‘That miserable hole’? The Workhouse

Chapter One: The Workhouse

Early one morning in 1840s Staffordshire a family left their food-less home and walked a roundabout way, so as to avoid being seen, to Chell Workhouse in Stoke-on-Trent. Arriving at the ‘bastile’ they were assaulted by the sounds of doors banging, keys rattling, and the ‘metallic’ voices of workhouse staff who appeared to be ‘worked from within by hidden machinery’. Mother and father were separated from their children and each other, and the children were divvied up according to gender and age, only to be reunited with their mother for an hour on Sundays.

The word ‘workhouse’ still resonates with negative and uncomfortable meanings of a callous pre-welfare state past. Not many former workhouse inmates are still alive, their descendants (and their descendants) remember and disseminate the stories of revulsion. The hundred or so years of the operation of the ‘new’ poor laws was, and still largely is, embedded in popular imaginings as the system that spawned the workhouse. Contemporary critics and inmates likened the workhouse to a ‘Bastile’, a site devoid of pity and hope which generated an ‘unparalleled dread’. Defined as ‘poor-law prisons’ akin to ‘Dante’s Hell’ , workhouses were emblems of grinding human manufactories loaded with gothic horror and homogeneity.

In 1837, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner James Phillips Kay argued that pauper children maintained in workhouses were dependent ‘not as a consequence of their errors, but of their misfortunes’, subsequently children were one of the few groups of paupers to warrant widespread pity for their condition. Although, because of their association with pauper adults, it was felt that these children were not only ‘inefficiently trained’ but were ‘actually nurtured in vice’, and many of them would inevitably grow up to be ‘thieves or prostitutes or paupers’.

As such, the workhouse was rarely imagined as a locus of normality for pauper children and multiple alternative strategies were mooted by the central authorities. Many options were put forward to remove them from workhouses and for those who remained, to counteract the perceived miasma of vice and idleness infiltrating the institutions. This was to be achieved via judiciously targeted education, discipline and training to negate the perceived moral contagion and hereditary pauperism within the workhouse. However, the rules laid down which were intended to avoid impulsive beatings of children and to protect them from contact with adults whom the authorities considered bad influences were perceived very differently by the children themselves.



Classification was central to the premise of the workhouse system. This meant separation of families because of what the central authorities perceived as the moral dangers endemic in unsegregated accommodation, where children were forced to live with ‘the very refuse of the population’. Allusions to the amoral behaviour of animals accompanied rhetoric concerning the chaotic living conditions of the poor, described by a London Medical Officer as ‘swarms by whom delicacy and decency in their social relations are quite unconceived’.

Although, as James Kay argued, separation of child and adult paupers was essential, ‘no objection’ was made to parents seeing their children during the day and at meals. As Hopkins argues, families were no more broken up by the ‘new’ poor law than the ‘old’, given that the average stay in the workhouse was less than three months for the majority of children. Some families also separated themselves. One mother ‘willingly assented to the separation for the benefit of her children learning they received’ in the workhouse. Nora Adnam’s father left them, with the collusion of her mother, when he was unable to work after injuring his arm and wrist so mother and children would be accepted in the workhouse.


In his 1836 report to the Poor Law Commission, Edward Tufnell had felt that the improvements in the care of pauper children following the 1834 act was one of the ‘most pleasing and popular’ results of the new legislation. In his opinion, workhouse children now enjoyed ‘advantages of instruction’ that were unlikely to be provided by ‘improvident parents’. Although many workhouse children, especially in the decades prior to the 1870s, probably received a better education than many children living at home in poor families, this can be also be attributed to some parents finding even ‘the school pence’ beyond their means, rather than a lack of care and prudence, although there is evidence of outdoor pauper families paying for their children to attend schools.


In Cardiff Workhouse, an enquiry into infant mortality in 1854 showed that out of 114 babies born in the workhouse in the three years prior to June 1854, 39 had died before their second birthday, however, the medical officer blamed these high figures on a measles epidemic. One guardian, Matthew Moggridge, was particularly anxious about the children’s health and remarked that a workhouse boy could always be picked out of a crowd because of his ‘sickly appearance’, which was at odds with the ‘erect and manly gait’ which had been expected by the Poor Law Commission in 1841. However, contemporary commentators frequently bemoaned what Florence Hill termed ‘the inevitable consequences of ordinary workhouse life’. For Hill, this equated to a ‘dulness [sic] of apprehension, ill-temper, a want of self-respect, and negligence as regards the care of property’.


