The Workhouse System, how well did it work?
The workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility. It should be administered with strictness and with severity. It should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity
So said the Reverend H.H Milman to Edwin Chadwick in 1832.
The 1830’s were a troubled time for the people and Government of Britain. They seemed assailed on all sides and the causes were many and varied.
- Depression had hit the industrial north, thousands were rendered homeless as they lost their jobs
- Crops were ruined by a series of weather events that included massive storms, rain and bitterly cold temperatures
- Cholera was killing tens of thousands of people
- Riot, arson and sabotage threatened the country with civil war
- Population increase was spiraling, in 30 years the population had increased by 2/3
In short the poor were everywhere and keeping them fed was costing the British Government dearly and it seemed the more they paid, the worse the problem became.
- Paupers however were not troubled by this problem, hungry, homeless and with little chance of work, they took to violence to solve their problems, breaking machinery in what is known as the Labourer’s Riots or Swing Riots.
- The Great Reform Act of 1832 added to their woes.
In 1832 Lord Grey was tasked with finding a solution to the problem. It took him two years, in which misery was mounting for the people but finally in 1834 he presented a radical new bill, the Poor Law Amendment Act that overturned the old system of poor relief and put in it’s place a system that would deal with the poor on a national scale.
- Instead of the benefit being handed out to the people in their cottages, the money would be handed to national institutions, workhouses, which would be built specifically for the task and be under the control of a government commission.
- The choice was to be simple, forgo your freedom and live under a controlled regime where your basic needs would be taken care of or remain in your cottage and find work.
Despite it’s opponents, the bill was successful and on 13th August 1834, the Workhouse System was introduced.
- It dealt harshly with the poor. Couples were separated, children removed from parents, there was insufficient food.
- The Poor Law Commission were determined to reduce the poor rate at any cost to those poor unfortunates, caught in a set of circumstances beyond their control.
The number of paupers reduced dramatically and the Commissioners were delighted to see the poor rate fall by 20% but it wasn’t as a result of the Workhouse System, the weather had improved and the economy was more buoyant than it had been.
Disaster struck as a new decade began. More than a million people were out of work at the start of the 1840’s and the new workhouses were filled to capacity.
- Opponents to the workhouse system continued to wage war against the Governments policy.
- John Walter editor of the Times newspaper had been the Governments most vociferous critic and as conditions in the workhouses worsened, his paper continued to report on the deteriorating conditions suffered by those in the worst workhouses.
- A series of reports based on an investigation by a Times reporter into one of the worst workhouses, that of the Andover Workhouse, finally brought down the Poor Law Commission and the whole sorry business exposed.
However the poor did not go away and the Workhouse System was here to stay and indeed it saved the lives of many, giving paupers, food, shelter, clothes and medical attention at a time when they would have none.
At the time it was conceived, the idea of a system in which costs to the poor rate payer and the Government could be reduced, stability for the country in terms of civil disobedience could be assured and the poor taken care of, it must have seemed like a good idea or at least better than nothing, if nothing was the only alternative.
If you have an interest in the Poor Law or Workhouse System there are a number of other posts you might be interested in.
- For the family historian see Workhouse and Poor Law Records for Family Historians