Workhouse conditions

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 ]

The new punitive approach to poor relief inaugurated by the Act of 1834 was reflected in the organisation, diet, discipline and daily routine of the union workhouse. The inmates were subjected to the process of classification. They were divided into separate categories, each of which had its own segregated accommodation. This, notoriously, entailed the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children. The authors of the Poor Law Report had advocated a system of separate buildings for different classes of inmates, which would have spared the more vulnerable some of the rigours of less eligibility’, but in practice it was the ‘general mixed workhouse’ which became the norm. Though they were confined in their separate quarters, all classes were accommodated on the same site and subjected, at least initially, to a similar regime. 

The union workhouse was intended to be harsh, but the harshness was not intended to be uncontrolled. There were cases of abuse, of which the Andover scandal of 1846 was the most notorious, and no doubt there was also abuse which was never exposed. The union workhouse was, however, a highly regulated institution. The lives of the workhouse officers were in some ways as tightly constrained as those of the inmates, and this provided the latter with some protection and the possibility of redress against the worst excesses. Complaints by inmates were infrequent and were seldom vindicated by the authorities, but they could not be ignored.

Moreover, in many workhouses the officers and guardians did sometimes display compassion and kindness in their treatment of at least some groups of inmates— particularly the old, the sick and children. The education of those children in the workhouse was often taken rather more seriously than that of most of their contemporaries outside it. Expressions of appreciation and gratitude by former inmates were not unknown. For most inmates, the diet and physical conditions were in reality better than if the principle of ‘less eligibility’ had been enforced stringently. It was the carefully calculated monotony, the rigid routines and discipline, and the more subtle deprivations and degradations which were the most repressive features of the workhouse. Workhouse inmates lost their dignity; like the inmates of prisons and lunatic asylums, they also lost (if they had ever possessed it) the right to vote, a right which was not restored to them until 1918.



The View for Sunday 7 January 2001

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