There had been a few workhouses in England since the 1700s which provided a shelter for the sick, mentally handicapped, poor and elderly, but not every parish could afford to support one. The population was rapidly increasing in nineteenth-century England, though, and something had to be done to cope with rising levels of poverty. The Poor Law Act in 1834 allowed parishes to group together into unions, with a workhouse building at the centre of every union. Before 1834, people could stay in their own homes and claim parish relief, but after the Act, they had to go into the workhouse and claim relief there. This was seen as a way of keeping an eye on those who were too drunk or lazy to look after themselves, as well as the 'deserving' poor.

This photograph shows the real-life 'Archway of Tears', whose name I borrowed for the workhouse in Polly's Story: the entrane to the Birmingham Union workhouse, photographed by Peter Higginbotham, whose excellent website on workhouses is mentioned below. (I was delighted to see him recently on the television programme 'Who Do You Think You Are' with the actress Una Stubbs; he's the go-to man as far as workhouses are concerned!) 

Going into the workhouse was almost always a desperate act of last resort. It was likely to be a degrading, humiliating experience. Arriving at the workhouse gates, the prospective inmate would be interviewed by the warden or matron, then stripped, washed and given a haircut. Their clothes were taken away (sometimes burnt) and they would be issued with a uniform made from coarse, hardwearing material. Families were split up, with men, women and children housed in separate wings and not allowed to communicate with each other even in communal areas (although elderly couples could sometimes stay together). Here is the timetable of a typical workhouse day, which only varied on Sundays (when the inmates didn't have to work) and Christmas Day:

6 a.m. – time to get up, listen to prayers and eat breakfast, announced by the ringing of a bell. Men and women ate in different rooms and were not usually allowed to speak during meals. For breakfast, they would have bread and gruel (a thin porridge made from oatmeal and water).

7 a.m – start work. Women might help with cleaning, sewing or cooking. Another task (a very boring and repetitive one) was picking oakum, which involved teasing old hemp rope into a mass of fibres that could be sold to shipbuilders for mixing with tar and lining the hulls of wooden boats. Men would be expected to do more physical work: breaking stones, chopping wood or labouring on local farms.

12 p.m. – mid-day dinner, the main meal of the day. This would consist of meat (probably boiled) and potatoes or some other kind of vegetable from the workhouse garden, or sometimes only bread and cheese.

1 p.m. – start work again.

6 - 7 p.m. – supper, usually bread and cheese.

8 p.m. – to bed for the night. The picture below shows a newly-opened sleeping ward at the Marylebone workhouse, London, in the late nineteenth century (reproduced in The Workhouse, Norman Longmate, published by Pimlico).

 An unfortunate man called James Withers Reynolds who spent some time in Newmarket workhouse later became known as 'the workhouse poet'. This is how he described life there in a verse letter to his sister, 'Written from Newmarket Union', 1846:

'Since I cannot, dear sister, with you hold communion,

I'll give you a sketch of our life in the union.

But how to begin I don't know, I declare:

Let me see: well, the first is our grand bill of fare.

We've skilly for breakfast; at night bread and cheese,

And we eat it and then go to bed if you please.

Two days in the week we have puddings for dinner,

And two, we have broth, so like water but thinner;

Two, meat and potatoes, of this none to spare;

One day, bread and cheese – and this is our fare.

And now then my clothes I will try to portray;

They're made of coarse cloth and the colour is gray,

My jacket and waistcoat don't fit me at all;

My shirt is too short, or I am too tall;

My shoes are not pairs, though of course I have two,

They are down at the heel and my stockings are blue ...

A sort of Scotch bonnet we wear on our heads,

And I sleep in a room where there are just fourteen beds.

Some are sleeping, some are snoring, some talking, some playing,

Some swearing, some fighting, but very few praying ...


The workhouse inmates were not completely abandoned, however. Several kindhearted Victorian women took up their cause; in particular, Louisa Twining, of the Twining's tea family. In 1859, she helped set up the Workhouse Visiting Society, and conditions in the workhouses began to come to public attention. A Somerset woman, Mrs Emma Shepherd, was particularly interested in workhouse children, who were often appallingly treated. Here is one of the examples of cruelty she uncovered:

One day I saw a little girl with red eyes at our school (for they had no school-mistress at the workhouse) whose heart seemed bursting, and on enquiring the cause, she said, "Missus has roped me." Her back and arms were red and covered with great weals and marks of rope. The child told me that it was done for the merest trifle, and that all the union children told how it was the "missus's" constant habit to beat them with a thick hair rope, made on purpose. It had two knots at the end and a loop for the hand.

Not all the workhouses were run on such harsh lines – several were enlightened places, truly dedicated to helping the poor and needy – but many were a law unto themselves until women like Miss Twining and Mrs Shepherd started looking into them. Even if the children weren't actually beaten, there are heartbreaking accounts from workhouse visitors of toddlers being forcibly separated from their mothers. One lady described what she found on a Christmas visit to the children's ward of a local workhouse (published in Macmillan's Magazine, 1861):

A little fellow, half-hidden by a huge round plum-cake, which stood on the table before him, attracted my attention by his woe-begone face, and piteous efforts to repress an occasional sob ... I lingered behind the rest of the party to ask what ailed him. The sobs came louder as he faltered out, 'Mammy!'... The sugar plum I gave him was disdainfully thrown on the floor, as he begged, in passionate, broken accents, to be taken to 'mammy'. I was quite at a loss; but the mistress came up to us, and quieted him with the often repeated and often broken promise that, if Jemmy would be a goodboy and leave off crying, she would take him very soon to see his mammy. The poor little fellow manfully choked down his sobs and sat with eager black eyes fixed on his mistress, evidently trying hard to show her how good he was, in hopes of earning the promised reward. In answer to my questions, the mistress told me that Jemmy had only been in the house two days. He was brought in with his mother, a respectable woman from the country... She further said it was hard work getting mother and child apart.

(Quoted in The Workhouse, Norman Longmate, Pimlico)

If you would like to find out more about workhouses, Peter Higginbotham's site is a mine of information, very clearly organised and laid out:

You can test your knowledge with a workhouse quiz, and read the full version of another wonderful poem, 'It Was Christmas Day in the Workhouse', by George R Sims.