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LIFE IN THE VICTORIAN WORKHOUSE

20 MARCH 2003




From 1834, due to growing problems of poverty, some due to alcoholism, there was no more poor assistance unless admitted to the Workhouse. The whole family would be submitted to a much harsher/rigid existence; lost their freedom, surrendered their dignity, felt ashamed as bound at the expense of the Parish & became institutionalised. If you had family outside, they were either too poor or didn’t have the room to be able to help. You couldn’t take anything into the Workhouse, no tobacco, cards etc, only the clothes you wore. Once inside, you had a shower & were given workhouse clothes as your own were fumigated. There were well organised records of admittance/ discharge & by the turn of the 19th Century, most workhouses were only for the infirm.

The houses were split into 4 categories – adult = male/female, children = boy/girl, able bodied, remainder = elderly/infirm. They did not allow for vagrants or mental illness. Males/females would be segregated & husbands/wives would only see each other for approx 1 hr on Sundays. Inmates cooked the meals & quantities were divided down to the last ½ oz. You would eat in rows, in silence, in the same place each day, 3 times a day. Men were given 1 pt beer at each meal as it was considered a food. Local Benefactors sometimes sent fruit etc in at certain times eg Christmas. Meals were repetitive as seen from the eg menus:

SUN - Breakfast – bread/cheese, butter/treacle - Dinner – soup/bread/cheese - Supper – Bread/cheese or butter
MON –Breakfast – slightly different - Dinner – broth/cheese - Supper – same as Sun
TUES – Breakfast – same as Sun etc etc.

Charles Dickins’ ‘Oliver Twist’ exposed the cruelty of the Work-house. Lord Shaftesbury did good work for the poor, he set up a ragged urchins school & London was full of poor people trying to sleep as you were not allowed to sleep on the streets at night.

During the 1820 – 1840’s there was an increase in illegitimate children. Over 50% of married Brides were expecting. Some children were destitute & 9/10 yr olds worked as Apprentices.

In the 1860’s there was Unofficial Assistance – Out Relief ie cash, food, clothes etc. Soup Kitchens were set up & kept most people out of the workhouse. Towards the end of the 19th Century schools provided 1p breakfasts. Casual Wards were set up with long queues for too few pill slat beds. People were blamed for their predicament & the religious sayings on the girders in the roof were a way of preaching. Later on, Husbands/wives could live together if room. There were also Orphanages, resulting in less children going into the Workhouse & even Lunatic Asylums. By now, there were greater details within workhouse records. In 1929 the Poor Law was abolished & people feared about their livelihood if they were too old to work etc. In darkest England, books told of many families living in totally unfurnished slums. Little school houses were set up within the Workhouse.

You were not officially allowed to discharge yourself but it would help if you had contacts outside. Many people were seasonal inmates eg during harvest time numbers were down but in the winter, many people went in & numbers seemed to rise on Fridays. Tramps were now allowed & they used to hide their tobacco under rocks before entering the workhouse & the story was told of young boys watching, then stealing it, so when the tramps eventually came out they went looking for it to no avail!!

There was a boy from Poplar Workhouse who made good & was even voted onto the Board of Guardians who decide how to run Workhouses, & were generally business people, which was ideal when seasonal employees were required. He improved conditions, due to his first hand experience.

Former Workhouses are Buckland Hosp as old Dover Union Workhouse & All Saints Hospital, Strood. Shorne House, Higham has been rumoured to be one too. Perhaps you know of a building that holds a dark history!!!!.

Peter Ewart was the speaker for this fascinating insight into the above.

Last Revised: 7 March 2005

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