England,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

Surviving Life in The Workhouse Part 2

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)
Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In part one, we discussed the development of Poor laws and rates and so on to meet the rising need of the destitute in the community and the provision for children, the elderly and others who were unable to provide for themselves.

We had reached the point where Elizabeth I had passed the 1601 Poor Laws, now known as the Old Poor Law, which had passed on the responsibility for collecting the poor rates from parishes and converting it to basic foods, clothing and fuel etc for those in need. Rent allowances and other monies from the rates were also introduced to be given to those in need, enabling them to remain in their homes. Failure to collect rates resulted in hefty fines of up to one pound, seizure of property or even a prison sentence for the overseers responsible.

At the same time as these measures were passed, provision was ordered for a place for the Poor to reside. Whether this be a purpose-built home in the community for vagrants of the parish, for those unable to work and unable to remain in their homes, or the newly introduced “House of Correction” where able-bodied “shirkers” were taken to live and put to work unpicking hemp or breaking stones and so on to earn their keep. These community facilities formed the basis of what became the more recognised workhouses of later years. These measures remained in place for around the next sixty years without significant change.

In 1662, however a fairly important change was introduced, as the Poor laws were amended in the form of the Settlement Act. This piece of legislation was to detail how a person’s settlement was designated. In short, which Parish should be the one from which they claimed should the

need arise. In the past a person’s parish of birth or recent residence was considered the appropriate one to return vagrants to, however there was always a question. How the question was to be answered wasn’t in itself explained, but in practice a settlement was designated by birth, from the settlement of one’s father until times of marriage in which case a wife would then be settled on the Parish of her husband.

Fatherless children paid the price for the grey areas in practice whereby parish overseers would often transport the unfortunate expectant mother into an alternative parish in the days before she was due to give birth, preventing her from returning until she had the child, which was now the responsibility of the new Parish.
As a result, the mother would mostly be compelled to remain also. It wasn’t unheard of for the Parish to pay someone from another parish to marry these unfortunate women, thereby removing their own future financial responsibility, only for the man to abandon his wife and her child as soon as it was born. As his agreed obligation was absolved, his duty was done; He would move on, and the woman and her child were now the responsibility of a new parish.

In 1691 a further amendment was made to define further the settlement of those who worked in a different parish to their home. Apprentices (from the age of seven) could have their settlement transferred to the parish of their employer, likewise anybody who worked away from home for a full year. This move of course came with a loophole, whereby contracts were handed out for 364 days to prevent the worker from qualifying; alternatively, unpaid holidays would be given which also discounted settlement. Labourers in turn had the option of quitting their positions before the year’s tenure was up, thereby avoiding being stuck in a parish they didn’t care for.

Portrait of Sir Edward Knatchbull, 7th Baronet (1704-1789)

In 1697, the scope was once again enlarged to allow for those newcomers with a certificate of protection issued by their own parish to apply for assistance in a different parish until they were financially solvent enough to pay their own poor rates. It was increased in 1795 to cover all except the unfortunate single mums who were still considered too big a drain on poor relief. In an effort to distinguish them, the 1697 Amendment also required that those receiving assistance be identified by a cloth badge worn on their clothing, blue with a red P and the initial letter of their Parish. Not all parishes however enforced this condition and it was eventually abolished in 1810. The question of settlement would continue to be confusing despite several further amendments until 1865 when powers of settlement were placed within the control of the Poor Law Union and its Board of Guardians. The Act of Settlement was finally abolished completely in 1948.

In the 1730s to 1740s a series of rules were instigated known as the Bastardy Laws, again aimed at the unfortunate unwed mothers, forcing them to declare illegitimate children, and name the fathers, who would then be forced to support their child or face jail. Once imprisoned, his illegitimate child and the mother would qualify for support, until such times as the father agreed to support, and then he would further be expected to reimburse the parish. Finally, an illegitimate child born to a vagrant mother would automatically be settled in the parish of his or her mother, who would be in turn publicly whipped.

In 1714, in the South of England, starting with Buckinghamshire, Matthew Marryott opened a string of workhouses. In these facilities, he offered work for the destitute in return for food, shelter and relief. His model arguably became the format for the 1722-3 Knatchbull Act (The Workhouse Test Act) passed by Sir Edward Knatchbull. By the passing of this act, Parishes were now able to buy or rent accommodation and facilities either on their own or jointly with other parishes, to provide shelter and board to able bodied destitute in return for their gainful occupation in work. Should they refuse, the Parishes had the right to remove these paupers from their poor rates allowance. In practice however, several of these early facilities were already in operation some years before the Act was passed, notably dating back to the dying years of the 17thC.

Incorporating a system whereby these establishments were either run by parishes or passed on to the maintenance of a third party contractor, awarded by successful bids, meant that provision for various cross-sections of the poorest members of society, for example the elderly, orphans or lunatics, was passed on to others for a set price per annum. Accounts were rarely requested to prove expenditure. The model was designed to be a deterrent rather than a solution, in Knatchbull’s mind; his hope was that the notion of entering a workhouse was so abhorrent that it would force the neediest members of society to try harder to support themselves rather than become an inmate of such places.

By 1732, there were more than 700 Workhouses in England and Wales. By 1767, that number had increased to almost 2000. The workhouse as we know it, was born.

In Part three we shall look at the rise in workhouses, what the conditions were really like and how they worked. I shall explain how they were modelled and who they benefitted, and I will include a few stories and anecdotes.