Life in the Workhouse

Step back in time and imagine yourself in the mid 19th century. Your personal circumstances have taken a turn for the worse and you find yourself a likely candidate for the Union Workhouse. Contrary to common belief this didn’t necessarily mean that you, or the thousands like you in a similar situation, were work-shy. In fact, the vast majority of people who ended up in such a place after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 were generally poor, old, infirm, orphaned or unmarried mothers. A great many more were physically or mentally ill. The workhouse was basically the last refuge for anybody unable to support himself or herself but, surprisingly, entry was often a voluntary, albeit painful decision made by the individuals themselves. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact they actually had to apply to get into the workhouse.

So let’s suppose you fall into any one of the above categories and have applied to enter the workhouse. Like most admissions you would first require an interview, carried out by a Relieving Officer who regularly travelled each parish in the Union and established an applicant’s circumstances. If you were an urgent case the workhouse Master would interview you, but formal admission was ultimately authorised by the Board of Guardians at their weekly meetings. Having satisfied them of your plight you would probably make your own way to the workhouse and there be placed in a receiving or probationary ward. The medical officer would check on your state of health, and if suffering any illness you’d be placed in a sick ward.

Assuming relative good health, your hair would be cropped and you would then be stripped, bathed and issued with a workhouse uniform. Your own clothes would be washed and disinfected, and along with any other personal possessions be stored away until you left. Despite the strict regime, workhouses could never be described as prisons. A uniform was worn by all inmates and the daily diet, rest and work routine dictated by the Board of Guardians, but any pauper could, on giving three hours notice, leave the workhouse if they so wished. In fact, there was nothing to stop any inmate leaving at any time, but if they did so without prior notice, and while wearing the workhouse uniform, he or she could be charged with theft.

Your standard uniform would either be bought-in or made by workhouse inmates as a work task. It would generally be ill-fitting and made from coarse materials, the emphasis being on durability rather than comfort. Men’s uniform usually comprised of jackets of strong ‘Fernought’ cloth, breeches or trousers, striped cotton shirts, cloth cap and shoes. Women and girls were treated similarly on entry, their workhouse uniform consisting of strong ‘growgram’ calico shifts, petticoats made of Linsey-woolsey material, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers.

In later years, able-bodied women wore an ankle length, shapeless blue and white striped frock with an over-smock, and old women wore a bonnet or mop-cap, shawl and apron. Like the mens’ uniform, the materials used were not made for comfort. For many years certain categories of inmates wore clothing or badges of certain colours to denote their disposition.

Depending on your own circumstances, age and sex, you would be strictly segregated into one of seven groups and allocated your own area of the workhouse. You wouldn’t be allowed to mix with other groups even in leisure time. Families were split up immediately on arrival and were liable to be punished if ever they tried to speak to each other. Men and women were kept apart at all times for fear they would ‘breed’, but after 1847 married couples aged sixty and over were allowed to request a separate bedroom. For those who didn’t meet this criteria, accommodation would be segregated, basic and without privacy.

All of your meals would be eaten in a large dining-hall that usually doubled as a chapel, and you would sleep in a dormitory often shared with up to twenty other inmates. Apart from your uniform, the dormitory contained the only other possession you were allowed in the workhouse – that being the bed you slept on. Simply constructed with a wooden or metal frame, and usually no more than 2ft (61cm) across, bedding would comprise of a flock-filled mattress and two or three blankets. Sheets and pillows were not provided as these were considered a luxury. Had you arrived in the 1840s, bedding was a little more basic; a mattress and cover, both filled with straw. Bed sharing was common among young children but banned for adults. Vagrants, or casuals, slept on the floor or on a raised wooden platform, although in some cases they spent the night in a wooden box that resembled a coffin.

However bad the toilet facilities you had at home, they would have seemed luxurious compared to the small day-time privy you would queue up to use and share with up to one hundred other inmates. It was generally a cesspit with a simple cover having a hole in it on which to sit. Night-time would allow you a little more privacy as each dormitory was supplied with chamber pots, but after 1860 these gave way to earth closets – boxes filled with dry soil, which could afterwards be used as fertiliser. Hygiene was not high on the agenda. Daily washing of your hands and face would be a normal routine but your only bath would be taken once a week and usually under supervision. If you were a man you’d be allowed to shave once a week.

