Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Victorian Workhouse: Relic of the Past?

Luke Fildes Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Even though Fildes' famous painting was posed (the gent in the top hat was a known street 'character' and was allegedly paid to lean against the wall, looking decrepit), it is still a pretty accurate depiction of life for those at the bottom of the Victorian food chain. When you had no job, no money for food or rent, and nothing viable left to sell or pawn, you had 2 choices: the 'Asylum for the Houseless Poor' or the street.

Henry Mayhew, writing twenty years earlier, paints an equally vivid picture. He describes:

''..the homeless crowds gathered about the Asylum, waiting for the first  opening of the doors., with their bare feet, blue and ulcerous with the cold, resting for hours on the ice and snow in the streets. To hear the cries of the hungry, shivering children a thing to haunt one for life. There are 400 and odd creatures utterly destitute - mothers with infants at their breasts - fathers with boys holding by their side - the friendless - the penniless - the shirtless, shoeless, breadless, homeless; in a word, the very poorest of this the very richest city in the world.'' 
(Mayhew, London Labour & The London Poor volume 111)

Although the Workhouse has had a very bad press - think of Oliver Twist, many poor people had no option but to enter it, even if only temporarily. For a large percentage of the working poor, jobs were seasonal or sporadic. Men were hired by the day (docks), by the season (agriculture) or for a limited time (May-June was the London Season). With no trade unions, no labour laws and no minimum wage, they were unable to budget. No work = no pay. Any work-related accidents at a time when medical care had to be paid for, could spell disaster.

Whitechapel workhouse

Once they entered the Workhouse, personal possessions were taken away, and families split up. Inmates quickly became institutionalised and neglected. The routines of hard physical labour, the poor quality food, the feeling of belonging nowhere and having no future must have been devastating upon their sense of self.

In Honour & Obey, the Clapham family are driven out of their slum tenement by their ruthless landlord, Morbid Crevice. Here, they encounter their first taste of Workhouse life:

The family are led through a series of dark passages, then across a dismal yard to a bare unlit room. Cold from stone flags seeps into their thin shoes.
      ''Women and children in there,'' the porter says, pointing at a closed door.
      The woman clings desperately to her husband's arm
      ''Come along old gel,'' the man says. ''It won't be for long. I'll go out and find work tomorrow and we'll soon be on our feet again.'' But the hunch of his shoulders and the hopelessness in his voice belie his cheerful words.
      The girl tugs at her skirt.
      ''C'mon Ma,'' she says. '''Best not to linger, eh?''
      The man gives the girl a grateful look. She stares back, her eyes hard like stones. She isn't fooled. She knows that it is the end of the road for her family. That her little brothers and sisters will be sent elsewhere, that her father will sink even further into drink and her mother into despair. That is what always happens.
      What she doesn't know is how she is going to get revenge on those who did this to them. Not yet. But she will.
(Honour & Obey by me)

Couple the sense of utter despair with the knowledge that society regarded the poor as 'undeserving' - it was widely thought character defects, drink or sheer idleness meant that people were reduced to beggary, homelessness or reliance upon the meagre provisions of the Workhouses. Reading derogatory articles in the press about the 'underclass' that inhabited the less savoury parts of the city, one can see how many on both sides of the poverty line regarded the workhouse as one step away from actually being in prison.
Workhouse dining room
The Workhouse was a relic from the past. One that we look back upon with some horror. But have attitudes to the poor changed? I think not. Consider the 'zero hours' contract. The exploitation of workers by firms such as Sports Direct. The ruthless cutting of housing and family welfare benefits. The gradual privatization of dentists and many NHS services, denying the poor access to basic health care. The recent scrapping of university maintenance grants now closes the doors on tertiary education for all but the well off.

Consider too the demonization of the poor via TV programmes like 'Benefits Street', the rush to condemn 'improvident' parents who have too many children/feed their families on junk food. The eagerness with which private landlords and councils now employ bailiffs to turn whole families out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the extortionate rent.

