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Roman Britain
Saxon Britain
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Tudor Britain
Victorian Britain
World War Two
500 BC
AD 43
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The Workhouse


Before 1834, poor people were looked after by buying food and clothing from money collected from land owners and other wealthy people.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, ensured that no able-bodied person could get poor relief unless they went to live in special workhouses. The idea was that the poor were helped to support themselves. They had to work for their food and accommodation.

What were workhouses?

Workhouses were where poor people who had no job or home lived. They earned their keep by doing jobs in the workhouse.

Also in the workhouses were orphaned (children without parents) and abandoned children, the physically and mentally sick, the disabled, the elderly and unmarried mothers.

The Workhouse, Southwell
The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Workhouses were often very large and were feared by the poor and old.

A workhouse provided:

  • a place to live
  • a place to work and earn money
  • free medical care,
  • food
  • clothes
  • free education for children and training for a job.

The staff of a workhouse included:

  • a Master
  • a Matron
  • a Medical Officer
  • a Chaplain
  • a porter
  • a school-teacher

Workhouses provided almost everything that was needed onsite:

  • dining-hall for eating
  • dormitories for sleeping
  • kitchen
  • school-rooms
  • nurseries,
  • rooms for the sick,
  • a chapel,
  • a mortuary.
  • bakery
  • laundry
  • tailors for making clothes
  • shoe-maker
  • vegetable gardens
  • small farm

Why were workhouses feared by the poor and old?

The government, terrified of encouraging 'idlers' (lazy people), made sure that people feared the workhouse and would do anything to keep out of it.

How did they do that?
What were workhouses like?

Women, children and men had different living and working areas in the workhouse, so families were split up. To make things even worse they could be punished if they even tried to speak to one another!

The education the children received did not include the two most important skills of all, reading and writing, which were needed to get a good job.

The poor were made to wear a uniform. This meant that everyone looked the same and everyone outside knew they were poor and lived in the workhouse.

Upon entering the workhouse, the poor were stripped and bathed (under supervision).

The food was tasteless and was the same day after day.

The young and old as well as men and women were made to work hard, often doing unpleasant jobs.

Children could also find themselves 'hired out' (sold) to work in factories or mines.

Dr Thomas Barnardo and orphan children

Dr Thomas Barnardo felt that workhouses were the wrong places for children and so from 1867 onwards, he led the way in setting up proper children’s homes.


More information

Did the treatment of the poor improve after the 1834 Poor Law?

Rules of a workhouse

What did they eat in Workhouses?
Food menus from six different workhouses

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