Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Victorian Workhouse

‘If this girl had stolen her mistress's watch, I do not hesitate to say she would have been infinitely better off. We have come to this absurd, this dangerous, this monstrous pass, that the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper.’ Charles Dickens, A Walk In a Workhouse (1850)

The Victorian workhouse was undoubtedly a phenomenon that captured and defined a huge aspect of Victorian society, particularly the grim reality for the working class in Victorian England.

First established in 1834 after the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act, workhouses were set up to prevent workers from claiming poor relief and instead earn their keep. Inmates were classified under Edwin Chadwick’s commission and subsequently separated into several groups depending on one’s age, gender and competence. These included able-bodied men over 15 years, able-bodied women over 15 years, men infirm through age or illness, women infirm through age or illness, boys between 7 and 15, girls between 7 and 15 and Children under the age of 7and 15. Once these groups had been established, it was final and there was no further differentiation between each individual. This meant the old, physically ill and mentally unstable were all grouped together in certain divisions. Married couples were parted and children separated from their parents. The conditions were taxing both emotionally and physically.

 Oppression and discrimination towards the working class was a prevalent issue at the time, reflected in some of the most classic pieces of Victorian Literature, particularly the writings of Charles Dickens who rebuked many social and economic aspects of Victorian society. Arguably the most famous depiction of the Victorian workhouse is in Oliver Twist. In the extract below, Dickens highlights the limitations of food in the workhouse, the issue resulting in one of the most famous quotes in a Dickens novel, ‘Please sir, I want some more’.
Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist’. Dickens, Charles (1837-9) Oliver Twist (Chapter II)

As the picture (left) depicts, the buildings were generally bleak, morbid, prison like structures with high, domineering walls and windows which restricted the inmates view. There was no aesthetic enhancement and the décor materialised the general workhouse morale:  monotonous, uninspiring and often depressing.  However it is architecture like such which are now symbolic of the Victorian era. 
Upon arrival, inmates were searched, cleaned and given traditional workhouse clothing. Women’s-wear consisted of long, baggy dresses, knee length drawers, stockings and poke bonnet as seen in the above picture. Men wore striped shirts, trousers that where adjusted at the knee with string, woollen draws and socks, a neckerchief and a coarse jacket. Children were similarly dressed and all inmates had a pair of hob nailed boots.

The standard workhouse consisted of dormitories that were restricted in space. Majority of inmates shared a bed of which were arranged in barracks.  In an extract from George Orwell’s ‘The Spike’ (which was a colloquial term for a workhouse) he describes his experience of a dormitory
‘The cells measured eight feet by five, and, had no lighting apparatus except a tiny barred window high up in the wall, and a spyhole in the door. There were no bugs, and we had bedsteads and straw palliasses, rare luxuries both. In many spikes one sleeps on a wooden shelf, and in some on the bare floor, with a rolled-up coat for pillow. With a cell to myself, and a bed, I was hoping for a sound night’s rest. But I did not get it, for there is always something wrong in the spike, and the peculiar shortcoming here, as I discovered immediately, was the cold’. Orwell, George (1931) The Spike.


The walls were 'decorated' so as to speak with rules and ironic bible passages and quotes such as ‘Blessed are the Poor’.  Luxuries that included newspapers, books and games were not permitted. There were also workrooms, washrooms, a bake-house, dining halls, a mortuary, a chapel and a refractory ward which was for solitary confinement. There was no consideration for the infirm situated on upper floors, which often meant they were captive as they were unable to use the stairs.  

Oakum picking (left) was a standard job in the workhouse amongst women along with other domesticated roles such as scrubbing and polishing. Men were assigned to physical tasks such as driving the corn mill which involved walking on a Treadwheel construction.

Because workhouses were densely populated, diseases tended to spread much faster. The hospital ward dealt with various epidemics ranging from measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, typhoid fever an dysentery.

Although general connotations of the workhouse represent the unforgiving hardship working class citizens at the time had to endure, its history is an enlightening one of architecture, economics, social and politics collectively.

Works Cited:

Dickens C. (2007). Chapter II. In: Oliver Twist. London: Penguin Popular Classics.

Orwell, G. (1931). The Spike.


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