The Workhouse and the Relief of the Poor in England and Wales


When researching family history it is, sadly, quite common to find out that some of your ancestors spent time in the workhouse. Read on to find out more about this institution and Poor Relief in England and Wales.


Financial support for the needy in a community had traditionally been a matter for charity or provision offered by religious institutions. Over time, however, as the population grew rapidly – more than doubling during the 1500’s – it outstripped the economy’s ability to provide work for every able-bodied person and unemployment started to become a significant problem. Gradually, therefore, it was realised that a more regulated system of Poor Relief was necessary.


A major step forward came in 1597 with the passing of the Act for the Relief of the Poor. This provided the first complete code of Poor Relief provisions and, with minor adjustments, remained in force until 1834. Each Parish had earlier been made responsible for looking after its own poor but only now were its wealthier citizens made legally responsible for financing such measures. The position of Overseer of the Poor was created – 2 to each Parish – holders of which were responsible for identifying how much money was needed to support the Parish’s needy, collecting the resulting Poor Rate from the Parish’s property owners, and then seeing that the money was correctly spent or distributed.


A critical distinction between what were considered the ‘deserving’ poor, however, such as the sick or elderly, orphans and the mentally or physically handicapped, and all others in financial need was already established. This was now exacerbated by the demands of those paying the Poor Rate, which, in effect, was a tax on wealth, to keep it as low as possible. The result was a demonisation of the able-bodied poor as ‘idle’ or ‘dishonest’ and the idea that any poor provision for them should have an element of punishment about it in order to force them to support themselves.


As the working population became more mobile, there was a steady movement of peoples between Parishes; though this was usually still on a local basis. Complaints that some Parishes were being unfairly burdened by those claiming Poor Relief led to the Poor Relief Acts of 1662 and 1691 which regulated which Parishes were legally responsible for supporting an individual should they fall on hard times. If the individual should attempt to claim Poor Relief in a Parish which was not their ‘own’, they could now be forcibly removed back to the Parish of their ‘Settlement’. The most obvious way of obtaining right of settlement in a given Parish was to be born there. But other methods included serving an Apprenticeship, or completing a year’s service while unmarried. Settlement Certificates were issued by which an individual could prove their right to claim Poor Relief in a given Parish.


Most early Poor Relief was in the form of food, clothing, shelter, or money. In some Parishes, however, such ‘out-door’ relief was supplemented or replaced by ‘inside-relief’ in a Poor House. These establishments allowed relief measures to be better controlled and, in truth, made cheaper. For those able to work, some basic employment was provided so that residents could help to support themselves and in England and Wales ‘Poor Houses’ became known as Work-Houses. Knatchbull’s Workhouse Test Act of 1723 made such establishments the preferred form of Parish Relief and between 1723 and 1750 around 600 Workhouses were built or converted from existing buildings in England and Wales.


To further ease the process of setting up and running workhouses, Gilbert’s Act of 1782 allowed groups of Parishes to pool their resources and share such establishments. Although few Gilbert Unions were created, the Act established an important precedent.

It also attempted to restrict those sent to the workhouse by stipulating that the able-bodied poor should instead be given outdoor-relief until work could be found for them. This might be on Parish-funded projects or by farming the poor out to contractors for such major projects as road building. There was also an attempt to prevent the poor from become destitute, and so a burden on the Parish, by supplementing their wages to a subsistence level through Poor Relief; the best known of these schemes being the so-called Speedhamland System.


As the population continued to grow, the cost of Poor Relief continued to increase. The matter was brought to a head by the economic downturn which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The cost of supporting the country’s poor rose from £2-million per-annum in 1784 to £7-million by 1832 and, with the system on the verge of collapse, it was realised that wholesale reform was necessary. The result was the Poor Law Amendment Act (or New Poor Law) of 1834.


By this, a centralised Poor Law Commission was established in England and Wales to regulate and standardise poor relief. The intention was clear, to reduce claims on the system by denying any provision except the workhouse, and to make these establishments so unpleasant as to deter any but the most desperate cases. As foreseen by the Gilbert Act 50-years before, Parishes were now grouped into Poor Law Unions to pool their resources and reduce administrative overhead. Each Union was to be managed by a locally elected Board of Guardians and each was to have its own workhouse. By 1838, 573 Poor Law Unions had been established in England and Wales and by 1868 all 15,000 Parishes had been incorporated. Similar schemes were enacted in Ireland in 1838 and in Scotland in 1845.



By the 1830’s most parishes in England and Wales had at least one functioning workhouse but the Commission was highly critical of these – many were poorly or corruptly run and were noted for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and poor facilities - and most were taken out of service. The replacement Union workhouses were constructed more along the lines of prisons, with life being rigidly regimented and inmates strictly divided into 3 groups - men, women and children aged under 14 – which were not allowed to mix. Food was nutritionally adequate but deliberately tasteless and monotonous, all inmates wore uniforms of the coarsest material, and the communal dormitories were supplied with beds of the most rudimentary nature. Those who could work were expected to contribute to their keep. For men this involved hard, tedious work such as stone breaking or picking apart old rope so that it could be used as oakum - used to waterproof ships or other structures – while women provided much of the labour in the laundry or kitchen, or cleaned or repaired clothes. More than 500 Union workhouses were built in the 50-years after the passing of the Act, more than two-thirds of them in the first decade.


Although the Union workhouses resembled prisons both inside and out, however, inmates were not held captive. Admittance could be gained by simply applying to the Receiving Officer, and all inmates were free to leave after waiting only a nominal notice period. The only condition was that parents were required to take their children with them. Some people spent repeated short periods in the workhouse, the so-called ‘ins-and-outs’, while others entered and never left.


The deterrent effect of the Union workhouses was extremely effective and most people came to view the institutions with a deep dread. This was not only because of conditions within them, but because becoming an inmate was viewed with intense shame. An admission that people had somehow failed in life, with no allowance for the insurmountable obstacles that often faced them.


However, despite the mantra ‘the workhouse or nothing’, this was not the end of the story. Poor Relief continued to be financed locally and it was soon noted that the cost of each workhouse inmate was prohibitively high. For this reason, short-term out-door relief continued to be furnished in increasing levels on the able-bodied poor. In 1846, of 1.33 million paupers – that is, those receiving some form of Poor Relief - only 199,000, or 14%, were resident in workhouses. Of those who were being maintained by a workhouse, only about a third were judged to be able-bodied.


A wave of philanthropic movements placed many Victorian institutions, including workhouses, under close scrutiny during the 1850’s and 1860’s. The existing institutions were found to be often below acceptable standards and a new wave of building got underway. The new buildings were less prison-like and incorporated many advanced features. Health care for the inmates was improved, as well as educational facilities for the children.


In 1871, responsibility for running the workhouses passed from the Poor Law Commission to the Local Government Board. At the same time the change in primary function of the institutions, from punitive houses of last resort to providing primary care for society’s sick and helpless, was largely recognised. The Diseases Prevention Act of 1883 extended care in the workhouse infirmaries to non-paupers. By the end of the 1800’s, only about 20% of those entering workhouses were unemployed or homeless. By contrast, no less than 30% of those 70 or above were resident in workhouses at this time.


Although workhouses are usually thought of as a Victorian phenomenon, we have seen that in fact they existed for around two Centuries before this. They also continued for another two decades after Victoria’s death in 1901, becoming increasingly the subject of official attack. The Local Government Act of 1929 finally announced their demise, to come into effect in April,1930. Most of the buildings did not close but continued under the guise of Public Assistance Institutions, caring for the local elderly, chronically sick and vagrants. These were finally abolished with the creation of the Welfare State in 1948.



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