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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

The Dickensian Workhouse

Ask the man or woman in the street what they know of Dickens or life in Victorian Britain, and many will answer 'The Workhouse'.

This Victorian institution haunts us still with grim images of poverty and ill treatment. Yet it wasn't intended as such. The intention behind the New Poor Law Act of 1834 (three years, incidentally, before Queen Victoria came to the throne) was to make improvements on the existing, and failing, parish system. Introduced in William IV's reign workhouses scandalously continued in use well into the 20th century, with some changes; finally ending with The National Health Service Act of 1946, implemented two years later.

In 1834, when established, many bemoaned them from the start. The old parish system was very local and people did not like the idea of being forcibly moved to a Union Workhouse (union as they covered a number of parishes). This was a particularly poignant problem in rural areas. In Mid and West Wales in 1843, the Rebecca Rioters (so called because the men dressed as women to disguise themselves and because in the Book of Genesis they read, 'And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them'} attacked the Carmarthen Workhouse.

Yet when the workhouses finally closed some regretted their passing. At Abingdon, Oxon, for example, the Guardians expressed the hope, 'that all those who have found a refuge from want and trouble will feel the passing of the institution'. Indeed, despite their bad press in the nineteenth century, many were run with scrupulousness as the local elected Board of Guardians (including women from the 1880s) took their responsibilities seriously.

The horror and humiliation of being committed to the workhouse lingered long afterwards. Many were turned into hospitals, including one near where I was brought up in Bristol. When my grandmother was admitted to that hospital during her last illness, my grandfather refused to visit her, having got it into his head that my father, his son, had committed his mother to the workhouse. He was not alone of his generation to feel such fear and horror.

The problem with them which led to their evil reputation was the exploitation of the inmates,

mainly elderly, sick, and infirm people, by 'The Master' of the workhouse, away from the eyes of the Guardians. Stories of hunger and general ill treatment are rife. Andover, Hants, was one of the worst early cases. A contemporary report from 1845 reads, 'I have seen the men gnaw the bones, they broke the pig chap bones to pick the fat and gristle out..... The men were very glad to get hold of them, they were so hungry'. The fault as an enquiry showed was that the master was a violent drunk, whose wife, serving as the matron, had threatened to take her own life. He was also found guilty of seducing female inmates, and on one occasion of making a mother carry the coffin of her dead child, on her own, over a mile to a cemetery for burial. The Guardians were found not to have visited regularly to check that things were well ordered.

Stories like these appealed to the lurid imaginations of Victorians and fed into the justifiable horror of the institutions. Even when operated correctly they were harsh places, with children particularly vulnerable. One such child was the young Charlie Chaplin, who was committed by his mother on two separate occasions before his ninth birthday. His parents had separated and his mother has serious mental health issues, and was finally committed to a mental asylum.

Ever since the establishment of Protestantism in England under Elizabeth I attitudes towards those needing assistance and help became a political/religious issue. In medieval Catholic England the Church taught that communities should look after these unfortunate people. Once Protestantism arrived the attitude shifted to one of they could work if they only tried (hence WORKhouses); Reminiscent of Norman Tebbitt's famous phrase 'on your bike'. A distinction began to be made between 'the deserving poor' and the 'undeserving'. This outlook has underlain all the state's actions since the Elizabethan Poor Law was first introduced in 1597. The current political arguments over welfare reform are but the latest over this 400 year period. I am always struck by the fact that the latest round of debate focusses in on Ian Duncan Smith's reforms, and he is a Catholic. There is some irony in that.

The work varied from chopping up wood to make firewood for local sale to picking oakum, that is unravelling pieces of knotted rope to untangle the strands. By the end of the nineteenth century there were attempts to provide 'proper' work such as shoe making.

For all of you reading this, but especially for all my Jewish friends, I should mention The Jewish Board of Guardians (later The Jewish Welfare Board), which operated outside this state system from 1859. It began in London and spread to other large city areas, such as Manchester and Leeds. The funding came not from the Government but from the Jewish community itself. They gave both handouts and loans to those seeking help with their businesses (again an emphasis on work) as well as funding apprenticeships. Strange to us today they also funded emigration. They established no institutions like the state Workhouses, and the system more closely resembled the parish system of pre 1834 at its best.

Thank goodness we no longer have the fear of the workhouse hanging over us, yet the question of how to support those in need remains.

Some Further Reading

Workhouse by Simon Fowler

Life in a Victorian Workhouse in the short Pitkin Guide Series

The Workhouse Encyclopaedia by Peter Higginbotham

PS the Welsh novel dealing with The Rebecca Riots (referred to above) :-

Hosts of Rebecca by Alexander Cordell

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