Workhouses, in a basic form, had been around since the 17th century. Yet in the 1800s with the creation of the New Poor Law in 1834, workhouses became a common feature of Victorian society. Parishes were grouped into unions with every union having their own workhouse. Prior to this relief was offered as outdoor relief where people were provided with money and supplies when work wasn’t available. This became very expensive in this period and so an alternative needed to be found: hence the New Poor Law. The idea was that they would house those that couldn’t find work; and yet they were supposed to be a deterrent to encourage people to look harder for jobs. But did they really work?
Evidence shows that they probably didn’t. Many workhouses were full with those that had no choice but to go into the workhouse. They became houses for pregnant women and abandoned families as well as the old and infirm that could not work. Many women were having illegitimate children; sometimes because of prostitution and sometimes not. Prostitution was not illegal at this time as long as it didn’t cause any disruption and so many were not fearful of admitting their status. Nevertheless it was still considered a low status job with many dangers. Able bodied men entered generally on a seasonal basis, with more people in the workhouse throughout the winter when agricultural work was limited and less in the summer where there was more work. Those that were disabled and couldn’t work at any time of the year were frequent visitors and many of those that were temporarily ill inhabited the workhouse for brief periods. Children were also a common feature of the workhouse. Dickens wrote about workhouses in stories such as Oliver Twist. In 1861, 35000 children under the age of 12 lived and worked in workhouses. So, there was a varied group of people in the workhouse; but all were in a situation of desperation and helplessness.
Workhouses were hard to keep clean and conditions were not particularly pleasant. Many originally didn’t have hospital wards and so disease was often ripe as it passed through the segregated wards. Children didn’t receive much education in the workhouse and the work provided was repetitive and dull. The diet was limited and if there was bad behaviour then further restrictions on food were imposed. In Andover, there was a whole scandal in 1845 because those admitted were expected to do bone breaking during the day to earn their keep. Yet the inmates were so hungry that they were picking food from the bones in order to try to get extra food. Politicians and the press went crazy over the situation with some politicians using the scandal to fight their cases against the workhouse system.
Workhouses remained a common feature throughout the 19th century and remained into the 20th century. A Royal Commission in 1905 reported that workhouses were unsuitable for the variety of people they housed and so different institutions should be established in order for each individual group of people. The Local Government Act of 1929 gave authorities the power to take over workhouse infirmaries into proper hospitals; but few outside of London actually did. The workhouse system wasn’t abandoned fully until April of 1930 but many remained in a different form and with different purposes. Many lasted for many years after. This includes Southwell workhouse, which is now a museum, was used to house women and children right up till the 1990s.