This Autumn, one in five 'low-waged working parents' will go without food to feed their kids. Many people will visit Food Banks, or be reliant upon the charity of friends and relatives. We may have moved away from incarcerating the poor and elderly in barrack-like Workhouses, but little in our public attitudes towards them seems to have changed much.

As one inmate of Poplar Workhouse plaintively said: ''Poverty's no crime, but here it is treated like a crime.'' (quoted by Will Crooks, Poplar Workhouse guardian 1893)

In our time too.


  1. OK, while researching and writing this you are allowed to use as much bubble wrap as you want (need)

  2. The poor laws in UK and the equivalent in the USA usually do have a background feeling that the poor are undeserving of help-- that they somehow are lazy and want to live on someone else's dollar ( shilling). A large percent of workers are one illness, fire, flood. or unforeseen disaster from the street. There are some who work the system but they are in a minority. Some are addicts. Some are disabled and can't hold a regular job. Yes, they have children. Sex is something they feel is free and makes them feel good for a short period. They don't have money for contraceptives. The general feeling by those in powers hasn't changed for centuries. Those who have can not understand the plight of those who live on the edge of homelessness.

    1. What people fail to grasp is that these are the people who pick fruit, clean, wash up , sweep streets & do the menial low paid jobs that the better off wouldn't touch.I'm guessing you are from the US -- as you know, here we have (foolishly) voted to leave the EU on the basis that we don't want 'immigrants' here. The Victorians also hated 'immigrants'failing to see how useful they were for the total economy.

    2. these are people, sentient beings NOT mere commodities for XXXXX sake

  3. Makes me wonder if we will ever move on from the construct of deserving and undeserving poor. When I was trained (in the 70s) we beleived that it was all just poverty - which gave us one target. It's so depressing to be having this discussion all over again.

  4. The concept of the deserving and undeserving poor is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and has been ruthlessly resurrected by government and media to justify benefit cuts. In recent months this has taken second place to being overrun by immigrants....

    1. Absolutely. It is far too easy to demonize ... and to deny people their human rights. It reduces me to tears of fury...especially when it concerns litte ones.

  5. Totally with you on this one. Very alarmed that the first thing Cameron did when he came into office was attack human rights. Also learnt by observing a colleague teach on social policy that many people are made homeless because they make a mistake on their benefits form and it takes up to 56 weeks to rectify!

    1. One of Martyn's co-workers is about to be turned out of their home, coz they were late with a rent payment. Obvs as he has a job, they can pay it. A family of five! The wife & 4 kids will have to relocate to Yorkshire, and he will stay in London during the week. How can this possibly be 'family-friendly'? Oh I am so so so angry with the greed and vileness that the Conservatives, from Thatcher onwards, have instilled. And now we have racism to add to the noxious mix!

  6. I couldn't agree more with the points you make toward the end of your post, Carol. It's a shocking thing that in any rich, industrialized nation, there is a need for food banks. Zero hours contracts are an abuse and should be against the law everywhere. I'm afraid everywhere you look, it seems the rich are getting richer and more and more of the poor are having to work three jobs just to get by.

    1. The one mitigating thing in the Victorian age was that many were deeply religious, and regarded it as a moral duty to help the poor. Hannah & I were in London on Monday ( German Embassy stuff) & we passed block after block of flats erected in the Victorian period by Christian philanthropists to house the poor. Nowadays, it's every man for himself and charity is regarded as unusual or a weakness!

  7. A chilling reminder that we are not much better off in any sphere of life. Chilling, Carol, especially when you relate it to what is happening these days.

  8. I have mixed feelings about charity & philanthropy. I don't want us to be beholden to rich people who deign to give charity when it can be withdrawn on whim. But I don't decry the housing they provided when the state wasn't. I just don't think its healthy to return to that model. I would prefer the rich just paid reasonable taxes.

  9. Attitudes are awful these days, and the worst thing I see is a complete lack of hope. My children are angry at government, understandable, but they have less hope for a better future than I did at their age. That's so sad. Stuck with part time work, zero hour contracts, harassment, and leaders with no morals, they don't see it getting better...


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