VI: Right or Wrong – The Victorian Workhouse

In today’s post, I’ll be discussing the Victorian workhouse and how it affected society. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1832 introduced a ‘new’ Poor Law – which ceased relief to the able-bodied poor and allocated funds for the construction of workhouses across the country. As you can imagine, there were pros and cons to this legislation. Have a read, and let me know where you stand on this debate!

Large Oakum-Room (Under The Silent System) At The Middlesex House Of Correction, Coldbath Fields. This depicts paupers picking rope apart to make oakum, an example of the labour involved when entering a workhouse

First, we will be discussing what the PLAA and workhouses did ‘right’ (I am using this term loosely). To start off with the most basic aspect, the workhouse provided paupers with food and shelter to the poorest in society. The food that was served was basic, and accommodation uncomfortable, but it was better than nothing. Another action taken was the introduction of less eligibility. This principle was based on Bentham’s utilitarian thinking, which follows the idea that people will always choose the option which makes them happiest. This principle meant workhouses had to have poorer conditions than the outside environment – in other words, the institution was a deterrent and was meant to only be used as a last resort. This encouraged those with low funds that could work to seek employment or rely on family/friendship networks for aid. By doing so, this cut some of the costs of running the workhouses. The Poor Law Amendment Act also reflected an increasing desire of the central state to have more control, as relief had previously sat with local government. It also showed the government’s wish to aid economic and social issues which it had not done previously.

Croydon Workhouse from the South, 1866. 
It looks an awful lot like a prison, don’t you think?

Now, onto the negatives of the Victorian workhouse. Because they followed the principle of less eligibility and were designed to deter, many paupers had to endure hard labour, were served low-quality food and live in squalid conditions – because of these factors illness and disease spread rapidly. Qualities such as these led to the Andover Workhouse Scandal in 1846, when it was discovered the master was cutting off food resources for his own gain. Due to starvation, workers resorted to eating the marrow from putrid bones which were intended as fertiliser! The construction and running of these workhouses was also a huge expense for the central government. The previously used method of outdoor relief was much cheaper for authorities as there was no institution to run, and no masters to pay. Also, this legislation was not useful in the north of England due to ‘cyclical unemployment’ – many without jobs knew they would be back in work so were hesitant to enter a workhouse. There was also an extremely high level of discipline going on inside, as masters and matrons sought to ‘correct’ those who needed aid. For example, diets were restricted for up to 48 hours if one used foul language. Young girls were also given the same punishment as adults.

Shall not duly cleanse his person; Or shall refuse or neglect to work; Or shall pretend sickness; Or shall play at cards or other game of chance

Examples of regulations in the Instructional Letter Accompanying The Consolidated General Order, 26 July 1847

Let me know what you think of the Victorian workhouse and why! Personally, I think of it as a key moment in British history and shows the central government’s willingness to take further control. However, the Poor Law Amendment Act and the workhouses it created definitely had their faults, causing suffering and scandal for many.

Bye for now,

Lucinda

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