For many, the word “workhouse” conjures up the image of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) begging for food from a cruel master .
This image is a very accurate portrait of life in these places; in fact, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist based on the conditions he witnessed at Cleveland Street Workhouse, a workhouse nearby where he lived at the time , .
Whilst Britain’s workhouse system for poor relief was intended, by some, to save thousands of people from starvation, it was instead over the course of its 300-year history, a harsh and austere system, described as a feared and hated place, where life was made as miserable as possible , . Some have described workhouses ‘prisons for the poor’ .
Workhouses were not just houses
A workhouse was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation. From the end of the 1830s, work was to be provided within the premises . People ended up in the workhouse because they were too poor, old or ill. Unmarried pregnant women and orphan children were also accepted. People entering workhouses were set apart, families were separated, some never to be reunited. They were stripped and bathed under strict supervision and issued with a workhouse uniform .
Workhouses were buildings with small windows, low ceilings and dark staircases, surrounded by a high wall that gave them the appearance of a prison . Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to act as a deterrent and to discourage the able-bodied poor to turn to the workhouses for help .
Workhouses contained dormitories, washrooms, a ‘refractory ward’ (solitary confinement), receiving wards, dining halls, a chapel, the mortuary, the backhouse, and the nursery. Part of the buildings were also used as stables, laundry, workshops, and coal store and other departments of the building contained the well, cells, bath and lodge , . Some workhouses had workshops for sewing, spinning and weaving or for knitting, embroidery and lace making , . For example, Newbury Workhouse in Berkshire provided textile labor, processed wool and even had its own weaving shop with both broad and narrow looms .
Other workhouses had their own vegetable gardens, smithies and backyard piggeries . In rural areas, inmates were sometimes used for agricultural labor . Other more menial work included : stone-breaking (the broken stones and the stone-dust were saleable for road-making); corn-grinding (to produce flour); bone-crushing (useful in the creation of fertiliser, however, this was abolished after the Andover scandal); gypsum-crushing (for use in plaster-making); wood chopping and oakum-picking. Inmates were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into many corkscrew strands and pick oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike. Workhouses were also known as ‘spikes’ , .
Living conditions in workhouses were horrifying and any complaints invited punishment. The conditions in some workhouses were worse than some prisons , . Andover, for example, was known for its strict rules and complaints about the lack of food were common. Many vagrants intentionally tore up their uniforms and preferred to be sentenced to a spell in prison where they could expect better food, a bed, and a cell to themselves, all without having to perform a day’s work .
The English Poor Laws: The rise of workhouses
The provision of state-provided poor relief emerged in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which gave parish officers the legal ability to collect money from rate payers to spend on poor relief for the old, the sick and infirm, and orphan children. Though they were termed “workhouses” from the 1620s, the early institutions that provided poor relief were non-residential, offering handouts (bread, clothes or money) in return for work. By the end of the 17th century, providing care under one roof was considered as the most efficient way of saving money and, consequently, the workhouse system grew greatly in the early 18th century. Yet workhouses only really became part of Britain’s culture after 1723, when the Workhouse Test Act won parliamentary approval. The ‘‘workhouse test’’ was set for a person who wanted to receive poor relief. This test instructed that a person had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work in order to gain relief. The Workhouse Test Act was intended to prevent irresponsible claims on a parish’s poor rate. Its impact on the poor relief provision was dramatic: by the 1770s almost 2,000 parish workhouses were set up in England and Wales .
In the early 19th century, mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Corn Laws, which raised food prices, forced the government to reassess the way it helped the poorest members of society. In 1834, the government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which made the Poor law unions responsible for providing accommodation for impoverished people. They did this by building even more workhouses. Each union was responsible for providing a central workhouse for its member parishes .
Later use and abolition
The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished workhouses and their responsibilities were given to county borough and county councils, however, many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions (PAIs), remained under the control of local councils and continued to provide care for the poor, elderly and infirm , , . During World War I some workhouses were used as military hospitals, such as the Brighton Workhouse . With the inauguration of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, workhouses were converted to municipal hospitals or elderly care homes , .
What are they now?
Most surviving parish workhouses are either still part of hospital sites such as the Brighton General Hospital (once Brighton Workhouse) , or have been converted to residential use such as the Andover Union Workhouse in Hants  and the Greenwich Workhouse in London. A few have other purposes, such as the Widecombe-in-the-Moor workhouse in Devon which is now occupied by a village hall and National Trust shop and the Rhayader Union Workhouse in Powys which forms part of Rhayader’s country house hotel . Others such as ‘Oliver Twist’ Workhouse in Cleveland Street, London or The Old Workhouse in Hillingdon have been given listed status. The Spike in Guilford is now preserved as a heritage centre , , .
A new build development on the site of the former Greenwich Workhouse in London-A review of historical mapping from Ordnance Survey (OS).
The Greenwich and Deptford Workhouse (NGR: 539658, 178266) opened in 1840. By the 1870s it had become necessary to provide medical care and, in 1874, a new infirmary block was built in the south block of the workhouse .
In 1929, responsibility for the administration of the workhouse and infirmary was transferred to the local council and the site was used as a hospital. As part of the modernisation of the NHS, a new hospital (renamed as Greenwich District Hospital) was built in early 1970s to replace the existing one.
Greenwich District Hospital closed in 2001 and was demolished in 2006. The site was redeveloped into an apartment block with retail units c.2013-2014.
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