Florence Hill was convinced that the inevitable association between girls and mothers of illegitimate children in workhouses was ‘polluting’ and she cited the similar views of many others, including Edward Tufnell, Edward Senior and Jelinger Symons, as corroboration. Symons had argued that even when the children were in separate rooms from the other workhouse inmates, they could hear continually the ‘obscene conversation of the depraved portion of the adults’. Although it is of course appropriate that guardians should want to protect young people from the perceived dangers of moral contagion, were they manipulated by what Driver calls the ‘discourse of moral regulation’ and, were young girls so influenced by their association with the alleged ‘vicious’ characteristics of some inmates that complete separation was imperative?


One of the more enduring images in Oliver Twist, which was probably confirmed and disseminated more widely by the 1968 film Oliver!, is the apparent near-starvation suffered by workhouse children. Dickens wrote that ‘boys have generally excellent appetites’ which the workhouse failed to satisfy with ‘three meals of thin gruel a-day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays. This potent imagery appears to have coloured some historians’ view of workhouse diets. Crompton’s assertion that an already ‘inadequate’ diet was aggravated by ‘institutionalised starving’ as punishment, is one example. In her extensive analysis of 3,000 workhouse and prison diets, Johnston argues however that ‘starvation had no role in the policies of either institution’. It is very likely that workhouse children were better fed than their contemporaries living at home with poor parents. Of course, it could be argued that the diet was still ‘inadequate’ by today’s benchmarks, but similar anachronistic comparisons could be made concerning most social conditions of the nineteenth century and is not helpful to our understanding of the period.


There is very little to be said in support of the workhouse system. For children especially it could mean exacerbation of an already traumatic childhood. However, many children succeeded in throwing off their early tragedy, and who is to say what worse fate may have these children encountered without poor law protection?

Select References:

Charles Shaw, When I was a Child (London: Caliban, 1980, first published 1908).

George Robert Wythen Baxter, The Book of the Bastiles or the History of the working of the New Poor Law (London: J Stephens, 1841).

Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (London: Henry Frowde, 1909, first published 1843).

Poor Law Commission, Fourth Annual Report, 1837-38, paper no. 147.

Reports to Poor Law Board on Education of Pauper Children by Poor Law Inspectors, 1862, c. no. 510.

Felix Driver, ‘Moral Geographies: Social Science and the Urban Environment in Mid-Nineteenth Century England’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 13, no.3 (1988), 275-287.

Select Committee on Poor Law Amendment Act: Fourteenth Report, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix, 1837-38, paper no. 202.

Hopkins, Childhood Transformed, 176. The prevalence of what was called ‘ins and outs’ will be discussed in more depth in Chapter Two.

Morning Chronicle, 23 January 1837.

Edward Tufnell, Poor Law Commission, Second Annual Report, 1836, 201.

Anne Digby and Peter Searby, Children, School and Society in Nineteenth-Century England (London: The Macmillan Press, 1981); David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1981).

Reports to Poor Law Board on Education of Pauper Children by Poor Law Inspectors, 1862, c. 510, this evidence will be analysed in more depth in Chapter Three.

Marian Williams ‘Some aspects of the history of poor law provision in Cardiff during the nineteenth century (Cardiff: unpublished M.Phil thesis, 2003).

Valerie Johnston, Diet in Workhouses and Prisons, 1835-1895 (New York: Garland, 1985).

Crompton cites software ‘Super Diet’ written by the University of Surrey, which was used to determine that the workhouse diets revealed up to a 56 per cent deficiency in energy content, 50 per cent shortfall in vitamin C, hardly any vitamin D and a ‘serious’ deficiency in calcium. The diets were compared with ‘what would be regarded today as a balanced diet’, Crompton, Workhouse Children, 67, notes 200 and 201, 244.


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