Britain’s history of poor relief over the last four centuries, while not ideal nor always humane, nevertheless probably saved many from abject poverty and starvation. Few workhouses remain accessible to the public - most were converted to other uses. However, across the UK are a handful which are open to the public who can learn about their bleak past.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF WORKHOUSES IN THE UK
Tudor governments wrestled with problems of a growing population and an increase in hardship and vagabondage. The Elizabethan Poor Laws recognised unemployment as a genuine problem and sought to give help, particularly to the deserving poor, in the form of handouts described as “outdoor relief”.
In the early 18th century workhouses were built to provide “indoor relief” in the form of residential support – but such places had deliberately harsh conditions to deter any idlers from applying.
Poverty continued to be a major concern, particularly after unemployment and poor harvests following the Napoleonic Wars, so in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act grouped parishes into Unions to provide workhouses, paid for by ratepayers and administered by a Board of Guardians. Outdoor relief was ended so there was no choice for the impoverished other than the workhouse.
Bleak conditions were intentional in an attempt to encourage people to find employment rather than rely on charity. Men and women were separated into different communal wards. The able-bodied had to work for their keep, the women on domestic tasks, the men on physical labour. Orphaned and abandoned children joined the children of adult inmates.
Uniforms were generally compulsory and added to the stigma of being in the workhouse. Food was monotonous and there was very little medical care until the 1880s.
Workhouses were formally ended in 1930 but did not disappear totally until the 1948 National Assistance Act provided support for all those not covered by the new National Insurance schemes.
Today many workhouse buildings remain intact, but have been converted to other uses such as the workhouse in Andover in Hampshire, which is now residential. No 48 Doughty St. in London now houses the Charles Dickens Museum. However, a few have been adapted to show visitors something of the history and conditions of these institutions, once such a familiar part of British towns and cities.
Workhouse Museum, Ripon, Yorkshire
Photograph © Rippon Museums
There has been a workhouse on this site since 1776, the current building being completed in 1855.
In 1832 it had 33 inmates with the able bodied men set to the task of breaking stones. There is much to see on a visit here – the Receiving Ward, Guardians’ Room, Bathing Area, Vagrants’ Cells, kitchen and dining area as well as the Master’s accommodation and a recreation of the original kitchen garden where the women grew the vegetables.
Exhibitions reveal what life was like and include this sad rhyme;
Hush-a-bye baby, on a tree top. When you grow old your wages will stop. When you have spent the little you made, first to the poorhouse and then to the grave.
Over time the institution acquired its own teacher, chaplain and infirmary and even had its own van to transport lunatics to asylums if they became violent. Ripon also has a Prison and Police Museum and a Courthouse Museum to complement a visit to the Workhouse Museum.
The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire
Photograph © DeFacto
Built in 1824, the workhouse here is exceptionally well preserved and is now in the ownership of the National Trust.
The Rev John Becher and George Nicholls developed a system which was copied by other institutions across the country. They believed that the workhouse should be seen as a last resort - a place of work with restricted and regulated conditions meant to deter potential applicants.
However, it should also provide moral improvement, and children and the old and infirm should be cared for. Southwell had up to 158 inmates at any one time. The museum recreates some of the way of life for inmates and also looks at the establishment of the Firbeck Infirmary built in 1871 to serve the sick and infirm.
Southwell Website >>
Gressenhall Farm, Norfolk
Photograph © Gressenhall Farm
One of the best preserved workhouse buildings in the country, much of it dating from 1777, Gressenhall houses a large collection of workhouse objects, images and archives in the UK.
The museum has concentrated on producing a Voices from the Workhouse project to bring alive to modern generations the conditions for these inmates of the past, including their work, food and living areas. There is also a punishment cell for those unfortunate enough to cross the authorities.
Male inmates here had to do the monotonous task of oakum picking – picking out fibres from old ropes and cable to mix with tar or grease and use as caulking on ships. This did not end until 1925.
Red House Museum, Christchurch, Dorset
The building dates from 1764 and was the parish workhouse for Christchurch and Bournemouth until 1886.
The interior has been altered but the kitchen fireplace dates back to the days of the workhouse. Many of the women and children here were employed to make fusee watch chains which was a traditional trade of the town, and there are exhibits and photographs to illustrate these times.
The galleries also show the social and industrial life of Victorian and Edwardian Christchurch as well as looking at more recent history.
The Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse, Northwich, Cheshire
Photograph © West Cheshire Museums
The museum is housed in the Victorian workhouse which was opened in 1839 following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
65 local parishes and townships of mid Cheshire combined to form a single Union and the building was designed following the standard model, with wards for men and women. In 1850 a fever hospital was added, and in 1863 baths were included.
The museum has a short introductory film about its days as a workhouse, an old schoolroom where the children were taught and there are photos and stories about some of the inmates. Other displays record the salt industry of the area and other aspects of Cheshire’s social, cultural and industrial history.
Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow, London
Photograph © Vestry House Museum
Vestry House was the parish workhouse from 1730 to 1841. A gallery of this museum is dedicated to the lives of the poor and destitute who came here when there was nowhere else to go.
The garden has been recreated as the 18th century workhouse garden, including useful plants like herbs and dyes as well as vegetables. The museum has a police cell and looks at other aspects of life in the Walthamstow Forest through the ages.
Vestry House Museum website >>
Llanfyllin Workhouse, Powys, Wales
Photograph © Llanfyllin Workhouse
The Llanfyllin Workhouse opened in 1840, remained as an old people’s home and did not finally close until the 1980s.
Since 2004 its history has been thoroughly researched and it now has a dramatised documentary film as an introduction to various displays. There is a detailed look at life in the workhouse including diet and schooling. Children can try picking oakum and dress in a workhouse uniform. There are oral histories from local people who remember the workhouse in its final years.
The Spike Heritage Centre, Guildford, Surrey
Photograph © The Spike
In 1837 work began to erect a workhouse for the newly created Guildford Union. By 1895 it was seriously overcrowded so work began on a new “casual” ward for the vagrant poor.
The vagrants were considered to be undesirable so were kept away from the main workhouse and made to do hard labour in return for a night’s board and lodging. The ward became known as the Spike, a reference to the tool used by the casuals to pick oakum.
A Tramp Master and Mistress were in charge of the ward, checking people for alcohol, sending their clothes to be disinfected and locking them in separate cells for the night. The original cells remain, three of which have grilles across the windows – vagrants had to push broken rocks through the grille to ensure they were of a small enough size.