- …”Please sir, I want some more”.
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
“Please sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more!”
The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the beadle…
While this might sound light-hearted and funny to us today in the 21st century, this exchange, taken from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’, was anything but. For thousands of impoverished children such as Oliver, ending up in a workhouse was a grim and terrifying reality, a world of forced labour, starvation, little food and water, mediocre medical-care, corruption and loneliness. This article will examine what workhouses were, how they operated, who used them and what eventually happened to the workhouse system.
The Workhouse Myth
We all of us, have a Dickensian view of workhouses as places as bad as, or even worse than, prisons. A place where people were punished for being poor, a place where, once you were in there, you were in there for life, a place of abuse, corruption, misery, hardship and loneliness, despite the fact that these were supposed to symbolise the humanitarian and social-welfare side of the governments of Victorian England. Popular culture will tell you that children as young as five were given boring, finicky jobs to do, for hours a day, to be fed tiny amounts of cheap, disgusting gruel and that husbands were separated from wives and that children were separated from their parents. The elderly were treated with shocking indifference and that workhouse masters and matrons were often abusive, thieving, corrupt people who picked pennies and pounds from the already meagre workhouse coffers to line their own pockets, disregarding the suffering of others.
But was this what workhouses were really like? Or is this just thanks to Hollywood and Mr. Dickens? Or is the truth more terrifying than we could imagine?
The Truth of the Workhouse
As much as we might like to kid ourselves, the fact of the matter was that workhouses were this bad. There were some, rare exceptions, but for the dozens of parish workhouses dotted throughout England, life for their thousands of inmates (not ‘occupants’ or ‘residents’ or ‘guests’…INMATES), was about as low as you could go. Not even prison was this bad.
Workhouses housed their inmates under such appalling conditions, fed them next to nothing and took such an indifferent stance to their suffering mainly because they didn’t have much choice in the matter. Workhouses were funded by the government and the government gave the workhouse masters absolutely tiny budgets to run institutions the size of prisons! In order to feed and clothe and house their hundreds of inmates, workhouse masters had to scrimp, save, stretch and squeeze every single penny for all it was worth. If this meant serving substandard food or providing barely-decent sleeping-quarters or if this meant not giving the inmates roast turkey at Christmas…that was what they did. The fact that the workhouse masters and matrons were not paid much for their depressing work only made them even more corruptable, and it wasn’t unknown for masters and matrons to dip their fingers into the cashbox and help themselves to the workhouse’s funds.
The Birth of the Workhouse
Given all these terrible conditions, why were workhouses created? What was their purpose? When did this system of housing the destitute and poor in such horrendous conditions begin?
The origins of workhouses go back several hundred years, all the way to the 16th century. Back then, relief and social support for the poor and homeless was messy and unorganised. Little thought was given to people who made up the dregs of society; they were something not to be spoken of, seen or attended to. Old clothes and leftover food was sometimes given to paupers who had no way of supporting themselves, but such gestures of humanitarianism were few and far between.
The workhouse system was born out of the Poor Laws; a collection of laws, rules and regulations passed by the governments of the United Kingdom to look after the needy, beginning in the 17th century. The laws were in place to provide shelter, work, food and clothing for the disabled poor, the young, the elderly and able-bodied paupers who had no homes, money or means of support. They were housed in large, prison-like structures called ‘workhouses’ where the inmates wore distinctive uniforms and performed menial, repetitive, dangerous and boring tasks for hours at a time, every single day.
The workhouse as we think of it today was born in the 17th century and each parish or county generally had at least one workhouse for the housing of its poor, homeless or disabled. However, ideas regarding social welfare were very different in the 18th and 19th centuries, to what we think of as social welfare today.
Living in a Workhouse
Workhouses flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these were considered their boom-years. The Industrial Revolution had brought all kinds of jobs to the United Kingdom, but the revolution also brought soaring crime-rates and desperate poverty and unemployment. The workhouse system was there to try and do something about all this poverty and unemployment, by giving paupers a place to live and work. But how did you end up in a workhouse?
People who ended up in workhouses were people who couldn’t support themselves and relied on the government to support them instead. This included such groups of people as:
– The Elderly (those who could not support themselves, or who were a burden on their families).
– The Young (children).
– The Infirm (disabled).
