. However, they couldn’t just leave, they had to ask for permission. To leave without permission was against the rules, and if the inmate left with the clothes that the workhouse provided then they were guilty of the theft of those clothes.

Every aspect of workhouse life was governed by very strict rules. The time that you got out of bed, went for meals, did your work, had rest periods and went back to bed were all dictated by the system. All of those inmates that were capable of work had to do so. This could entail picking oakum, breaking stones or crushing bones for fertilizer. The crushing of bones was stopped very quickly though, the food rations at some of the workhouses was so meagre that the inmates were actually starving and to supplement their rations they were actually eating the bones that had been sent to be crushed. Even the temperature of the water in their weekly bath was strictly ordained. A thermometer was provided for the staff to ensure that the water was the exact temperature stipulated by the rules. If, for any reason, the thermometer was unavailable for this task then the bathing was cancelled!

The ethos that governed the attitude of the authorities to those seeking shelter inside the workhouse was that the conditions were never to be better than those that were to be found outside the workhouse walls. This was not entirely true since those that lived in the workhouse were at least assured of food and a bed for the night. The Victorian attitude to life was that people should be largely responsible for themselves. The State was only there as a last resort; only those that were incapable of looking after themselves should be the State’s responsibility. When this did happen the State ensured that public money was not squandered on those unfortunate enough to need the services provided.

For many people the workhouse was their last residence before death relieved them from the troubles of this world. If the deceased had no estate to provide for their own funeral, or no friends or relatives who would perform this service for them then the workhouse would arrange a pauper’s funeral for them in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Even this ‘luxury’ was not always granted. Bodies for medical research were in short supply during the 19th Century. It is generally well known that the bodies of those who executed for capital crimes could be used for medical research. What is not so generally known is that the bodies of those who died in the workhouse, whose bodies were unclaimed, could also, by law, be similarly used. At every stage those that decided to use the facilities provided in the workhouse were made to feel, and understand, that they were amongst the lowest strata of society. As Government thinking became more enlightened so the whole concept of the workhouse came under scrutiny and, in 1930, they were abolished and replaced by Public Assistance Institutions. Local authorities continued to be responsible for these new institutions that were usually housed in the old workhouse buildings. These
Buildings themselves became obsolete in 1948 with the introduction of The National Assistance Act which provided an entirely different type of State support for those unfortunate enough to need it. Very few people mourned the passing of the workhouse indeed, not without good reason. Once again Wendy gave us a really interesting and informative talk that was much enjoyed and appreciated by those that were present. Well-done Wendy!