AskDefine | Define workhouse

The Collaborative Dictionary

Workhouse \Work"house`\, n.; pl. Workhouses. [AS. weorch[=u]s.] [1913 Webster]
A house where any manufacture is carried on; a workshop. [1913 Webster]
A house in which idle and vicious persons are confined to labor. [1913 Webster]
A house where the town poor are maintained at public expense, and provided with labor; a poorhouse. [1913 Webster]

Word Net



1 a poorhouse where able-bodied poor are compelled to labor
2 a county jail that holds prisoners for periods up to 18 months

Moby Thesaurus

agency, almshouse, asylum, atelier, barbershop, beauty parlor, beauty shop, bench, butcher shop, company, concern, corporation, desk, establishment, facility, firm, foster home, halfway house, home, hospice, hospitium, house, installation, institution, loft, nursing home, organization, orphanage, parlor, poor farm, poorhouse, rest home, retreat, shop, studio, sweatshop, work site, work space, workbench, working space, workplace, workroom, workshop, worktable



  1. a prison in which the sentence includes manual labour
  2. formerly, an institution for the poor homeless, funded by the local parish where the able-bodied were required to work
In British history, a workhouse, colloquially known as a 'spike', was a place where people who were unable to support themselves could go to live and work. The earliest recorded example of a workhouse dates to 1652 in Exeter although there is some written evidence that workhouses existed before this date. Records mention a workhouse in 1631 in Abingdon.

Relief of the Poor and Impotent, 1579, Scotland

In 1579, an act of the Scottish Parliament "For Punishment of Strang and Idle Beggars, and Reliefe of the Pure and Impotent" laid the basis of the system of poor relief in Scotland. Each parish had to make a list of its own poor lord (those who had been born there or who had lived there for seven years or more), "that the aged, impotent, and pure people, suld have ludgeing and abiding places" , and to enable "heritors" or land-owners to take the children of beggars into unpaid service until they were eighteen, in the case of girls, or twenty-four, for boys. This was amended by a further act of 1597 to transfer administration to the Kirk Session (Church of Scotland assembly) in each parish.

Elizabethan Poor Law, 1601, England and Wales

In 1601 the Elizabethan Poor Law made no mention of workhouses. Nevertheless, the act stated that “materials should be bought to provide work for the unemployed able-bodied". The act did propose the building of housing for the impotent poor, which included the elderly and chronically sick. Most poor relief of the time continued to be in the form of outdoor relief. The system was funded through rates, a local tax. The workhouse system began to evolve in the 17th century as a way for (Church of England) parishes to decrease the cost to rate-payers. This form of indoor relief was a deterrent to the able-bodied who were required to work usually without pay. The Workhouse Test Act made it possible for parishes to deny outdoor relief and only provide indoor relief.
Some parishes contracted out their poor relief provisions — a private contractor would manage the parish's workhouse system for a fixed annual fee. The workhouse was not necessarily regarded as a place of punishment and some workhouses gained the nickname "Pauper palaces" because of their pleasant conditions.

Act of 1672, Scotland

An act of 1672 ordered magistrates to erect "correction houses" or workhouses in which beggars could be detained and made to work.

Political attitude and social environment

From the earliest times it had always been accepted that a proportion of the population were unable to support themselves and had to be provided for. Prior to 1830 most parishes provided outdoor relief, a system of cash payments made to the poor on an ad hoc basis in time of need. However, in the early 19th century the principle of laissez faire was developed. This held that poverty was largely the result of fecklessness, immorality, idleness and drunkenness and that too liberal a welfare regime would merely encourage these vices and discourage self-improvement and honest labour.
Coupled with this, the Industrial Revolution, a rising population and urbanisation was resulting in increased levels of perceived poverty that the old parish system was unable to cope with.

Gilbert's Unions, 1782, England and Wales

Gilbert's Act of 1782 simplified the procedures for parishes to set up workhouses and allowed parishes to form unions known as Gilbert Unions. Under the Gilbert's scheme able-bodied paupers were not admitted to the workhouse but were maintained by the parish until work could be found for them. Few workhouses were built under Gilbert's scheme but supplementing wages under a system known as the Speenhamland system did become established.

Southwell Workhouse

In 1824, the Minster town of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England constructed their workhouse for the surrounding parish which would additionally cater for the able-bodied poor; these people would no longer be eligible for any support unless they entered the workhouse, where conditions were harsher than those for the "blameless poor". These harsh conditions were in contrast to some of the more asylum-like workhouses in existence at the time, and Southwell became the prototype for all English workhouses as codified in the legislation which followed in 1834.

The Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834, England and Wales

The workhouse system was set up in England and Wales under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 although many individual houses existed before this legislation. Outdoor relief was discouraged and each group of parishes had to provide a workhouse. Under the 1834 system individual parishes were formed into Poor Law Unions — each Poor Law Union was to have a union workhouse.
Inmates were free to enter and leave as they liked and would receive free food and accommodation. However, the concern was that too liberal a regime would lead to many people who could easily work taking it easy in the workhouse. This would lead not only to an excessive charge on charitable funds but a dilution of the work ethic. To counter this the principle of less eligibility was developed. Workhouse life was deliberately made as harsh and degrading as possible so that only the truly destitute would apply. Attempts were also made to provide moral guidance, training and education to the poor but it would be fair to say that the principle of less eligibility combined with the ever present desire to save money scuppered any real chance of success in this area.
Workhouse conditions were governed by the Consolidated General Order, a formidable series of rules governing every aspect of workhouse life such as diet, dress, education, discipline and redress of grievances.

Poor Law Act of 1845, Scotland

In 1843 a Commission of Enquiry was appointed to consider the operation of poor laws in Scotland. Their report proposed to broadly keep relief organized at the parish level although parishes, particularly in urban areas, should be united for settlement and poor-relief purposes, including the establishment of united poorhouses. They also proposed the creation of a Board of Supervision to oversee the management of each parish's poor relief. These proposals were put into effect on 4 August 1845 in an Act for The Amendment and better Administration of the Laws Relating to the relief of the Poor in Scotland. This act was an enabling act: Parishes could create poorhouses, but were not required to. Parishes could group together to provide common poorhouses.
The workhouse system was the mainstay of poor relief through the Victorian era across the UK. Overall they were places of dread to the labouring and indigent poor. Reformers like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree revealed that there was widespread poverty in Victorian Britain and that the workhouse system was not helping. Books such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist highlighted workhouse abuse. George Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" includes first-hand accounts of workhouses in the 1920s and of people he met therein.


The workhouse system underwent several administrative reforms and was abolished on 1st April 1930, being replaced by other social legislation for the unemployed and retired.

Workhouse diet

This was of poor quality. Until 1842 all meals were eaten in silence and in the 1830s some workhouses did not allow cutlery to complete the humiliation.
Breakfast in a workhouse usually consisted of 7oz (200g) of bread and 1½ pints (0.8l) of gruel. Lunch was not much better and often consisted of a maximum of 1½ pints of poor quality vegetable soup. For dinner a workhouse member would expect 6oz (170g) of bread and 2oz (60g) of cheese. Due to this poor diet the members of a workhouse often suffered from malnutrition.
In the 1850s the then vicar of Stoughton and Racton in West Sussex wrote to the Guardians of the Westbourne Workhouse requesting that (as a matter of Christian charity) second helpings of gruel were provided on Christmas Day. He was informed in no uncertain terms that if the rations were raised above the minimum required to keep body and soul together the result would be laziness, fecklessness, and hordes of otherwise able bodied people clamouring to get in.

Workhouse discipline

The workhouse master could implement rules in order to create a system of rewards and punishments which aimed to instil discipline. For breaking rules paupers could be punished with the type of job they had to do that day. There were specific punishments which are set out by the Poor Law Commission. Examples were beatings (for male inmates only), cells and reductions in rations.
There can be little doubt that workhouses were rowdy places. The petty regulations and the requirement of less eligibility meant that relations between staff and inmates were often bad. Low level violence, verbal and sexual abuse were common.
Inmates could leave with three hours notice. Inevitably, a transient population bringing in all the problems of the outside world cannot have made for calm.

