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Conditions in the Workhouse

After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had been passed, the Poor Law Guardians had to provide accommodation for paupers. They did this by building "workhouses". The aim of the workhouse was to discourage people from claiming poor relief and conditions were to be made as forbidding as possible.

Edwin Chadwick's Commission classified the inmates into seven groups:

The workhouse yard: a contemporary illustration

The seven groups were to be kept totally separated at all times, even during 'leisure' time. Married couples, even the elderly, were to be kept apart at all costs so that they could not 'breed'. Each of the seven classes was supposed to have its own exercise yard. There was no segregation of inmates after the seven classes had been separated. This meant that the old, ill, insane, slightly unbalanced and fit were kept together both day and night with no form of diversion. Inmates simply sat and did nothing if they were not working.

The buildings themselves were stark, undecorated, prison-like structures. There were no curves in the buildings, only sharp corners. There was no architectural decoration. High walls surrounded the whole workhouse, cutting off the view of the outside world from the inmates. Even the windows were six feet from the floor, and a further 'refinement' was to have the window sills sloping downwards, preventing them from being used as seats of shelves. No fireplaces broke the bare lines of the walls and any heating provided usually was inadequate. Fires were put out at 8.30 p.m.

Workhouses contained dormitories, washrooms, workrooms, a 'refractory ward' (solitary confinement), the mortuary, bake-house, receiving wards, dining halls and a chapel. Any sick or old person housed on the upper floors would be virtually a prisoner in the ward because s/he would be unable to negotiate the stairs.

Space was usually at a premium. Too many people were crammed into the smallest space possible: for example, eight beds could be put into a narrow dormitory only sixteen feet long; thirty-two men were put into a dormitory 20 feet long; ten children and their attendants were put into a room 10 feet by 15 feet.

The hospital ward took in all cases, so at any one time there may have been patients suffering from any variety of complaints ranging from broken legs, measles, typhoid fever and smallpox to blindness, scarlet fever, diphtheria and dysentery.

The basic furniture was a cheap wooden bed with a flock-filled sack as a mattress. Two or three blankets were provided, but pillows were considered an unnecessary luxury. Sheets were not provided. Most people shared a bed; the beds were arranged as in a barracks - two rows of bunks. Other furniture included wooden stools or benches and wooden tables. Few seats had arms or back-rests and none were upholstered. The walls were 'decorated' with lists of rules, Bible passages telling the inmates how lucky they were ('Blessed are the poor ...'), official diet lists and more rules. There were no newspapers, no books, no toys, no games.

The daily routine, set down by the 1834 Act was:

5.00 a.m.

Rising bell

6.00 a.m. - 7.00 a.m.

Prayers and breakfast

7.00 a.m. - 12 noon


12 noon - 1.00 p.m.


1.00 p.m. - 6.00 p.m.


6.00 p.m. - 7.00 p.m.


7.00 p.m. - 8.00 p.m.


8.00 p.m.


'Work' consisted of oakum-picking, stone-breaking, bone-crushing, sack-making or driving the corn mill. Oakum is old rope, sometimes tarred or knotted. These ropes had to be unpicked inch by inch and a day's work would be to unravel 3 lbs. of rope. The corn mill was driven by inmates walking round on a treadwheel. Women had to do domestic work: scrubbing floors that were already clear, polishing brasses, scrubbing table tops, black-leading kitchen ranges and so on.

On admission, an inmate's clothes were removed and stored. S/he was searched, washed, had his/her hair cropped and was given workhouse clothing. This consisted of, for a woman: a shapeless, waistless dress which reached the ankles, made of striped (convict-style) fabric, a shapeless shift, long stockings (in Rotherham workhouse these were bright yellow) and knee-length drawers. She also was given a poke-bonnet. A man was given a striped shirt, ill-fitting trousers (the length being adjusted at the knee with a piece of string), thick vest, woollen drawers and socks, a neckerchief and (in winter) a coarse jacket. Children were similarly dressed. All the inmates were given hob-nailed boots.

Meals were as dull, predictable and tasteless as poor cooking and no imagination could make them. Often the quantity, quality and lack of nutrition meant that workhouse inmates were on a slow starvation diet.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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