views updated May 23 2018

workhouses. The workhouse was an Elizabethan invention designed to provide a disciplined and productive environment for the able-bodied poor, at a time when rising urban poverty was putting pressure on existing systems of almsgiving and emergent local taxation. Its origins lay in manufacturing towns such as Norwich. The idea was slow to spread until the 18th cent., and an Act of 1723 enabled parishes to band together to support a shared workhouse out of their income from rates. Many of the resulting ventures soon became places of refuge for the aged and impotent poor and for unmarried mothers rather than supervised workplaces, and it was difficult to find work (apart from the maintenance of institution and inmates themselves) which would not compete with outside workers. Some attempts were made to make relief to the able-bodied conditional on entry into the workhouse, but outdoor relief in various forms continued. The workhouse really rose to prominence with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which required each of the new unions of parishes to provide a central workhouse which would classify the poor by age, sex, and circumstances and accommodate them under conditions which were ‘less eligible’ than the worst that prevailed outside. No relief was originally to be given outside these workhouses, which soon became known to potential inmates as ‘bastilles’ after the French Revolution symbol of repression. In practice, the system was generally less fearsome than intended. Outdoor relief continued to be provided in many places: it was cheaper and more flexible than the workhouse, in both agricultural areas of seasonal unemployment and manufacturing districts where the workhouse would have been swamped in every trade depression. In industrial areas such as south Lancashire new workhouses were not built for over thirty years in some unions, after angry demonstrations when the new system was being introduced in 1837. Many people incorporated the workhouse into personal survival strategies, using the casual ward system to sustain them in their wanderings in search of work or going inside as a refuge from inclement winter weather. But the great achievement of the 1834 Act was to attach such a stigma to poor relief, and create such a fear of the workhouse, that many proud people preferred starvation or prostitution to admission into the ‘bastille’. Such attitudes were fuelled by scandals such as that of the Andover workhouse where starving inmates ate the rotting bones they were grinding, and by the Anatomy Act of 1832 which provided that unclaimed pauper bodies from the workhouse could be given up for dissection. This deterred people from seeking medical relief, and although many workhouses developed hospital functions, the charitably funded infirmaries were preferred. Conditions in workhouse hospitals could still be appalling in the 1860s and 1870s, especially in the venereal and insane wards. Even when the workhouse premises passed into the National Health Service as hospitals after the Second World War, the stigma remained and many elderly people were terrified of entering them. The workhouse in English social history (it was not given such a prominent role in the different history of the Scottish Poor Law) has acted above all as symbol and reinforcement of the conversion of poor relief from a right to a source of shame, which was the main purpose and effect of the 1834 Act.

John K. Walton


views updated May 14 2018

workhouse. House for the provision of work for the unemployed poor of a parish, later an institution administered by the Poor Law Guardians, in which paupers were lodged, fed, and those who were able set to work. Workhouses sometimes doubled as Houses of Correction, and although the need had long been recognized for places to house, feed, care for, and work the destitute, a distinction was always made between deserving and thriftless poor. By the early years of C19 it became clear that parishes should unite for better workhouse management, and larger buildings known as the Union Workhouses were erected from 1834 under the Poor Laws. The first Union Workhouse was built in Abingdon, Berks., in 1836 to designs by Sampson Kempthorne (1809–73), Architect to the Poor Law Commissioners, who, assisted by ‘Great’ Scott, produced several designs for workhouses and schools that were widely copied in the 1840s. In the harsh utilitarian climate of the 1830s the Union Workhouses were the only places where able-bodied men and their families could obtain relief in hard times, and, to deter them, the organization of the institutions was made utterly repugnant. Stylistically, too, many workhouses were in a grim, institutionalized stripped Tudor manner, or even a utilitarian hybrid, but the architecture itself was often as repellent as the regime. It is no accident that Union Workhouses were hated and feared, and that even their appearance could chill stout hearts. George Wilkinson (1814–90) won the competition to design the Workhouse at Thame, Oxon., in 1835, and went on to design others at Witney and Chipping Norton, also Oxon. In c.1840 he became Architect to the Poor Law Commissioners for Ireland, and designed numerous Workhouses in that country, many of them particularly grim (most of those that survived were adapted for use as hospitals after 1945).


Colvin (1995);
MPhil Thesis, QUB (2003), by M. Gould ;
W. Papworth (1892), GGJ, xiv (2004), 104–30


views updated Jun 08 2018

workhouse Former institution in England for the unemployed. Workhouses originated from the houses of correction provided for vagabonds by the Poor Law of 1601, but officially they date from 1696, when workhouses were established by the Bristol Corporation. A general Act permitting workhouses in all parishes was passed in 1723. The Act denied relief to those people who refused to enter a workhouse. Workhouses declined in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but were revived by the Poor Law of 1834. With the advent of welfare reforms, workhouses fell into disuse by the early 20th century.


views updated Jun 27 2018

work·house / ˈwərkˌhous/ • n. 1. hist. (in the UK) a public institution in which the destitute of a parish received board and lodging in return for work.2. a prison in which petty offenders are expected to work.