Between March and September your hour of rising would be 5am followed by prayers and breakfast between 6am and 7am. Work duties would then commence and continue until 6pm with an hour for dinner between noon and 1pm. Supper and prayers would be between 6pm and 7pm and you’d be tucked up in your 2ft wide bed by 8pm. Between September and March your hour of rising would be delayed until 6am, but otherwise the daily timetable would be much the same.

Depending on your sex you would be separated for the daily work routine, most women doing domestic chores such as cleaning, washing or helping out in the kitchen. If you were lucky, your workhouse might have workshops where you could hone your sewing, spinning or weaving skills. In rural areas men were often used for agricultural labour, but more menial tasks included bone-crushing for use as fertiliser (banned after 1845), oakum-picking (unravelling short lengths of tarred or knotted rope), sack-making, stone-breaking and corn-grinding. The latter involved a number of men walking a treadmill in order to drive the corn mill. In 1892, the Guardians of Bishop’s Stortford workhouse purchased further land for the growing of vegetables, which ultimately helped feed the inmates.

After 1835 the Poor Law Commissioners issued six sample dietary tables for use in workhouses, which each board of Guardians used as a basis for the diet of their own workhouse – subject to agreement of the Poor Law Commissioners, of course. This diet would vary depending on age or infirmity but generally consisted of vegetables and a daily allowance of meat, butter, cheese, bread and 3 pints of beer. The actual food ration fell well below the official ration in H.M. Prisons at that time.

The main constituent for all your meals would be bread, usually supplemented at breakfast and supper by gruel or porridge. Your only variation of food would be dinner, although this also consisted of bread and sometimes only cheese. Sugar and fruit were rare and milk was often diluted with water. You would be summoned to your meal breaks by the ringing of the workhouse bell and be expected to maintain silence, order and decorum while eating your meal at one of a row of narrow tables all facing the same direction. Prior to 1842 no cutlery was provided and inmates had to use their fingers.

Rules and regulations that governed your life as an inmate were numerous, and walls were liberally ‘decorated’ with sheets of paper listing them all. Printed Bible passages (‘Blessed are the poor..’) also told inmates how fortunate they were! For those paupers that could not read – and there were many – the rules were read out once a week at chapel. But despite this, rules were often broken and after 1834 punishment for not abiding by them fell into two categories.

Disorderly behaviour i.e. making a noise, swearing, disobeying orders, refusing to work or trying to escape was a punishable offence that usually entailed a 48 hour diet of bread and potatoes and the withholding of ‘luxuries’ such as butter and tea. Refractory behaviour i.e. abusing a member of staff, assaulting another person, willful damage, being drunk or acting or writing in an indecent manner, was punishable by a reduction in diet and solitary confinement for up to 24 hours. Serious cases could be referred to the Justice of the Peace.

The average stay of a pauper in the workhouse was about five years, but the elderly, chronically sick and mentally ill tended to be long-term inmates. If you were unfortunate enough to die in the workhouse your body would be taken to the dead-room (mortuary) and your family, if indeed you had one, be notified to arrange for your burial. If your body remained unclaimed the Guardians made the arrangements and they had two choices for your disposal. If they chose burial your coffin would be made of the cheapest wood and confined to an unmarked grave in the local cemetery or burial ground of your parish of origin, with little or no ceremony. The alternative was to avoid all expense and donate your remains for medical research.

•Much of the information about conditions in workhouses was taken from several websites on the subject, but special mention must be made of Peter Higgingbotham’s website ( It gives a truly fascinating and detailed insight into workhouses and their history, as well as a full transcript of the 1834 Poor Law Act.

Fascinating reading also is the diary of William Barlow (1802–1883), who kept a personal diary during the time he was Master of Bishop’s Stortford Union Workhouse.