‘They were stripped of their own clothes and possessions on arrival and forcibly washed, deloused and disinfected.’

Before the 1830s, poor aid was a parish affair. This meant that the poor were looked after by the local community. In medieval times, the job usually fell to the local clergy to help those in need. Monks would often provide free food and lodgings and medical care to the poor. With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 15th century, responsibility for the poor had to be taken up by someone else.

The cost of caring for the poor was steep and continued to rise steadily over the years. Some parishes experimented with ways to limit the taxpayer’s bills. They subsidised the wages of the poorest in the community, giving them additional pay so that they could maintain their own households rather than move into parish accommodation.

As the number of poor grew, taxpayers became dissatisfied with the situation. Many saw the poor as responsible for their own impoverished situations through want of thrift, morality or care. They did not think it was right to provide care for able-bodied adults and their families.

The cost of relieving the poor in England and Wales in 1803 was about £4 million, while in 1818, it had doubled to £8 million. Desperate times called for desperate measures and the late Georgian period measure was the workhouse.

In 1834 parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act (or New Poor Law as it became known). This act made it illegal to be destitute and homeless in England and Wales. If anyone found themselves homeless or incapable of caring for themselves, they were to report to the local police station and to apply for a ticket to the workhouse. Those who fell on hard times were no longer to be given handouts at home. The workhouse was to be the only charitable institution in the district eligible to take in the local poor.

Many small parishes banded together to form unions which could provide these workhouses for their communities. By 1839, there were over 600 unions in operation in England and Wales.

While they set the institutions up with charity in mind, they became little better than prisons. There was extreme supervision within the workhouse, personal possessions were removed, and they separated families from one another. Food was minimal but nourishing and boring, repetitive work was provided for those able to do it.

The language of the workhouse was the same as that for a prison. They labelled those who were forced to make the workhouse their home as ‘inmates’. They were stripped of their own clothes and possessions on arrival and forcibly washed, deloused and disinfected, before being made to put on a workhouse uniform of deliberately scratchy fabric. In some areas, they forced unmarried mothers to wear a special yellow uniform as a sign of their shame.

They separated young families with the men and women living in separate dormitories and the children living in a school wing. While mothers were supposed to be given access to any children under seven years of age at ‘all reasonable times’, this was not strictly adhered to.

Food was another issue within the workhouse. Fare was to be unchanging and purposefully coarse. The three meals a day mainly consisted of bread, porridge, cheese, potatoes and soup. Meat might be provided twice a week. The food was meant to be filling and nourishing but, in certain instances, it was found to be contaminated or completely inappropriate for human consumption. In 1846, an investigation into a workhouse heard that inmates had been found chewing the marrow out of rancid bones.

The working day provided little relief from the tedium of life in the workhouse. The work provided for the inmates was of a punitive rather than useful nature. People were asked to perform menial tasks such as breaking stones for roads, breaking up bones to make fertiliser, turning a mill handle and picking oakum. Picking oakum entailed taking lengths of old, tarred rope and unpicking the pieces. It was hard on the fingers and often performed by women or child inmates. In many workhouses, these tasks were to take place in silence.

Despite workhouses being available, many people lived in fear of having to enter them. The stigma of having been in the workhouse haunted people, and many preferred to go homeless and hungry rather than endure the cruel segregation of these institutions. By 1929, the power and usefulness of such places was waning. With the signing of the Local Government Act, local authorities took over the running of the workhouses and many districts converted them into municipal hospitals.

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