On this day in history : 8th August 1834 – The Poor Law Amendment Act is passed in Britain…. With the introduction of the Workhouse parishes are no longer responsible for the care of their poor….

Southwell Workhouse

Poverty relief was in the hands of individual parishes prior to 1834…. The belief was that the badly organised system encouraged the poor to be lazy and take advantage…. This unfortunate attitude came from the more privileged classes – in truth nearly everybody in the working classes found themselves in poverty at some time in their lives – whether through unemployment, sickness or old age…. There was no welfare system such as we know today….

The Victorian Workhouse was a place of misery…. No able bodied person could now get poor relief unless they entered the Workhouse…. Where they had to work in slave labour conditions for their food and accommodation…. Families were separated; men, women and children were split into separate accommodation and punishments were harsh if they were caught talking to each other…. Inmates were made to wear a uniform, so that everyone looked the same; the working hours were long and the inadequate food provided in starvation rations….

Men at Crumpsall Workhouse c.1897 – Image credit : Manchester Archives via Flickr

The Workhouse was self sufficient; usually with its own bakery, laundry, vegetable gardens and dairy…. It had workrooms for making clothes and shoes, communal dining rooms, a sick ward, nursery, chapel and even a mortuary…. As well as providing accommodation, what passed as food, clothes, medical care and a place of work, it also provided education for the children and training for a future job…. However, many children found themselves being hired out – or even sold – to factories and mines….

A Basketful of Babies….at Crumpsall Workhouse – Image credit : Manchester Archives via Flickr

Each Workhouse was run by a master and matron, a chaplain, school teacher, medical officer and porter…. There was little compassion and cruelty often arose…. The neglect was more than apparent and beatings frequent…. The mortality rate was high; diseases such as tuberculosis and small pox were rife…. It was a harsh system and was intended to put the fear of God into people – to make them do their utmost to keep out of the prison like conditions….

Women at mealtime, St Pancras Workhouse, London – Public domain

The Workhouse was focused on profit rather than solving the issues of the poor…. Many of the inmates were unskilled and were used as a labour force for hard manual tasks, such as crushing bones for making fertiliser or picking oakum from old ropes…. Workhouses were overseen by ‘Guardians’ – usually ruthless local businessmen seeking a profit….

Over time the Workhouse evolved and became a refuge for the sick and the elderly…. Attitudes changed towards the end of the 19th century, people expressed anger at the cruelty within them…. By 1929 new legislation had been introduced allowing local authorities to take over the running of workhouses as hospitals…. In 1930 the workhouses officially closed, although it was several years before the system totally stopped as so many people needed help…. In 1948, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act, the last of the Poor Laws were eradicated….

People queuing at South Marylebone Workhouse circa 1900 – Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

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