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What is a Workhouse?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A workhouse is an institution where the working poor are fed and housed. Workhouses are especially closely associated with life in Victorian England, although they are in fact much older. In 1930, the workhouse system was abolished in favor of other systems for assisting the poor, but the idea of the workhouse continues to haunt books set in the 1800s. One of the most famous workhouses is probably that which appears in Oliver Twist, as a classic example of a British workhouse, complete with grim conditions.

The earliest records of workhouses date to the 1600s, which was right around the time that a number of Poor Laws were passed in an attempt to help the poor and indigent. Elizabeth I's Poor Law of 1601 is probably the most notable Poor Law from the 1600s. These laws recognized that unfortunates would probably always exist in English society, and that citizens had a duty to provide for them, typically through church parishes.

In 1722, the Poor Law Act laid the ground for a more formal workhouse system, solidified in 1834 with the Poor Law Union. With these laws came a shift in attitude towards the poor. While people had previously viewed the poor as hapless unfortunates, an idea that the poor were lazy and shiftless began to prevail. Through working, it was theorized, the poor would learn good habits, growing less lazy and perhaps learning to fend for themselves. This attitude ignored the very real problems faced by the poor, such as lack of education, the need to support large families, and rising costs of living in many urban areas.

Workhouses included dormitories for people to sleep in, often with very primitive conditions, along with dining halls, chapels, and infirmaries. Because life in the workhouse was supposed to be humiliating and shameful, many of the rules of the workhouse focused on emphasizing this. Rations were typically poor, sometimes to the point of starvation, and people faced very harsh discipline. In some workhouses, residents were expected to be silent while in the workhouse, talking only at work or on the way to jobs.

The workhouse was also known as the spike in some regions of Britain, and it was a figure of dread for many impoverished Britons, especially those who had managed to claw themselves out of the workhouse. Workhouse residents were almost like slaves, forced to work if they were at all able, typically for low wages. By the 1900s, this form of social services was starting to be seen as crude and perhaps not very productive, in addition to expensive for the state, and the laws pertaining to support for the poor were reworked to align with modern values.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By Chromerock — On Jan 15, 2014

It's truly amazing how backward recent history looks to the modern person. I can't imagine such a place as this existing today.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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