Workhouse Background Page


This page concentrates on the background to the workhouse system but details of the Epsom workhouse please see our Epsom Workhouse Page.

Waifs and Strays by Gustave Doré
Waifs and Strays
by Gustave Doré

Poor Laws

In the days before state organised welfare systems, help for the poor and infirm was mainly provided by the church, private individuals and a few charitable organisations. This poor relief was usually in the form of food, money, clothes etc given to people so that they could live in their own home and is often known as outdoor relief or out relief. Where accommodation was provided, such as alms houses, it was termed indoor relief.

The Black Death pandemic of the 1340's, lead to the death of between a quarter and a half of the population. This caused labour shortages and many farm workers moved to parishes where they got better rates of pay or conditions. There was also an increase in begging and in 1349 the Ordinance of Labourers was enacted to discourage individuals from giving relief to able-bodied beggars. In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge introduced regulations restricting the movements of labourers and beggars. The same statute made each parish responsible for administering voluntary poor relief to those who were unable to support themselves either through age or sickness.

In the late 1490s vagrants and the idle poor could be placed in the stocks for three days and nights with only bread and water, additionally vagrants would be told to get out and stay out of the parish. Persistent able bodied offenders risked further punishments including piercing or cutting off of the ears and even hanging! The dissolution of the monasteries put considerable extra pressure on the primitive poor relief system and begging increased dramatically. By 1536 it was an offence for an individual to give alms to the able-bodied poor, however the church could solicit donations and these were distributed by the parish authorities. In 1547 vagrants refusing work could be branded with the letter 'V' (for vagrant) and became a slave for two years, should they run away in this two year period they were made a slave for life and branded on the cheek with an 'S' (for slave).

In 1563 local Justices of the Peace were authorised, but had very limited powers, to raise taxes for the relief of the poor who were put into one of three categories:
  • The deserving poor were those who would work but could not due to unemployment or accident etc. These were given outdoor relief or by being given work in return for a wage.
  • The idle poor were those who could work but would not. They were punished by public whippings and often driven from the parish.
  • The impotent poor were those who were too young, old, or ill to work. These were looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were frequently apprenticed so that they would have a trade and eventually be self supporting.
In 1572 the first compulsory local poor law tax was imposed making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility. In 1597 Justices of the Peace (JPs) were authorised to raise compulsory funds and the post of 'Overseer of the Poor' was first created.

By the end of the 16th century there were numerous laws relating to the poor and the 1601 Poor Law consolidated these into one act which required each parish to annually elect two unpaid Overseers of the Poor. The law also allowed for a compulsory poor relief rate to be levied on property owners in every parish. The overseers had to calculate and collect the money needed to provide out relief and where appropriate run the parish almshouse; hospital or orphanage. The idle poor would be taken into the poor-house where they would be set to work, often for the benefit of the parish such as breaking rocks into gravel suitable for local road maintenance or chopping wood. There were no standards of care set down so each parish interpreted this law as they thought best and there was a great deal of inconsistency between parishes. Some larger towns established local by-laws that let adjoining parishes act together to run their institutions and administer the relief. In 1607 a further act was passed that enabled the setting up of Houses of Correction where work was provided for the unemployed with the idle and vagabonds forced to work. The 1662 Law of Settlement allowed strangers to be moved on if they had no prospect of work within 40 days or did not rent property worth £10 per year (an amount way out of reach of an agricultural labourer).

In some respects, and especially in country areas, the Elizabethan laws provided a workable framework where the local population decided who was deserving and who was not and could develop local solutions to local problems. In larger towns and cities where the numbers involved, and the range of problems were greater, especially as the move from the countryside to towns gathered pace, the overseers would not necessarily know the individual seeking help, so the administration of the law was much more difficult. However the Elizabethan laws formed the basis of poor relief throughout the country for over two centuries. Property owners objected to paying the poor rates so food, clothing and heating were usually kept to the absolute minimum and of course the system was not always fair and was subject to abuse and corruption.

