Workhouse: the pauper Bastilles


Poverty’s no crime, but here it is treated like crime”… Workhouse saying.

To force the poor into the Procrustean bed of their preconceived doctrines. To do this they treated the poor with incredible savagery… Engels on the 1834 Poor Law



My partner, Tony, told me that his father had a real fear of the workhouse. He once showed Tony a workhouse. Workhouses didn’t exist any longer when Tony was growing up but his father was fearful of them. I asked Tony whether any of his ancestors was in a workhouse, he said he didn’t know. On the spur of the moment, I checked the 1881 Census and there was one of Tony’s relatives an “inmate” at the Late Shoreditch Industrial School, Brentwood. He lived with his parents in Shoreditch during the 1871 Census yet by 1881 he was at the Industrial School. What had happened in those intervening years? I couldn’t find any documentation at the London Metropolitan Archives to find any answers or a clue why he ended up there. I did find the original register for 1877 onwards, and he’s featured there. Entering the “school” at 10 (there are two dates regarding his birth) and eventually being “discharged” at the age of 16 (though he may have been 14).

As I was reading through the endless names of the children registered I became overwhelmed at the sheer number of boys and girls. Their name is entered, district, religion and discharged or death date. Thankfully, Tony’s relative was discharged, unfortunately many were not so fortunate. I wondered still why he had gone there. The reason being was that Charles’s mother, Frances Elizabeth died in 1875. Charles’s father had, to use 21st century language, a breakdown due to her death. No longer being able to work meant no money no money … meant the workhouse beckoned. The boy, Charles, was split up from his siblings and his father. One can only imagine the distress this would bring about as not losing your mother but your father and siblings too. In the logbook on later examination, it seems that Charles was joined by another brother at the industrial school but that is all I know. The father was in and out of the workhouse, eventually dying in one.

 The 1834 Poor Law Act made arrangements for the education of paupers. Children were separated from their parents. I assume Charles (Tony’s great-great grand father) the same happened to him, his father was a “wood carver” (documented in the 1871 Census). Could he no longer afford to keep his children? I read some truly horrific stories of new mothers being separated from their babies. The sheer harshness and brutality of these hell holes made me shudder. Industrial Schools had the Protestant work ethic at the forefront of its ideology. Children who were destitute but who had not as yet committed any serious crime. Originally, Industrial School were voluntary but the The Industrial Schools Act of 1857 changed that:

This gave magistrates the power to sentence children between the ages of 7 and 14 years old to a spell in one of these institutions. The act dealt with those children who were brought before the courts for vagrancy in other words for being homeless. In 1861 a further act was passed and different categories of children were included:

Any child apparently under the age of fourteen found begging or receiving alms [money or goods given as charity to the poor].

Any child apparently under the age of fourteen found wandering and not having any home or visible means of support, or in company of reputed thieves.

Any child apparently under the age of twelve who, having committed an offence punishable by imprisonment or less.

Any child under the age of fourteen whose parents declare him to be beyond their control.(5)

The act stated the child had to be ‘apparently’ under the age of fourteen. This was because children often lied about their age if it was advantageous for them to do so. Some children genuinely did not know how old they were. It was not until 1875 that it became compulsory to register births.

Boys were taught a specific trade (Charles’s occupation in the 1891 Census is “cabinet maker”) while girls were taught washing, housework, knitting and sewing. Girls being taught in the traditional Victorian way on how to be a woman.

Brentwood School was established in the 1850s but by the 1890s was subject of a scandal. A girl “inmate” died of her injuries after being pushed down the stairs. Nurse Elizabeth Gillespie went to jail.

Regime of terror that had reigned for many years, with the head mistress giving the girls black eyes and beating them with a ruler.

These institutions were an excuse for violence and abuse as these children were possibly deemed as nothing of importance, their life was of no value or consequence. Parishes were giving these ne’er do wells an education. The ideology of these “schools” operated like prisons therefore it’s not surprising in the least that cruelty and violence was part of the bargain. Children being punished for being poor yet given a very basic education, without any care or compassion. Victorian paternalistic and moralistic society was extremely barbaric and cruel if you were poor and destitute. I wondered what horrors Charles had witnessed or experienced? It seems like the fear of the workhouse was passed down the generations. This “school” was eventually shut down and became a hospital.

There are parallels with the workhouse system then and now, along with the fear that history will repeat itself. Poor being punished for being poor. We may have moved on socially and politically from those bad oh-sad-oh days of Victorian society. But the whiff of the workhouse politics is never too far away. Demonising the poor with politicians lying about benefit claimants. Stigmatising and fanning the flames of hate.

I was angry too thinking about how Victorian society dealt with poverty and unemployment. Also thinking of the gains made along with the transformation of society in the 20th century with the birth of the welfare state. Charles with his family wouldn’t have been shunted to the workhouse rather his father would have received benefits, support and possibly referred by his GP for mental health services. Indeed with the savage cuts and attacks on the welfare state he still would still receive some form of social security.

What also made me think of Tony’s ancestor was because I watched the programme “Secrets from the Workhouse”… It is estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK have someone from their past who was in an inmate in a workhouse. Statistics are difficult to put together it is thought that about 16 million people passed through the workhouse system. Many institutionalised. Workhouses were also commonly known as “pauper Bastille”. Birmingham workhouse was rather symbolic regards to the emotional response to these places as the entrance was through an arch locally known as the “Archway of Tears”.

Towards the end of the century only 20% were unemployed and or destitute while over 30% of the workhouse population were over 70 years old. Simply nobody knew what to do with the elderly other than keep in these hell-holes dose them up with opium etc.

The similarities in language then and now was startling (“Malingers”…. “Deserving/undeserving poor”… “Innocent poor”) along with the ideology of poverty and the disgust shown towards the unemployed as the Victorian establishment show then as  an affront to society and wanted to lock them away from civilised society based on a view of benevolence and Christian spirit.  Separated and uniformed too. Such a barbaric, cruel and inhuman system. I have to say that Atos would have been proud of the response by the workhouse staff to a 70-year-old seamstress with failing eyesight who was told to go away as she was “young enough to find work”…   Punishing the poor is a not a new phenomenon.

With the current attacks on benefits, along with conditionality, coercion, exploitation and sanctions. Food banks, workfare, ‘bedroom tax’… no wonder young people feel they have “nothing to live for”. In the 19th century there was no welfare state to support people yet that is hanging from a thread with various greedy private sector companies circling like nasty little vultures that they are. The lies and vilification continue while people get poorer.

We have people who are going without food in order to feed their children sometimes for days, for all sorts of different reasons, but fundamentally because their incomes are too low to support their basic needs of housing, clothing and food.

And the bureaucratic support that’s available simply takes too long to kick into gear on occasions.’

What really worries me is dismantling the welfare state and the public sector you end up with a society based on Dickensian Poor Law legislation, industrial schools and workhouses. Private and voluntary organisations deciding whether you are deserving or undeserving poor. The Coalition and Labour obsessed  still with this ridiculous lie called “culture of dependency”. A 21st century workhouse run by private companies for profit. These inmates will receive the basics, expected to carry out menial tasks and separated from family members. They will wear uniforms with the companies logo emblazoned on them (Serco/Capita/Atos… delete which applicable). Corruption and abuse will no doubt exist rather like in the Victorian era but the right-wing press will crow about how successful that the poor will be kept away from the rest of society. Though there will be complaints from ‘do-gooders’ which the right-wingers will pour scorn upon.Sometimes I feel we are sleep walking to privately run workhouses and that there will be modern-day versions of Tony’s ancestor, Charles.

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