I would not dream of trying to provide a history and analysis of the Workhouse here. The Workhouse website does this all for you. It has just about everything you would want to know about the phenomenon of the Workhouse, as well as providing links to associated topics such as Ragged Schools, Dr. Barnado’s Homes and the Salvation Army. It will also tell you where you can go to find specific information about an ancestor - if it exists, and as such is one of those absolutely invaluable family history websites. Because it is likely that almost everyone will have someone who spent time in a Workhouse at some point in their life. For almost all of us has poor ancestors and this is where the poor ended up. So far I have identified two sets of people in our family tree who spent some time there. And there may be more.
Suffice to say that they began around the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the Parishes were legally obliged to provide for their poor. So in a sense this is early social welfare - a helping hand to the poor who could not look after themselves. So a worthy aim. But there was also a punitive aspect to it, as the Parishes obviously did not want to spend all their money looking after the poor. One had to meet the appropriate criteria, and then you had to conform to the multiiplicity of rules and the grim conditions.
By the nineteenth century - the period we associate with the Workhouse, probably because of the writings of Dickens - the buildings were purpose built and prison like. To quote the Workhouse website:
“Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off-putting as possible. Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories. Supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitors. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children — perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday afternoon.”
And yet, curiously they also did good. They provided food and shelter - however unprepossessing, and education too for the children. The education might have been rudimentary and oppressive - but then it wasn’t much better in other schools either. And there were also work opportunities - some, admittedly, were nothing short of slave labour and exploitation of child labour, but there was also some training in skills that could be later turned into a real job. And the Parish usually provided apprenticeships for a few worthy poor boys.
So a curious mixture of oppression and enlightenment.
Officially they ended in the 1930s, but it wasn’t really until the establishment of the NHS in 1948 that they really disappeared, and even then some of the buildings were turned into hospitals and institutions of various kinds. Do visit the Workhouse website for a very readable and fact-filled introduction to the subject,
Children at work in the Workhouse
Old women in the Workhouse