River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Echoes Of The Past

April 2001

The history of the Workhouse System

Recently I saw some reference to the old workhouse in Downham and the same day I read one of those letters that appear so often in the newspapers, where the writer is expressing the opinion that we are too soft on the those collecting social security money. This writer was of the view that if they were able to work then they should be required to do some community work to earn the money that they are receiving. Like the work-fare in the US, I suppose. Reading the two items on the same day rang some bells for me.

In the early nineteenth century the responsibility for ensuring that the poor did not starve or go without shelter rested with the parishes. The parishes raised the money through rates and any genuine case of need could expect a sympathetic response to an application for assistance. This localised welfare system had worked well since Elizabethan days, and the poor had retained some respect and dignity, but a rapid growth in applications had put the system under increasing strain. This growth was a result of an expanding population combined with an economic depression and a reduction in the manpower required in manufacture and agriculture as machines began to arrive on the scene.

The increased burden on the ratepayers led to some resentment of the poor and accusations that their situation was of their own making, that they were lazy and happy to live as parasites on society. The cost to the nation of supporting this army of unemployed was becoming very significant and it was argued that it was crippling the economy and generating a downward spiral by worsening the depression and creating more unemployed.

Although the ratepayers dug deeper into their pockets, the handouts became smaller such that people were near starvation. The contrast between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor led to resentment of the rich. There were riots and attacks on property, often on the machines that some saw as the cause of the unemployment.

As the situation worsened the government, under Lord Grey, set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry in 1832. As a consequence a Bill was passed in 1834 which established the Workhouse System, already pioneered by one group of parishes, under the control of a Poor Law Commission. The basic principle of the system was that parishes should join together in unions, each union would provide a workhouse. The poor would be required to reside within the workhouse and undertake such work as was provided. In exchange they would be given food and shelter. The Bill attracted fairly wide cross party support, many on the political left believed that it would ensure that the unfortunate did not go without the basic necessities of life, whilst those on the right thought that it would create a positive disincentive to those scroungers living on the backs of others.

Typical of the right wing views were those expressed by the Revd. H H Milman in a letter to Edwin Chadwick, the secretary to the Commission: "The workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness - with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity". At the time there was a widely held view by the clergy that the social order was God's will; that charity was the requirement of the wealthy and humility the requirement of the poor. For the poor to protest was seen as a sin. In the event the Commission operated the system in accordance with the views of Milman. Conditions in the workhouse were harsh; men were segregated from women, so that husbands and wives were parted and often mothers were separated from children. The work was generally hard or unpleasant or both and the working hours long.

The effect of the operation of the Poor Law Commission was dramatic, within three years the burden of the parish rates had been reduced by 46 percent, resulting in substantial annual savings nationally. Ratepayers were relieved and were ready to praise the work of the Commission. The success of the system, however, was not because a significant number of the poor were idle scroungers but because the prospect of entering the workhouse was viewed with such dread that many paupers would rather risk starving to death than accept the regime. There were some voices raised in protest, notable amongst these was the proprietor of The Times. He saw it as an act of monstrous wickedness to lock the poor up like criminals, separating families and impounding their simplest possessions just because they could not find work and were destitute.

The endeavours of those anxious to make the system work humanely were undermined by the zealousness shown by some of those in charge endeavouring to ensure that the workhouse should be a place of hardship, and by the behaviour of some of those appointed as governors. Rumours began to circulate about some of the happenings, most of which were subsequently proven correct. There was an instance of three young children having their food ration reduced to below the subsistence level as a means of disciplining them, they were held in stocks at meal times so that they could watch the other children eat. The grinding of bones by hand crushers was a popular work for inmates and the pieces of rotting flesh left on the bones was often eaten to supplement the meagre ration. Women inmates were subjected to sexual harassment and their favours bought by food. Eventually there were inquiries that established the truth and a public outcry followed which led to the demise of the Poor Law Commission 13 years after its inauguration.

Sadly workhouses were to continue to be a feature of British society for many more years, only their management structure was changed.

Ron Watts

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