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.