– The Unemployed (those who couldn’t find work, but were able-bodied).
– The Homeless (those who had no permanent address).
Orphaned children generally ended up in workhouses. Either their parents had died and they had no-one to look after them, or they were illegitimate children and nobody wanted to look after them. If parents were deemed unable to look after their offspring, the government took them away and put them into workhouses. Being sent to a workhouse was one of the most terrifying things that you could tell a Victorian child.
So, how did you get into a workhouse? And once in, how did you leave?
The Ins and Outs of the Workhouse System
First gaining an entry, and possibly later, an exit from a workhouse, was a lengthy and fiddly process, involving a Black Forest of paperwork. When you entered a workhouse, you had to fill in a personal-information form. This form had all your bog-standard ID questions: Name, age, occupation, place of residence, marital status, offspring and so-on. Once your paperwork had cleared, you were given a bath, a medical checkup and then you were issued with a workhouse uniform (wearing your own clothes was not allowed. They would be removed, to be placed in a locker or storage-room). You were then led to join the rest of the workhouse population. If you were found to be ill in any way, you might still be allowed to enter the workhouse, but you might have to serve a period of quarantine, first.
Workhouses were deliberately harsh to prevent people from relying on them. As I will explain in more detail further down, it was believed that if you gave the poor an inch, they’d take a yard for themselves. No compassion or luxury was to be given to them, as this was only to make them even lazier and more dependent on the state than they already were.
Once you entered a workhouse, you pretty much gave up all your rights and priveliges. Parents were seperated from their children, whether they wanted to be or not. Husbands and wives were seperated from each other and the aged from the young and so-forth. Strict segregation was rigidly enforced. Families who moved into workhouses were broken up on arrival. If you arrived at a workhouse as a family, it was assumed immediately that you were a bad parent and were unfit to look after your own children…so the State would look after them for you. This, despite the fact that you might actually have been a very good parent. Parents had no say in the matter and their children were taken away from them.
A diagram of a workhouse. You didn’t even have to go inside most workhouses to see the evidence of segregation
Workhouse hours were military-like in structure. You woke up early, between six and seven in the morning. You had breakfast, you washed, and then you started work. After several hours, you had a break to have lunch. Then, more work until dinnertime and then bed, which was 8:00pm, every night. Children were supposed to be taught their lessons and their routine might vary slightly, with boys and girls being taken to schoolrooms to be taught how to read and write, but workhouses which offered education-programs were few and far between. Children could be treated appallingly bad and they could be sold off like chattels or apprenticed out to tradesmen of questionable character, completely without their parents’ knowledge or assent. Business fat-cats who ran places such as cotton-mills would go to workhouses and buy little boys for a few pence each, take them away from the workhouse and put them to work in the mills, for which the children were not paid, but were provided with bed and board.
Leaving a workhouse was a fairly straightforward ordeal. You gave your notice, you filled out your paperwork (again), your clothes were returned to you, and off you went. Of course, if a family was in the workhouse and if one member (usually the husband and father) left, then the rest of the family had to go, too. Some people treated workhouses like cheap hotels, coming and going as they pleased, despite the lengthy paperwork. Paupers already inside the workhouse could be granted a temporary leave-of-absence to attend various events such as funerals, christenings, weddings and to attend to sick or dying relatives. Able-bodied inmates were permitted to leave in order to look for work. If they found steady work, then they would probably leave the workhouse to try and get a fresh start in life. In most cases, however, workhouse inmates stayed in the workhouse for months or years and in some cases, even decades. In one rare occasion, a report listed fifteen inmates who had spent over sixty years living in workhouses!
Living in a workhouse was about as far from luxury as you could possibly imagine. Its occupants were basically being punished for the horrible, unspeakable, ghastly and sinful crime of being…poor.
To understand why workhouses were what they were, one needs to understand Victorian morality.
These days, we accept and understand that some people, for reasons completely outside their control, are just not able to support themselves. Maybe they don’t have any money because they can’t find work, despite trying day after day after week after month. Perhaps their disabilities prevent them from making a living for themselves. Perhaps they’re too young or too old to support themselves.
