History explorer: Life in the Victorian workhouse

Dr Samantha Shave and Charlotte Hodgman visit Weaver Hall Museum in Cheshire, a former workhouse and place of last resort for the destitute…

This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Walking up to the front entrance of what is now Weaver Hall Museum in Northwich, it isn’t hard to imagine how intimidating the building must have appeared to those men, women and children whose personal circumstances had forced them to seek shelter in what was possibly the most infamous of all 19th-century institutions: the workhouse.

Northwich Workhouse was commissioned in 1839 at a cost of £4,530. The red-brick, two-storey entrance block open to visitors today would have been a new inmate’s first experience of workhouse life, with the porter’s room, boardroom (now the museum cafe), and receiving wards sited within. The main accommodation block – a three-storey building that has since been demolished – was placed at the rear of the site, while the school, kitchen, and dining-hall were placed in the central axial wing.

As visitors to Weaver Hall Museum – which explores the story of the workhouse  as well as West Cheshire’s wider history – will soon appreciate, the interior of the building retains much of its Victorian austerity. The large high-ceilinged boardroom (added in 1892) is one of the only areas that give any sense of luxury, boasting several large windows and spaces on the walls for no less than four fireplaces.

“The workhouse in Northwich was the product of a new poor law, introduced in 1834,” says Dr Samantha Shave of Bournemouth University. “High unemployment and social unrest in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, combined with an economic downturn, meant that large numbers of people were unable to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families. This put huge financial strain on the system of ‘outdoor relief’ that had been administered at a parish level since the Elizabethan period – usually consisting of handouts of food, money or clothing.”

With radical change high on its agenda, in 1834 the government passed a Poor Law Amendment Act, which saw the creation of Poor Law Unions – made up of groups of parishes – who were responsible for administering poor relief.

Each union was to operate a workhouse as the principal means of poor relief, and outdoor relief was to be cut. Northwich Union was formed from 61 townships. By 1839, a new workhouse was being built, located on the outskirts of the town so that the sight of the inmates exercising in the segregated yards would not “discommode or prove offensive to the citizens”.
 

Great hardship

“Those who entered the workhouse did so for a variety of reasons,” says Shave, “but, contrary to popular belief, most did not stay there permanently. For those employed in seasonal work, the workhouse was often a temporary solution to tide them through periods of hardship.”

But that’s not to say entering the workhouse was an easy decision to make. “The workhouse system was designed as a deterrent in the sense that life inside was not supposed to be any easier or more pleasant than life as one of the lowest paid workers who lived in the community,” says Shave. “And with saving money at the heart of the provision of ‘indoor relief’ – as the workhouse was known – and inspections into the accounts and running of such institutions taking place on a regular basis, it’s not surprising that conditions inside many workhouses could be very harsh indeed."

Inmates of a workhouse starve while  the boss thrives in Isaac Robert  Cruikshank’s 19th-century cartoon. (Bridgeman)

On their arrival, new inmates were placed in receiving wards where they would remain until the Board of Guardians’ next weekly meeting. At Northwich, inmates would be summoned into the boardroom where they would then be assessed. For some this meant being allocated a small sum of money with which to sustain themselves until employment was forthcoming. But for others, it meant formal admittance into the workhouse.

Men, women and children were separated on arrival, partly as a means of maintaining order, but also to prevent what was often referred to as ‘pauper breeding’. Families who had arrived together were only permitted to see each other for a few hours a week, while husbands and wives ate, slept, worked and exercised independently of each other in separate parts of the building.

Clothing and possessions were removed, washed and then placed in storage. Inmates were given a brief health check by a medical officer, issued with a workhouse uniform – and made to take a bath. For many, this was a terrifying prospect. In 1891, a newspaper reporter who had visited the workhouse wrote: “The state as to filth and vermin in which some old neglected people arrive, on their entering the house is indescribable. To have not washed the body for years and years is a common state of things with them...”
 

Ringing the changes

Among the recreated spaces at the Weaver Hall Museum is the former schoolroom, a large space featuring lines of benches facing a large blackboard. Here, we are told, children would have received three hours of tuition every day in the ‘3Rs’, and learned the principles of Christianity.

“The importance of reading and writing had become widely accepted by the late 19th century”, says Shave, “and workhouse children would have received a basic education, together with work-related skills such as cooking and sewing for girls, which would help them obtain work in domestic service in the future. Life followed a strict timetable, with the large bell now on display in the schoolroom ringing out changes in routine throughout the day.”

The original Northwich Workhouse bell. Life was strictly regulated by its chimes. (Wever Hall Museum)

Adults were also put to work to earn their keep. For women, this often took the form of oakum picking, which meant hours picking apart bits of rope into fibres that were then used to fill the seams of boats to make them waterproof. Men, on the other hand, were often given the task of breaking stones or, as was common in the south of England, grinding animal bones to make fertiliser. “This was incredibly demanding work, which actually made very little money for the workhouse,” says Shave. “Essentially, it was just another way of deterring people from entering the institution.”

