VICTORIAN WORKHOUSES

In Victorian days, people who had no job and money, too sick or too old, the workhouse was the only place they could live

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HISTORY OF WORKHOUSES

Workhouses first started when Queen Elizabeth the First was queen in 1601.  A law was passed making each parish responsible for looking after the poor, sick and elderly.  The workhouse was looked after by a group of people called Guardians.  If a person was capable of working but had no job then they could be offered a place in the workhouse but they had to work for their living.  


By 1810 there were about 3000 workhouses in England and Wales, which sounds a lot but there were 15000 parishes in total. By 1840 the number had reduced to about 630 but most had got a lot bigger in size. By 1930 the running of the workhouses became the responsibility of local councils.  Many of the workhouses became homes for the elderly or hospitals.  When the National Health Service was created in 1948 they took responsibility for all the old council former workhouses.

This is the Eaton Socon Workhouse of 1842


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HOW DID YOU JOIN A WORKHOUSE?

To get entry into a workhouse you had to live in the local area, in the same way you are allowed to join a school today.  A workshop was shared between approximately 5 parishes.  On regular intervals a person from the workhouse would visit each parish where people would queue to join the workshop.  Once people had been given a place they had to fill in lots of forms, have a bath and a medical.  It was very important that anyone joining the workhouse did not have any diseases.  People were given a special uniform to wear and their own clothes were put in storage after treatment for things like lice and fleas.  People could leave the workhouse whenever they wanted but if they were found outside the workhouse in their uniform they could be fined for stealing workhouse property.  They could only leave if they had permission.

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FAMILIES IN A WORKHOUSE

If a whole family entered a workhouse then they would be split up.  Children would be separated from their parents, men and women would be separated as well as boys and girls.  The elderly and the sick would also be separated.  Everyone would sleep in a dormitory with other people of their own type.

 
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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WORHOUSE RESIDENT

Residents who were fit to work were woken up at 6 o’clock in the morning but allowed to lie in till 7 in the winter.  A register would be taken just like in school and everyone sent to their communal lavatory or washroom.  Women were given jobs such as cleaning, cooking, sewing or washing.  Men would be required to break stones or recycle rope.  Children were well treated but kept away from adults to ensure they didn’t get into any bad habits.  They were given 3 hours a day on basic reading, writing and religious studies. At other times they would be taught basic skills such as boot making so they had a skill when they left.  Sundays were days of rest with church services and bible studies.  Unfortunately, there was very little opportunity for families to get together on Sundays. If you were old or sick life in a workhouse could be very boring

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HEALTH AND HYGIENE IN WORKHOUSES

Generally people kept good health and hygiene in the workhouse.  Everyone was required to wash daily.  Bedding and clothing was washed every 2 weeks.  Not many people had baths in the workshop - baths were quite rare in Victorian days and normally only for the rich!  If you got seriously ill then you would have been treated in the workhouse infirmary.  Going into the infirmary was not recommended.  Normally, nursing was done by elderly women who couldn't read or write and were quite often drunk!  Conditions got a lot better in workhouse infirmaries after 1840 when Florence Nightingale forced big improvements in care.  On the whole, workhouses provided good health care for people who could not afford a doctor before the National Health Service.

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WORKHOUSE FOOD

Workhouses were for people who had no money or were not well or too old to look after themselves.  People running workhouses did not want to make them too attractive to people.  As you might expect, the food in the workhouse was generally not very exciting.  Before 1840 people were given gruel, which is a half-strength porridge.  After 1840 food was better with gruel one day and bread and cheese the next.  If you were lucky you might get meat twice a week. By 1900 workhouses were issued with cook books and food such as stews, pasties and puddings were regularly served.  By now the workhouse was no longer trying not to encourage people to join but were seen as an essential home for the old and sick.