Workhouse conditions

Workhouse conditions were deliberately harsh to deter the able-bodied idle poor from relying on them. Men and women were segregated and children were separated from their parents. Aged pauper couples who by definition were neither idle nor criminal were not allowed to share a bedroom. By entering a workhouse paupers were held to have forfeited responsibility for their children. Education was provided but pauper children were often forcibly apprenticed without the permission or knowledge of their parents. Inmates surrendered their own clothes and wore a distinctive uniform.
There were many well-meaning measures such as education for children and the provision of doctors and chaplains. However most workhouses were run on a shoestring and these philanthropic gestures often fell far short.
In many ways the treatment in a workhouse was little different from that in a prison leaving many inmates feeling that they were being punished for the crime of poverty.
The terrible conditions in some workhouses may have led to depression. There were references to workhouse women who would not speak and children who refused to play.
Some workhouse masters embezzled the money intended for blankets, food and other important items for their own personal use.
Visitors reported rooms full of sick or elderly inmates with threadbare blankets and the windows wide open to the freezing weather.
Workhouse infirmaries did steadily improve. In Wakefield in 1854 the superior facilities offered by the workhouse led to the closure of the local hospital. In 1865 Florence Nightingale dispatched Agnes Jones and 12 nurses to sort out the Liverpool Workhouse. Many of the illiterate pauper nurses were sacked and many improvements instituted. The Crumpsall infirmary, opened in 1878, was of a high standard. By 1900 many people were voluntarily entering workhouse infirmaries, drawn by the better standards of care.
In 1846 the notorious Andover scandal revealed a shocking state of affairs at this Hampshire workhouse. The Master, an ex-sergeant major named Colin M'Dougal, ran a reign of terror. Starving paupers were reduced to sucking the marrow from the bones they were supposed to be grinding for fertiliser.
Work was provided to keep the inmates busy. It was usually boring, hard and degrading. Examples included crushing bones, stone breaking and picking oakum. Cooking and cleaning in the workhouse kept many busy.
Workhouse conditions did improve as the nineteenth century wore on, although few lived up to the high-minded ideals of many of the founders of the system.

Workhouse staff

In order to save money the Poor Law Commissioners in England and Wales paid abominably badly. To give an example the Governor of a Victorian prison received £600.00 per annum. A workhouse master and matron running a similarly sized organization received on average £80.00 per annum between them. Often the posts of master and clerk were combined on the one salary. Inevitably workhouse service often attracted ill-qualified, brutal, drunken incompetent failures from other walks of life. Like the inmates many were there because they couldn't get anything better. It often attracted rootless ex-army NCOs and their wives with no experience of running large institutions. George Catch, an ex-policeman, ran a regime of corruption, tyranny and murder in several workhouses until he threw himself under a train.
Workhouse chaplains and doctors were paid less than half of what they could expect anywhere else. Medical officers had to pay for the drugs they supplied — hardly an incentive to follow the Hippocratic Oath. The practice of employing illiterate paupers as nurses led to problems. Many a chaplain must have struggled in vain to instill morality and true religion into his foul-mouthed and blasphemous workhouse flock.
Workhouse teachers were a particular problem. Workhouse guardians were keen to educate pauper children for the very good reason that if they could read and write they were less likely to return to the workhouse as adults. In Salisbury, Coventry and Deptford it was revealed that the appointed teacher (usually one of the paupers) was illiterate. Prior to Forster's Education Act 1870 poor children received no education at all so essentially the workhouse was an improvement.
Simon Fowler in Workhouse:the People, the Places, the Life behind Doors has developed this theme. He points out that workhouses need to be judged by the standards of the time and that whatever their shortcomings they did save many from starvation. He also points out that as economic conditions improved throughout the 19th century workhouses took in very few of the able bodied poor. By the late 19th century the overwhelming bulk of workhouse inmates were the elderly, orphaned or abandoned children, deserted wives and the mentally and physically ill. There was no need to deter these unfortunate people by harsh conditions and there was some improvement.
To be fair the bad examples are not the whole picture and it needs to be set against conditions for the poor at that time. However bad workhouse education and medical facilities were, they were an improvement on what was offered outside to paupers (which was usually nothing). Things did gradually improve over time and most of the real workhouse horror stories date from the first half of the nineteenth century. Some workhouses were models of efficiency and compassion. At Ashford the paupers wept at the retirement of the master, an ex naval officer.
The 1846 report from the Poor Law Commissioners stated: "The Workhouse is a large household... it resembles a private family on an enlarged scale." Pious and laudable though these sentiments were, one is left wondering just what kind of family the commissioners had in mind. Even the most repressive Victorian patriarch did not aim to make life as unpleasant for members of his family so that their main purpose in life was to leave.


In 1838, following a report by Mrs. Murphy, an Act for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland was passed. It was based for the most part on the same model that existed for England and Wales with relief centred on the workhouse. Initially, 130 Irish unions were created, with an additional 33 being added in 1848-50.

Further reading

  • Rosemary Rees: Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948
  • Peter Murray: Poverty and Welfare 1830-1914
  • Simon Fowler: Workhouse: the people, the places, the life behind closed doors
  • Case study: Workhouses in Suffolk in the 1760s


External links

workhouse in German: Arbeitshaus
workhouse in Spanish: Workhouse
workhouse in French: Workhouse
workhouse in Norwegian: Arbeidshus
workhouse in Swedish: Arbetshus
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