Elsewhere in the museum, as modern-day visitors tuck into tea and cake in the cafe (once the original boardroom), they can read precise details about the type and amount of food that inmates could expect to receive during their stay in the workhouse.

Following the 1834 act, the Poor Law Commission issued what they called ‘model dietaries’ for workhouses. Inmates were usually provided with between 137 and 182 ounces of food per week, in addition to soup and gruel – amounts varied according to age, gender and disability. Meals were also segregated and usually eaten in silence: in many workhouses inmates sat facing forward in long rows so they could not talk freely with each other.

Mealtimes were a stern, and often meagre, affair. These women at St Pancras Workhouse in London are facing forwards so they cannot talk freely with each other. (Getty)

“Many of the media scandals surrounding workhouses in the 19th century involved food,” states Shave. “At Andover Union Workhouse in Hampshire, inmates were so hungry that they were found to be gnawing at the old, mouldy animal bones they were meant to be crushing for fertiliser. In 1900, however, a major overhaul to workhouse diets was made, allowing unions to create their own weekly menus from a range of 50 different meals.”

But life in the workhouse was not hard for all who lived within its walls. To be master or matron of such an institution offered a degree of financial security, as well as food and accommodation. The master was paid between £60 and £80 a year, depending on the number of inmates, and he was expected to be married, with his wife serving as mistress of the workhouse, unless she was qualified to work as a matron.

The joint posts of master and matron were advertised at Northwich in 1838, with a salary of £70 a year “with rations”. Accommodation was provided on the second floor of the original entrance building. But by 1892, the workhouse buildings had expanded and the then master and matron – Mr and Mrs Pritchard – enjoyed their own private office, kitchen, storeroom, upstairs bedrooms and a bathroom. Today, visitors can look around a cosy recreated sitting room from the era, similar to that occupied by the Pritchards. The large windows, rugs and open fireplace of these private quarters must have been at odds with the stark austerity of the rest of the building.

Northwich Workhouse’s boardroom  was uncharacteristically luxurious. (Getty)

“Northwich Workhouse was built to a traditional panopticon design,” says Shave. “This basically took the form of a large cross shape with a large front. From his quarters in the central hub of the building, the master would have been able to see into each of the segregated exercise yards, and keep an eye on what was happening in his workhouse.”
 

Last, desperate resort

By the mid-19th century many unions had introduced hospital buildings so that the sick could visit the workhouse for treatment but not be admitted as inmates, thus saving on food and keep. Outdoor relief was never fully abolished, and for most, the workhouse remained a last, desperate resort.

“It’s important to remember that the 1834 act was just the beginning of a series of laws relating to the administration of poor relief,” says Shave. “There was a great deal of resistance to stopping outdoor relief completely, particularly among the northern unions, but it was the General Medical Order of 1842 that can be seen as the first real acknowledgement that the state had a responsibility to make sure even the very poorest of people had access to free medicine and medical care.”

The official end to the workhouse era arrived in April 1930, when the government abolished the 643 Boards of Guardians in England and Wales and passed their responsibilities to local authorities. Many old workhouse buildings were demolished, often in attempts to erase the memory of poor relief. Others were converted into old people’s homes or hospitals.

Some, like Northwich, however, remain as permanent visible reminders of this chapter in British history. 
 

Workhouses: five more places to explore

1)  The Workhouse, Southwell

Where a strict regime earned praise

Built in 1824 to accommodate around 158 inmates, Southwell followed a strict regime that made it a model example of post-1834 workhouse frugality. As well as segregating the sexes, Southwell also divided inmates into two further categories: ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Those classed as undeserving were deemed able, but unwilling, to support themselves.

2)  Ripon Workhouse Museum, North Yorkshire

Where inmates grew their own food

A workhouse has stood on this site since 1776, but the present building dates to 1855. Ripon had its own infirmary, as well as a garden used to grow vegetables with which to feed inmates. Today’s museum is housed in the old receiving ward and male vagrants’ section.

3)  Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Norfolk

Where industry helped feed inmates

A good example of a rural workhouse, Gressenhall incorporated a farm, and at one point also had a windmill. Originally built as a House of Industry in the 1770s, Gressenhall was taken over by the newly formed Mitford and Launditch Poor Law Union in 1836. The 50-acre site is open to the public. 

4)  Cleveland Street Workhouse, London

Where fact may have inspired fiction

Built in 1775, Cleveland Street Workhouse was re-purposed as the Strand Union after 1834 and is thought to have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, since the author lived a few doors away. Parts of the former workhouse buildings (which was a hospital until 2006) are now threatened with demolition.

5)  Spike Heritage Centre, Guildford

Where vagrants were put to work

Casual wards, also known as ‘the Spike’, were often provided for vagrants who performed work such as stone-breaking in return for bed and board. The Guildford Spike has been preserved as a heritage centre and is open to the public.

Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Samantha Shave, lecturer in social and economic history at Bournemouth University.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here