22 April 2008

Social Movements: Victorian Workhouse

By Anne Whitfield

In 1834, the Commission's report resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act which was intended to end to all out-relief for the able bodied. The 15,000 or so parishes in England and Wales were formed into Poor Law Unions, each with its own union workhouse. A similar scheme was introduced in Ireland in 1838, while in 1845 Scotland set up a separate and somewhat different system.

Each Poor Law Union was managed by a locally elected Board of Guardians and the whole system was administered by a central Poor Law Commission. In the late 1830s, hundreds of new union workhouse buildings were erected across the country. The Commission's original proposal to have separate establishments for different types of pauper (the old, the able-bodied, children etc.) was soon abandoned and a single "general mixed workhouse" became the norm. The new buildings were specially designed to segregate the different categories of inmate. The first purpose-built workhouse to be erected under the new scheme was at Abingdon in 1835.

Part of Article 34 of the Workhouse Rules states that:

Any pauper who shall neglect to observe such of the regulations herein contained as are applicable to and binding on him:

Or who shall make any noise when silence is ordered to be kept

Or shall use obscene or profane language

Or shall by word or deed insult or revile any person

Or shall threaten to strike or to assault any person

Or shall not duly cleanse his person

Or shall refuse or neglect to work, after having been required to do so

Or shall pretend sickness

Or shall play at cards or other games of chance

Or shall enter or attempt to enter, without permission, the ward or yard appropriated to any class of paupers other than that to which he belongs

Or shall misbehave in going to, at, or returning from public worship out of the workhouse, or at prayers in the workhouse

Or shall return after the appointed time of absence, when allowed to quit the workhouse temporarily

Or shall wilfully disobey any lawful order of any officer of the workhouse shall be deemed disorderly

"In the Workhouse, Christmas Day"

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse, and the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly, and the place is a pleasant sight:
For with clean-washed hands and faces in a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table, for this is the hour they dine
And the Guardians and their ladies, although the wind is east
Have come in their furs and wrappers to watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending, put pudding on pauper plates,To be hosts at the workhouse banquet they've paid for — on the rates.

George Sims, 1847–1922

The end of the system was a long time in coming. In 1905 the government had set up a Royal Commission on the 'Poor law and the Unemployed'. However, its members were unable to agree on recommendations. So in 1909 two further reports – the Majority and the Minority versions – appeared. One favoured a thorough reform of the existing system, the other the complete abolition of the Poor Law, although no action was taken on either. However, the introduction of the old age pension in 1908 and unemployment insurance schemes in 1911 began to provide the basis for a new approach to social welfare.

In 1913 a new and perhaps more compassionate Poor Law Act was passed. This emerged from greater public awareness of workhouse conditions, a changing attitude to poverty, the extension of the franchise, the implementation of the 1906 Liberal government budget, and the foundation of the Welfare State. Henceforth the workhouse was to be known as the 'Poor Law Institution', and the name ‘Union Workhouse’ ceased to exist, at least in theory. Among the many new regulations was one stating that "all children under 3 shall be placed in separate institutions, free from the taint of the Workhouse." As there were only 12 such children in the whole of the Gower Union, it was thought locally that the cost would be prohibitive.

The Poor Law system, which had begun in 1601 in the reign of Elizabeth I and had evolved over the years, began to be dismantled by the Local Government Act of 1929, which came into effect on 31 March 1930, under which the responsibilities of the Boards of Guardians were handed over to County Boroughs and County Councils. But the absolute end of the system did not come until the National Assistance Act of 1948, which made provision of assistance a national obligation.

More information on workhouses can be found at these websites.