Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Truth Behind Twist - The Victorian Workhouse

“Please Sir, I want some more”

Perhaps one of the most famous quotes known to English Literature, delivered by a helpless 9 year old orphan living in a workhouse and for a moment, we all anxiously wondered if this would be the death of him. 

Oliver Twist - BBC Production, 2007

It is safe to say that Victorian England certainly did not have the privilege of the welfare system that we take for granted in modern society. Today it is possible to claim benefits for being unemployed, disabled or mentally ill and still live in the comforts of your own home enjoying the same freedoms as those earning their keep. In the 1800’s, those unable to support themselves independently were forced to sacrifice their freedom and surrender themselves to the horror of workhouse life that thankfully is only relived today in the pages of literature. But what is the truth behind Dickens’ writing?

The Old Poor Laws
Prior to 1834, poor relief was administered in parishes and was monitored by local Justices of Peace.  Each parish was responsible for its own poor and this was funded by taxing local property owners, an olden day version of council tax. Poor relief was administered in two forms: out-relief where grants of money, clothing and fuel were provided to those living in their own residence and in-relief, where parishes provided lodging for those who did not have their own means, in exchange for unpaid labour.  

The New Poor Laws 
As it were, poor relief was thought to encourage laziness, where the poor could live reasonably comfortably at the expense of others. In Oliver Twist, Dickens narrates that the board members, referring to the commissioners of the Poor Law, believed… 

“the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea and supper all the year round… all play and no work… [but] we are the fellows to set this to rights.”

1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Document
Following a decision that the current system was incompetent, the commissioners attempted to centralise the administration of relief.  By providing a set of strict rules and regulations, conditions for claimants were made deliberately harsh in order to deter idleness. The first record of the term “workhouse” dates back to the 1652 but it is not until the passing of the Poor Amendment Law of 1834 that the term becomes what it is renowned for today. Entry into a workhouse was voluntary, though undoubtedly a decision that no one wanted to be in the position to have to make: it was a declaration that you could no longer support yourself and there was no one willing to support you either. Admittance came hand in hand with a change in legal status, a loss of your right to vote and a dreadful feeling of failure. 

Life in the workhouse was cramped, monotonous and lacked any sense of privacy. Inmates were classified into seven categories and there was strict segregation between each of these groups.Categories were as follows: 
  1. Aged or infirm men.
  2. Able bodied men (including boys above 13 years).
  3. Boys between the ages of 7 and 13.
  4. Aged or infirm women.
  5. Able bodied women (including girls above 16).
  6. Girls between the ages of 7 and 16.
  7. Children under the age of 7. 
This simplistic division meant the enclosure of the fit and healthy alongside the elderly, ill and unstable, and forced the separation of mother and children, husband and wife. The arrangement of the workhouses meant classes would never come into contact with one another and any attempt to challenge this would have led to punishment. 

Able Bodied Female inmates - 1920's

A day in the life 
So picture this…  

Having been placed into your category and separated from your loved ones, your clothes and belongings are confiscated and put into storage awaiting your departure, should you live to see the day. You are forced to wear a bland and shapeless uniform, stripping you of your individuality and branding you under ownership of your workhouse where you are defined merely by your age and gender. Now, the only things you possess are this uniform and your dormitory bed, ironically neither of which really belong to you. 

It’s 6am and the bell rings for rising. You haul yourself out of your hard, wooden bed barely wide enough to contain you, your back aching from a combination of these conditions and the laborious days that have preceded this morning. Despite the cry of your belly in hunger, breakfast is not much to look forward to – would it be bread or gruel today? 

At 7am sharp it is time to get to work. For women it is domestic duties: cleaning, laundry or sewing. For men it is manual labour – oakum picking, stone-breaking or bone-crushing. It is 5 long hours before a break is rewarded and once again the meal was merely a desperate attempt to sustain your energy. At dinner, meat was provided on special “meat days” but contrary to this it was once again bread or broth. 

Another 5 hours of labour were ahead until you could call it a day and at the end of it, when the 6pm bell rang for supper, there was little more than bread and cheese to look forward to. Following this, an hour’s recreation time was allowed before bed at 8pm but with little to do in the restrictions of the workhouse and the exhaustion of the day’s work looming, it is unlikely that this was a particularly relaxing period. 

You’re forced to share the toilet facilities with up to 100 other inmates and ‘facilities’ simply means a covered cess pit with a hole to sit upon and once a week you are granted the privilege to a supervised bath... I guess we will all think twice before complaining about getting out of bed next Monday morning!

Men's Dining Hall
Dickens and the workhouse 
It’s hardly a secret that Dickens was a social-reformist and opposed many decisions made by Parliament, particularly in regards to the treatment of the poor. Dickens never shied from vocalising his opinion through his writing and his view of the workhouse was no exception to this, with the story of Oliver Twist encapsulating the hardships we remember this area of the Victorian era for. 

In chapter two, Dickens describes the cruel realities that accompanied the amendment to the Poor Laws saying “they established a rule, that all the poor people should have the alternative of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it… The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel… The system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms.”

But where does Dickens imagery of the workhouse derive from?  In 2010, Dr Ruth Richardson discovered that Dickens in fact lived just nine doors away from one of London’s major workhouses for several years of his life, formerly known as Norfolk Street. As Richardson notes, the setting of Oliver Twist “pivots on the position of a pawnbroker's shop, visible from the women's ward of a workhouse. There was indeed exactly such a pawnbroker's in Norfolk Street.” This fascinating discovery, hidden from public knowledge for centuries, illustrates the influences behind much of Dickens description – from Mr Bumble toddling along to the villainous character of William Sykes.

'Oliver Twist' Workhouse - Cleveland Street (formerly known Norfolk Street), London [July 2012]
Today, many old workhouses have been reformed into hospitals, hotels and even homes! Why not take a look and see how close you’ve come to a chilling Victorian workhouse without even realising. 

Work Cited:

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin Classics, 2007. Chapter II. Print.

Richardson, Ruth. "Charles Dickens's Mysterious Childhood." Huffington Post. N.p., 02 August 2014. Web. 08 December 2014. 

"Oliver Twist". Digital image. http://www.theguardian.com. N.p., 19 Dec. 2007. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

"1834 Amendment Act". Digital image. http://www.workhouses.org.uk. Peter Higgbotham, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. 

"Able Bodied Female Inmates". Digital image. http://www.workhouses.org.uk. Peter Higgbotham, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014. 

"Men's Dining Hall". Digital image. http://www.workhouses.org.uk. Peter Higgbotham, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

"Oliver Twist Workhouse". Digital image. https://www.google.co.uk/maps. N.p., July 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.


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