Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Life in the Victorian Workhouse [Part Two]


Oliver Twist
The Poor Laws of 1834 made the workhouses even nastier places to be than they already were, the idea being for work to be worse inside for the paupers than it was outside. They were given punishing jobs, such as stone breaking, where big rocks were hit with great force to produce small pieces which were then passed through a sieve and used to build roads. Oakum picking was another job for paupers. Rope was broken up into strands, then yarn and eventually fibres of hemp. These were transported back to ship yards and used to place in planking where it was rotting away. Jobs for paupers removed their dignity and certain jobs such as, oakum picking, made their fingers bleed.

Some people committed suicide rather than face the prospect of going into the workhouse and that wasn’t unusual. I read of a case where a husband and wife both took cyanide rather than live that sort of life.

A letter from a lead miner aged 69, said he’d rather die than go into the workhouse. Often people were an accident away from going in there. For example, if the head of the house suddenly died underground or got injured, often the whole family would end up interned and divided once inside.
Workhouses were designed to be unwelcoming and often looked like prisons. They made inmates feel insignificant.

A poster from 1837 showed a variety of fears people had about entering the workhouse, some fears were imagined by people but others turned out to be true. Fears included:

  • ·         Being hung from the rafters
  • ·         Being chained and beaten
  • ·         Pauper bodies being taken for dissection by surgeons
  • ·         Expected to work
  • ·         Punishments meted out to inmates for particular behaviours
  • ·         Diet reduced
  • ·         Held in dark cells for anything from 4 to 12 hours

In the case of pauper bodies being taken for dissection by surgeons, that was true if bodies were unclaimed by families and about working too, as described earlier. Possibly some of the other things could happen too, though being hung from the rafters and chained and beaten should not have, but of course, who knows? It might have occurred.

Fears people felt about entering the workhouse:
  • ·          Shame
  • ·         Separation from family
  • ·         Worries about food and clothing
  • ·         Non provision of relief
  • ·         Harsh treatment from officers
  • ·         Intimidation by other paupers
  • ·         Not being able to get out
  • ·         Lack of medical care
  • ·         Lack of independence
  • ·         Refusal of relief

A letter was sent in 1866 from W. B. Brown, Bethnal Green: Where he claims the Master beat a 15 year old so cruelly she could hardly walk afterwards, but after an inquiry was held by the Board of Guardians it was said that his accusation bore no substance.

Sometimes inmates were given charge of the sick ward and weren’t paid for it, so they robbed the other inmates. That was written by a man called John Compre, who was an inmate at a workhouse between 1858-61. He asked that his name not be given to the authorities in case it caused any trouble for him in the future. He obviously feared punishment for speaking out against conditions at that particular workhouse.

A silk weaver questioned if he’d be able to go back out if he entered the workhouse. The only way he could get relief would be to sell his tools, but of course, if he did that and was allowed back out, then he’d have no tools to work with. He asked that the Poor Law Board write to the Board of Guardians to not keep him a pauper. This man obviously wanted to work, but his circumstances went against him. He was interned at the workhouse between 1847 and 1850.
The Guardians did look to make conditions easier sometimes for people.

By 1948, most workhouses were handed over to the National Health Service where they were turned into local and regional hospitals. There might even be one in your home town. Even today, many years after the first Poor Law Workhouse, there is still a stigma attached to certain hospitals that were once the home of the workhouse itself. Many people tell tales of ancestors interned in one, when they trace their family tree. It’s almost as if we are still living in the shadow of the workhouse today…

Monday, September 19, 2016

Life in the Victorian Workhouse [Part One]



The Workhouse was built for the poor and needy, and intended to be so harsh and hostile that only the truly destitute would seek refuge there. It was hoped it would solve the problem of poverty as many rich people believed people were poor because they avoided work, but for many, this simply wasn’t the case. For example, a family could be surviving very well until the head of the house died suddenly possibly in a work-related instance such as a pit accident, some other injury or illness. The mother and children might well end up in the workhouse as there were too many mouths to feed and they couldn’t survive off the parish. Once there, the whole family would be kept apart from one another, sorted into the following categories.
  • Men infirm through age or illness
  • Women infirm through age or illness
  • Able-bodied men over 15 years
  • Able-bodied women over 15 years
  • Boys between 7 and 15
  • Girls between 7 and 15
  • Children under the age of 7
The idea behind this was so that people didn’t breed, even the elderly were segregated. Each section had its own exercise yard and there were separate boys and girls schools.
The buildings themselves were stark, foreboding places, undecorated and very much like prisons. High walls encompassed the workhouse cutting inmates off from the outside world.

Workhouses contained dormitories, washrooms, workrooms, a 'refractory ward' which was for solitary confinement, a mortuary, bake-house, receiving wards, dining halls and a chapel. Any sick or old person housed on the upper floors would be become a prisoner in the ward because he or she might not be able to manage the stairs.

Space was to a premium. Too many people were crammed into the smallest space possible: for example, eight beds could be put into a narrow dormitory only sixteen feet long; thirty-two men were put into a dormitory 20 feet long; ten children and their attendants were put into a room 10 feet by 15 feet.

The hospital ward took in all cases, so at any one time there may have been patients suffering from any variety of complaints ranging from dysentery to diphtheria, and let us not forget there were several outbreaks of cholera up and down the land during the Victorian era. But sometimes people were better off in the workhouse if they were ill than if they were outside of it as they may not be able to afford good medical care otherwise.

Furniture was basic: cheap wooden beds, flock-filled palliasses as mattresses, only two or three blankets would be provided and pillows considered a luxury, sheets were not provided. Most inmates shared beds. There were no comfy chairs just wooden benches, tables and stools. Seats were not upholstered. Walls were bare apart from lists of rules and regulations and various Bible passages were displayed.

The day began early at 5.00 am with the tolling of the bell. Prayers and breakfast were between 6.00 am and 7.00 am. The inmates were expected to work between 7.00 am and 6.00 pm but they were allowed an hour’s break for lunch between midday and 1.00 pm.  Prayers were said between 6 and 7.00 pm. Supper took place between 7 and 8.00 pm and then they were expected to go to bed and sleep, when the whole rota began again with the toll of the bell at 5.00 am the following morning.

The sort of work the men were expected to undertake was: bone crushing , stone breaking, oakum picking [which was untying threads from ropes used on ships etc’,] and sometimes working in the corn mill or on vegetable plots at the workhouse.

For women, it often involved domestic duties such as working in the laundry, scrubbing floors, blacking leading fire grates, etc.

On admission, the inmates own clothing was removed and sanitised. They were searched and washed and made to wear a uniform and their hair cropped to prevent infestation of head lice. Women wore a shapeless dress which reached ankle length, long stockings and knee length drawers and a poke bonnet. Men wore striped shirts and ill-fitting trousers that were made shorter by tying pieces of string at the knee, thick vest, woollen drawers and socks and a neckerchief  and, in wintertime, a coarse jacket.

Meals lacked nutrition for the inmates and often the Board of Guardians got to dine like kings and queens whilst the inmates made do with a thin watery gruel for breakfast, and at other times a thin vegetable soup and piece of bread. Sometimes they had meat but it was very sparse.

Children were sometimes educated inside the workhouse where there was a boys’ school and a girls’ school, so in that respect, workhouse children might be better educated than those who received no education at all in the community. When children got older they learned new skills and became apprenticed to learn crafts such as carpentry or midwifery. And some workhouses had industrial schools where children learned such skills.

PART TWO COMING SOON!