Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914

[ Workhouse changes 1834 to 1914 ] The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act Unions ] Workhouse conditions ] The end of workhouses ] Swansea Union Workhouse (later Mount Pleasant Hospital) ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A block plan from the 1880s ] Evidence: Signs of the workhouse ] Swansea Union Workhouse - A nurse's duties in 1904 (1) ] A Swansea Workhouse Christmas poem 1870 ] A Poor Law Timeline 1349 to 1948 ]

Between 1834 and 1914 there were gradual changes in the nature of the union workhouse as an institution. Firstly, the composition of the workhouse population altered. The provision of outdoor relief (the payment of money, or the provision of goods or services) to able-bodied adults meant that they constituted a smaller proportion of the workhouse population from the mid- 19th century onwards. Initially, the intention had been that all outdoor relief to the able-bodied should cease, except for those requiring temporary relief for medical reasons: for the others the ‘workhouse test’ should be applied. But this proved to be impractical in northern England, where there was strong opposition to the building of workhouses and where outdoor relief continued to be given. In the south. too, the practice of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied, by various means, gradually returned. 

After 1850 the inmates of workhouses were, in the main, the old, the sick, the handicapped, children and unmarried mothers. There was also a shifting population of vagrants or ‘casuals’, who were as far as possible kept completely separated from the other inmates. The conditions in which the inmates lived also changed, with increasing differentiation between the treatment given to different groups. For the vagrants, who had to endure the drudgery of oakum-picking or stone-breaking in exchange for a bowl of gruel and a night in an unheated casual ward, the workhouse remained harsh and inhospitable. The unmarried mothers, or ‘unchaste women’, were also isolated from the other inmates as far as possible. They were often excluded from the small privileges extended to others, because their poverty was deemed to result from their moral failings. 

There was a slight relaxation in the regime for the old, and greater concern was shown for the conditions of the handicapped. Towards the end of the century, it became an increasingly common (though not universal) practice for children to be removed from the workhouse altogether and placed in foster homes or in separate children’s homes.

It was perhaps in the treatment of the sick that the most significant improvement took place. The development of the medical and nursing professions meant that expectations and standards were rising. Conditions in workhouse sick wards attracted increasing criticism, most notably from the medical journal, The Lancet, which in the I 860s exposed the appalling state of the workhouse infirmaries in London and campaigned for improvements. In some unions, sick wards were amalgamated and reorganised, while in others entirely new infirmaries were built. By 1900, there were strong forces for change in the administration of workhouses and in the poor law as a whole. The work of charitable individuals and organisations such as the Workhouse Visiting Society had for some time been creating a greater public awareness of workhouse conditions. They pressed strongly for improvements, especially in the treatment of the more vulnerable groups of inmates. By the end of the century there was also a different attitude to the causes of poverty: the work of Charles Booth and others had brought a recognition that unemployment should not necessarily be regarded as a consequence of the moral shortcomings of the unemployed.

 A further factor was the extension of the franchise. At the national level this facilitated the election of MPs drawn from or sympathetic to the working class; at the local level it caused a change in the composition of boards of guardians. The franchise for the election of boards of guardians was made the same as that for parliamentary elections in 1894, and at the same time the property qualification, which had been reduced to £5 per year in 1892, was abolished. Working-class guardians could now be elected; women guardians. too, be­came more numerous. The reporting of their meetings in the local press, which had a rapidly growing readership, also helped to make the guardians more accountable to a wider public.

In 1905, the government set up a Royal Commission on the Poor Law and the Unemployed. Its members were unable to agree recommendations, and so in 1909 two reports appeared. The majority report favoured the thorough reform of the existing system; the minority report, whose signatories included George Lansbury (a future leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party) and Beatrice Webb, recommended the complete abolition of the poor law. No immediate action was taken on either report, but the introduction of old age pensions in 1908 and the first state sickness and unemployment insurance schemes in 1911 provided the basis for an alternative approach to social welfare. In 1913 it was decreed that union workhouses should thenceforward be referred to as ‘poor law institutions’; nominally, the union workhouse had now ceased to exist.



The View for Sunday 7 January 2001

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