The Nineteenth Century British Workhouse: Mission Not Accomplished


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The Nineteenth-Century British Workhouse: Mission Not Accomplished is a well-researched Art and Humanities Thesis/Dissertation topic, it is to be used as a guide or framework for your Academic Research


How to correct poverty in a society is extremely complex. In the nineteenth century, the British struggled to house, feed, and care for the unemployed and destitute men, women, and children created by the Industrial Revolution.

Many in the upper classes considered poverty a moral failure, yet they had little impetus to end it. Poverty, as defined by an inability to provide for one’s needs due to a variety of factors, was seen as necessary, for without it there would be no motivation for the lower classes to work and provide a luxurious life for the wealthy.

Although some in government argued that the basic needs of the poor (such as nutrition, housing, and medical care) could be provided through outdoor relief, others contended that the poor should labor for any assistance they received through a form of indoor aid called the workhouse system.

This paper examines the mission of the workhouse and 1) the implementation of work as punishment, 2) the institution of harsh rules in the workhouse, 3) the restrictions to personal freedoms and 4) the overall treatment of workhouse inmates.

The environment in the workhouse was so demeaning, cruel, and dangerous that it often defeated the mission of the workhouse system to sustain the populace it was built to support. Evidence of the failure to fulfill its mission is found in an analysis of primary sources such as workhouse guardians’ reports, letters from inmates, statements from medical examiners as well as other first-hand written accounts from occupants of the workhouse.

In addition, a review of scholarly articles, literature, satirical cartoons, paintings, and newspaper accounts from the time confirm that conditions in the workhouse did not match those expected from its mission statement.


How can a goal be achieved if your objectives and methods are diametrically opposed to your mission? According to the 1836 Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, the purported purpose of a British workhouse was “to supply the inmates…

with wholesome food and sufficient clothing, a better bed than they are used to lie upon, a cleaner, and a better-ventilated room than they are used to inhabit, immediate supply of medical attendance in case of illness, and to establish a degree of order and cleanliness unknown in a laborer’s [sic] cottage.

”6 Yet, the rule of “Less Eligibility,” a British government policy, passed into law with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 stated that conditions in workhouses had to be worse than those outside so that there was some deterrence to claiming poor relief.

7 Workhouses were to dissuade paupers from claiming aid and make conditions wretched for them if they did. This dual and conflicting attitude towards regulating poverty was doomed to failure from the beginning. In order to receive charity, applicants gave up their rights to personal freedom and were subjected to an establishment that completely oversaw their lives.

Workhorses scheduled the type of work to be done and its duration disallowed husbands and wives as well as families from living in the same quarters and doled out a subsistence level of food, shelter and medical attention. Complaints or infractions on the part of the clients were met with harsh rules and punishment.

This paper shows that preventable accidents, tedious labor, substandard
medical care and the overall treatment of workhouse inmates led to an environment that was so demeaning, cruel, and dangerous that workhouses often could not sustain the care of their patrons. In 1846 the reflections of one Mr. Witt, a resident of St. Pancras’ workhouse stated, “He would ‘sooner die under a hedge,’ when it pleased God to take him, than stay in the  workhouse.”

8 Liza Picard writes in Victorian London, “To enter the workhouse meant giving up all self-respect and abandoning family ties. It was dreaded with unimaginable fear.” 9 The institution became so reviled and hated that the word “workhouse” actually became a pejorative.

Charles Dickens used this knowledge in his novel Oliver when the nasty character, Noah Claypole, demeans and taunts the orphaned Oliver by referring to him as “Work’ us” [from the workhouse].

10 The building itself became known as a “spike” referencing a tool often used for the brutal task of “picking oakum,” a brutal form of labor forced on many inmates 11th There are few of us today that would agree to such conditions, and fewer still that would advocate for it.

However, with desperation nipping at the heels of destitute Victorians, many did enter the workhouse. Derek Fraser writes in The Evolution of the British Welfare State, that excluding periods of economic distress, it has been estimated that about 6.5% of the British population may have been accommodated in workhouses at any given time.12

According to a British census conducted by the statistician John Rickman, in 1831 there were 23.9 million people living in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Thus there were about 1,553,500 people living in workhouses. To put that in perspective, that is more than the 1.3 million counted in the 2019 population of San Diego, California.

13 This paper examines why the workhouses of the 1800s were established and ask if the mission statement to support the destitute was accomplished. The paper is divided into three chapters. Chapter One discusses the history of the workhouse and delves into the relationship between the poor and the wealthy in Britain’s Christian Nation of the nineteenth century.

It culminates in the debate within Parliament over the ramifications of passing The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which stipulated the construction of mandatory workhouses as the only form of poor relief available to the masses. Chapter Two explains the conditions people faced when entering the workhouse before and after the adoption of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

It also puts forth a presumed mission statement of the workhouses that was suggested in 1836 by the Parliamentary Second Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners. This report states the main objective of all workhouse rules and regulations was to provide 1) wholesome food, sufficient clothing, 2) a decent bed, 3) a clean and ventilated room, 4) an immediate supply of medical attendance in case of illness, and 5) to establish a degree of order and cleanliness.

Chapter Three explores the depiction of the workhouse through illustration, sketch, and novel, and discusses how those artists illustrated the inability of the workhouse to achieve its mission to sustain the people in a humane way.

The Conclusion presents a commentary on the facts presented and shows that the Mission Statement of the workhouses was not met.


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