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Before 1834, poor people were looked after by buying food and clothing
from money collected from land owners and other wealthy people.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, ensured that no able-bodied person
could get poor relief unless they went to live in special workhouses.
The idea was that the poor were helped to support themselves. They had
to work for their food and accommodation.
What were workhouses?
Workhouses were where poor people who had no job or home lived. They
earned their keep by doing jobs in the workhouse.
Also in the workhouses were orphaned (children without parents) and
abandoned children, the physically and mentally sick, the disabled,
the elderly and unmarried mothers.
The Workhouse, Southwell
The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire
Workhouses were often very large and were feared by the poor and old.
A workhouse provided:
•a place to live
•a place to work and earn money
•free medical care
•free education for children and training for a job.
The staff of a workhouse included:
•a Medical Officer
Workhouses provided almost everything that was needed onsite:
•dining-hall for eating
•dormitories for sleeping
•rooms for the sick
•tailors for making clothes
• vegetable gardens
Why were workhouses feared by the poor and old?
The government, terrified of encouraging 'idlers' (lazy people), made
sure that people feared the workhouse and would do anything to keep
out of it.
How did they do that?
What were workhouses like?
Women, children and men had different living and working areas in the
workhouse, so families were split up. To make things even worse they
could be punished if they even tried to speak to one another!
The education the children received did not include the two most important
skills of all, reading and writing, which were needed to get a good job.
The poor were made to wear a uniform. This meant that everyone looked the
same and everyone outside knew they were poor and lived in the workhouse.
Upon entering the workhouse, the poor were stripped and bathed
The food was tasteless and was the same day after day.
The young and old as well as men and women were made to work hard, often
doing unpleasant jobs.
Children could also find themselves 'hired out' (sold) to work in factories
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The purpose of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was to reduce the
Poor Rates by discouraging the poor from applying for relief. The
main way of doing this was to end the system of outdoor relief and
make the poor enter workhouses where conditions were as harsh as
possible. The list of rules that follows is an example of the
severity of the regime to be found in workhouses.
Any pauper who shall neglect to observe such of the regulations here in
containedas 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
Any pauper who shall, within seven days, repeat any one or commit more than one
of the offences specified in Article 34;
•Or who shall by word or deed insult or revile the master or matron, or any other
officer of the workhouse, or any of the Guardians
•Or shall wilfully disobey any lawful order of the master or matron after such
order shall have been repeated
•Or shall unlawfully strike or otherwise unlawfully assault any person
•Or shall wilfully or mischievously damage or soil any property what so ever
belonging to the Guardians
•Or shall wilfully waste of spoil any provisions, stock, tools, or materials
for work, belonging to the Guardians
•Or shall be drunk
•Or shall commit any act of indecency
•Or shall wilfully disturb the other inmates during prayers or divine worship
SHALL BE DEEMED REFRACTORY
It shall be lawful for the master of the workhouse, with or without the direction
of the Board pf Guardians to punish any disorderly pauper by substituting,during
a time not greater than forty-eight hours, for his or her dinner, asprescribed by
the dietary, a meal consisting of eight ounces of bread, or one pound of cooked
potatoes, and also by with-holding from him during the same period, all butter,
cheese, tea, sugar, or broth, which such pauper would otherwise receive, at any
meal during the time aforesaid.
And it shall be lawful for the Board of Guardians, by a special direction,to be
entered on their minutes, to order any refractory pauper to be punished by
confinement in a separate room, with or without an alteration ofdiet, similar in
kind and duration to that prescribed in Article 36 [above]for disorderly paupers;
but no pauper shall be so confined for a longer period than twenty-four hours; or,
if it be deemed right that such pauper should be carried before a Justice of the
Peace, and if such period of twenty-four hours should be insufficient for that
purpose, then for such further time asmay be necessary for such purpose.
It shall be lawful for the Board of Guardians, by any special or general order,to
direct that a dress different from that of the other inmates shall be worn by
disorderly or refractory paupers, duringa period of not more than forty-eight hours,
jointly with, or in lieu of the alteration of diet to which any such pauper might be
subjected by the regulations herein contained; but it shall not be lawful for the
Board of Guardians to causeany penal dress or distinguishing mark of disgrace to be
worn by any adult pauperor class of adult paupers, unless such pauper or paupers
shall be disorderly or refractory within the meaning of Article 34 or Article 35 of
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The history of the workhouse
The Rise and Fall of the Workhouse
Spike Heritage Centre
Victorian England Workhouses
The Victorian Workhouse: Paupers Prisons
Workhouse records on The National Archives
The Workhouse Website
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Celebrate Cultural Heritage Months
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MINORITY ETHNIC INDEX