But to the typical Victorian who lived in the mid 1800s, this was not their way of thinking. The Victorian mindset was almost the complete opposite to how we would think, now in the 21st century. Back in the 1850s, it was generally understood that poverty was caused by an inherent immorality that was ingrained in you and completely unchangable. If you were a homeless beggar, it was your own fault. The poor, it was believed, were habitually lazy and slothful and not to be treated with any kind of compassion. Why should they? They didn’t bloody deserve it! If they were really something, they’d go and find themselves a bloody job! No thought was given to WHY these people were like what they were, just that they were, that this was natural and that try as they might, “proper, upstanding Britons” would not be able to change that.
With this mindset, it’s probably not surprising to know that most people saw no reason to splurge money on the poor, since they saw it as a waste of time. If you gave the poor money, they would at once, piss it all away on booze, broads, drugs and gambling! If you showed the poor any compassion, it would only encourage them to become even more lazy and dependent on the State. It was for this reason that workhouse budgets were so incredibly small. Nobody saw the necessity or the reason to give them any more money than the absolute minimum needed to run an institution.
Life in a workhouse was gruelling at best. Medical care was almost nonexistent, as was privacy, decent food, clothing, bedding and anything else. Regardless of age or gender, workhouse inmates were generally treated appallingly badly. What workhouses that did have medical care often provided it to an incredibly substandard level. Nurses handling dangerous chemicals and medications were often drafted from the inmates themselves. With no medical training, no education and not even the ability to read the labels on the jars, these women were in charge of caring for their sick companions.
Education for children in the workhouse was often nonexistent. Eventually people understood that the only way to get the kids off the streets and out of the workhouses was to give them a chance to read and write. As the years progressed, structured teaching and schooling did make its way into some workhouses, but these children were generally the lucky few.
Workhouse food was very basic, although, as some research suggests, not as lacking in nutrition as some people might think. The staple of workhouse cuisine was ‘gruel’. If you’ve never had gruel, or never heard of it, you’ll wonder how the hell anyone could eat it! Gruel is basically a cheap, cheap porridge, generally made of oats or oatmeal. It wasn’t very tasty and not amazingly filling either. Paupers never got enough of it to fill themselves up completely, anyway. Given all these delightful characteristics, why was it served?
One word: Cheap.
A typical workhouse dining-room. Note the religious slogans on the walls. Workhouse masters and officials said that they were doing ‘God’s work’ and that therefore, the paupers, who often recieved appalling treatment, had no right to complain
Don’t forget that most workhouses had very small budgets. The Master of the workhouse was under great pains to make his provision from the government to stretch as far as he could. Despite this, though, the workhouse diet was fairly varied. Apart from gruel, inmates also ate meat (beef or mutton, usually), cheese, bread, frumenty (a dish made of boiled wheat, with milk, eggs, sugar, currents and a few nuts). Drinks allowed in the workhouse included tea and milk (generally for the young or the elderly). Most other people drank record-shattering levels of beer, from one to up to three or four pints of beer a day! And not just adults, but kids, too! While we might not understand this today, you have to remember that in the 18th and 19th centuries, water quality was generally very questionable. To guard against possible waterborne diseases, beer was offered instead of water, as beer uses no water in its production-process. Everyone drank beer, even the kids. They got beer with a lower alcohol-content, but it was still beer.
A workhouse was not a prison. It was not a boarding-house, it was not a boarding-school. It was not a homeless shelter or a work-camp…it was all of these things. And of course, in a workhouse, the main thing you had to do…was work! But what kind of work were you expected to do?
The main chores associated with workhouses were the picking of oakum, the breaking of stones and the grinding up of old bones, along with various other jobs. But…why, why, and…why? Mainly just to give the inmates something to do. They were a cheap, disposable form of labour which could be forced to do all the lowest and most menial of jobs which had to be done, but which nobody else but a completely down-on-his-luck pauper would ever do. But what kind of work?
All the jobs inside workhouses were incredibly boring. And repetitive. They might also be dangerous, but mostly, they were just boring. Oakum-picking was one of the most boring ever. It is also the most famous of all workhouse jobs. It’s really the stereotypical workhouse job, you might say. Long, boring, pointless…
But what is ‘oakum’ anyway?
