Surviving life in – The Workhouse (Part One)

Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms Credit: Fordham Edu

Depiction of beggars living in the vicinity of Church in order to collect alms
Credit: Fordham Edu

Most of us have heard tales of the infamous workhouses of the Victorian era. Dark abodes of desolation where the most pitifully destitute of humanity went, never to see the outside world again. Conditions were harsh and mortality rates were high. But is this an accurate view of these institutes? Let’s delve into the past and find out.

The common idea of the Workhouse goes back much further than most people would think, although in varying guises. As a result of the Great Plague epidemic of 1348/9, a vast number of the peasant population of England and Wales had been wiped out. The loss of life particularly impacted agricultural areas, causing a shortage in the supply of labourers. Those who had survived felt their man-power was now at a premium and they were in a position whereby they could pick and choose who they worked for, and where, and hold out for better wages and conditions. Many labourers, previously tied to one area or Lord, were now able to travel around offering their services to the highest bidder.

This situation was hastily brought under control by the passing of acts aimed at forcing all able-bodied men into work, and to cap wages at pre-plague levels. Many workers resorted to pretending to be ill or infirm, and passing themselves off as beggars. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers was passed preventing private persons from giving money to beggars. The acts proved difficult to enforce however. By 1381, the situation had become strained and the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, John Ball and Jack Straw, in response to a Poll-tax imposed on all, regardless of financial means. The revolt marched on London, with a view to ending serfdom, allowing labourers their own choice of employer, and the right to negotiate for a fair wage. The revolt was eventually put down by Richard II’s forces, and despite his assurances that concessions would be made to the demands, in return for the quiet dispersal of the revolt, Wat Tyler was killed during a skirmish with the King’s men, and the agreed terms reneged on by the young King who ordered the participants found and executed.

In 1388, however, the situation had snowballed somewhat and further acts most notably the Statute of Cambridge, were drawn up, restricting the movement of labourers, tying them to their own parishes unless they procured a letter from ‘the good man of the Hundred’ (justice of the peace) allowing them to migrate for work. Responsibility for the ‘impotent poor’ – those who were unable to work or provide for themselves due to age or infirmity – also fell to the Hundreds by way of a tax on the more affluent members of the Parish, to levy poor relief for these unfortunates. Beggars and invalids were prohibited from wandering, under vagrancy acts. Due to the restrictions of labourers to travel, beggars could no longer pretend to be migrant workers. Breaking these laws often resulted in punishment, such as being placed in stocks. These laws in effect constitute the first English Poor Law.

Many of the destitute were able to find relief in the form of food, shelter and care in local priories which often acted as early hospitals. The provisions were basic, broths and porridges, plain in formula, to strengthen the constitution. The medical treatment was simple, and involved those simple nutrients, prayer and basic medicine performed by monks and lay brothers, and the conditions included a requirement that the needy actively participate in repentance for their transgressions, (which surely led to their downfall) and worship for as long as they remained within these Holy precincts. These early hospitals formed a vital service as the backbone for Poor relief in many areas. As the inmates recovered, they were obligated to “pay” for their stay and treatment, with labour in return for continued assistance. Those who perished as a result of their exposure, were afforded a simple burial, with religious rites. It could be argued that these initiatives were an early fore-runner of the later Workhouse. The Acts and laws themselves imposed by Richard II were again difficult to enforce.

Rembrandt sketch of Beggars

Rembrandt sketch of Beggars

In 1494, Henry VII, added his weight to the issue, with his less than sympathetic order “the Vagabonds and Beggars Act” which ordered the rounding up and placing in stocks of anybody found wandering, for three days and nights with nothing other than bread and water. They would then be returned to their Hundred, place of birth or place of residence best known. Following his son, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries from around 1536, the situation became bleaker than ever for the poor and destitute. The one remaining place of sanctuary where they could be assured of a warm blanket and a meal was removed. Not only were the buildings pulled down and robbed out, the land and any assets taken, but the brothers themselves were turned out also with nowhere to go. The strain increased. An Act the same year allowed parishes to collect and hand out voluntary alms for the poor, but again conditions were imposed whereby if those poor were considered able-bodied, they must work in return.

In 1547, Edward VI ordered further harsh restrictions on the neediest of society with the Act of Legal Settlement. Those vagrants considered to be able-bodied enough to work, and caught drifting would be returned to their Hundred or place of residence and BRANDED, or being signed up as a slave for 2 years. If they absconded, this period was increased to life. ‘Foolish pity’ for vagrants and the poor was actively discouraged. On the upside however, cottages were built to provide shelter for the impotent poor, with relief offered. Over the following 25 years, positive changes were introduced the majority of them under Elizabeth I. Following successful initiatives in major cities including York, Ipswich, London Cambridge, Colchester and Norwich, where poor-tax was introduced, a property tax was introduced in 1572, the ‘Poor Rate’ across the nation, to be handled by Parish Justices, and overseen by local representatives for distribution to the destitute invalids, aged and infirm.

A previous act of 1564 had allowed for parish officials to arrange ‘convenient places for the habitations of’ vagrants and beggars. The earliest workhouses were born. In 1576, this was followed by the ‘Act For Setting the Poor on Work’ which ordered that premises and materials, hemp, wool and flax in particular, would be gained and opened with the task of setting the able-bodied poor into employment. This was followed in 1597 by ‘Act For the Relief of the Poor’ which charged an overseer of the poor in every parish to engage any physically able-bodied unemployed person into work. Parish Houses would be provided for their residence. By 1601, Elizabeth had set up the basics of the Poor Laws, and expanded it to include residence and apprenticeships for all unaccompanied children. Financial responsibility for any out of work persons would be placed on parents, and other relatives where possible. Those able but unwilling to work were removed to prison, those who refused to pay their allotted poor-rate followed them and assets were seized. Poorhouses and almshouses were built for the residence of the impotent poor. The Workhouse was born.

In Part two, I will be continuing the journey of the destitute towards the grim institutes of the 18th and 19th Centuries that we are more familiar with.