Oakum is rope. Or more precisely, rope-fibres. If you were in a workhouse and you were given the task of picking oakum, you were given a hunk of old rope which once belonged to a sailing-ship, and you were told to ‘pick’ it. This meant ripping the rope apart, breaking it down from the cable to the rope to the yarn to thread, right down to the tiny, itsy-bitsy little fibres of hemp! While on the surface, this sounds pretty easy, it gets trickier the smaller you go, since you need to dig your nails into the rope-fibres to pull them apart. Once the rope was all broken down, you were given a new piece to start on.
Women picking oakum (the fuzzy stuff at their feet) in a London workhouse in 1902
The picked oakum was collected and then sent to the docks or the harbour. Oakum was a crucial material in shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries; the oakum was hammered into the seams between the planks on ship’s hulls to fill in the gaps. The oakum swelled up when it came in contact with water, and so created a relatively watertight seal.
Stone-breaking involved smashing and hitting lumps of rock such as limestone, with sledgehammers and pickaxes. The stones were smashed, pummelled and whacked until they shattered into tiny pieces, each one about the size of a small to medium-sized pebble. The smashed rocks were used in roadbuilding and the smashed rock-fragments were passed through a mesh or a grille in a special storage-room in the workhouse, to determine whether the smashed rocks were of the correct size. If the pebbles didn’t pass through the mesh, they had to be smashed again and again until they did. Stone-breaking was a job performed by male inmates due to the physically demanding nature of the task. Vagrants and wanderers (travellers, in other words) might be forced to do stone-breaking in return for a night’s bed and board at a workhouse, on their journey.
Another common workhouse chore was bone-grinding or bone-breaking. Bones, typically from cattle or sheep, were delivered to the workhouse where the inmates smashed them up over and over and ground them up until they were a powdery consistency. The grinding and crushing of the bones was necessary because the ‘bonemeal’ powder was used to manufacture fertilisers for farmers to use on their crops. In one particular workhouse in Andover, England, in 1846, the mishandling of funds and the general brutality of the workhouse master had reduced many of the paupers to sucking the marrow out of the bones that they were supposed to be crushing for fertiliser. The master, a man named M’Dougal, was fired for his treatment of his charges. Bone-crushing was banned as a workhouse chore shortly after the Andover Scandal.
Before gas-stoves, before electricity, before central heating, firewood was essential to everyday life. This being the case, it’s probably not surprising that one of the other main jobs in the workhouse was the splitting and chopping of firewood.
Deaths in the Workhouse
Considering that workhouses were such depressing places, and also considering the fact that the infirm, elderly, sick or mentally-ill often made use of them, it’s probably no surprise that people died in workhouses. But what happened when they did?
If a person did die in a workhouse, their death was recorded in the usual manner, by filling out a certificate of death. If it was possible, the deceased’s family was notified and asked if they desired to hold a private funeral. If the family did not wish (or as was more often the case, was unable) to hold a private funeral, then the workhouse took care of the burial instead. Dead inmates were buried in local churchyards, in a churchyard of their choice, or even in the workhouse graveyard. Coffins were cheap and the graves were usually unmarked.
The workhouse system could not last forever, though. Although conditions had gradually improved over the centuries, from the 1600s until the early 20th century, changing social values and mindsets was what really changed things in the end. By the early 1900s, attitudes towards things such as pensions, the infirm, the homeless, the elderly and those unable to support themselves, were slowly changing. There was a time where people who had pensions were seen as lazy dregs and strains on society because they wouldn’t get a job. Similarly, people considered it an insult if they were offered charity, because it suggested that they were lazy and stupid. But eventually, the notion that some people simply COULD NOT support themselves, no matter what, began to seep through society and attitudes and social welfare changed with the times. Workhouse conditions changed dramatically and instead of being places of misery and sorrow and depression, began to resemble rest-homes or the homeless-shelters that we know today. Segregation of gender and age was gradually removed, but by then, the workhouse’s days were numbered.
The Abolishment of Workhouses
Despite lasting centuries and despite providing questionable care and refuge for the unfortunates, paupers and beggars in their communities, workhouses would not last much longer. The workhouse system which Charles Dickens made famous in Oliver Twist would eventually be abolished, although this did not finally happen until 1930.
Workhouse structures still existed, but they now resembled something more akin to an aged care home instead of a prison, a place where the elderly, sick, infirm or disabled could find a home and refuge and where the state would take care of them if they were not able to care for themselves.