Asleep in the Streets by Gustave Doré
Asleep in the Streets
by Gustave Doré

Poor Law Reform


The British system of public relief evolved from the Elizabethan Poor Laws which placed the obligation for administering and funding of poor relief onto individual parishes. However, in the early 19th century the cost of relief had been a substantially increased by the Speenhamland system which required parishes to provide outdoor relief for those whose wages were below subsistence level (mainly agricultural workers) because of the rising prices of food in the final years of the 18th century. Apart from concern about the costs this imposed on of the economy there were concerns about the detrimental impact it was having on the attitudes of the labouring poor. Consequently there was considerable pressure for Poor Law reform in the early decades of the 19th century and a Royal Commission on the Poor was appointed in 1832 to find a solution to what was seen as the imminent problem of mass pauperisation. Its findings provide confirmation of contemporary views on poverty. In the opinion of the commissioners poverty was the natural condition of the working class who were forced to work to obtain a mere subsistence. It was considered that all those who were capable of working could find work and so earn enough to support themselves, only those who were disabled should be eligible for social support. Furthermore, the commissioners were at pains to distinguish the latter group from paupers, which they defined as those who had voluntarily sought Poor Relief as it provided a greater income than that they could obtain by working.

Following of the findings of the commission, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 ended outdoor relief and restricted the provision of public poor relief to the inhabitants of workhouses, who were to be imbued with the discipline of work and with better habits in general. By making the conditions under which relief was granted extremely unpleasant, it was intended to encourage and to create independent hard-working citizens who saw economic self-sufficiency as the natural order.

At this period there was a strong belief in the virtues of self-help, a concept which came to Britain from America where young men received an enormous amount of advice on how they could rise in the world by their own efforts. They were urged to develop virtues such as industry, honesty, thrift and sobriety, the very opposite of the vices ascribed to the so-called undeserving poor, and given examples of those who had prospered by these means, one of the first being Benjamin Franklin.

The emphasis on the virtues of self-help could be identified in the provisions of the British Poor Law Reform Act and was subsequently set out in Samuel Smiles book 'Self-help'. He is credited with such phrases as 'Life it will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make it' and perhaps most noted of all 'the spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual'.

In Britain the opportunities for social mobility were more limited than in the United States and there was a great emphasis on the individual fulfilment and public respectability which could be gained. The idea of self-help was particularly attractive to the middle classes who propagated it vigorously to explain their own success in establishing a place in society without the benefit of inherited wealth or position, while it was also seen as a concept which could help to reconcile class differences, avert working-class disaffection and counter the new doctrine of socialism. Furthermore, while the ideas of self-help can be traced back to the Protestant ethic, which had existed for centuries, they fitted well with the then current economic climate of laissez-faire, derived from the writings of Adam Smith.

Laissez-faire is a difficult term to define but at its simplest it has been put as 'the less government intervention in any sphere the better'. It was believed that if individuals were given as much freedom as possible in the conduct of their affairs, they would each act in their own best interests to the benefit of both themselves and society as a whole. Consequently, as the economy flourished, all classes would benefit from opportunities that arose and the problem of poverty would progressively diminish.

Although during the 19th century successive governments were imbued with the ideas of laissez-faire, as the century progressed the state became more interventionist. Arguably the moves to intervene to mitigate the problems of poverty owed much to the efforts of campaigners as such as Jeremy Bentham who aimed to achieve the ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number and campaigned for legislation to solve the poverty of the deserving poor. In addition the middle classes who had largely been content to ignore the question of poverty became increasingly concerned about the threat to their own well-being that was posed by the epidemics emanating from the unsanitary areas inhabited by the poorest sections of society and the risk of lawlessness spreading from the slum areas as a result, Measures were introduced to promote public health and there were also some improvements made to the provision and administration of Poor Law workhouses as the century progressed.

However, there was a continuing emphasis on restricting relief to the deserving poor and to the exclusion of those who were considered to be idle and indolent and so undeserving. This was equally clearly seen in the other main agency for poverty relief, charity, which provided substantial sums for this purpose. Arguably the practice of helping those in need owed something to Britain's paternalistic tradition and its hierarchical social structure under which some, though by no means all, of the materially better off felt themselves to be under a moral obligation to help the needy. Indeed some went so far as to found model villages for their workers or to provide improved cottages for their tenants, albeit on condition that the beneficiaries led temperate and sober lives.

The Goschen report produced in 1869-70 commented that the indiscriminate distribution of charitable funds tended to promote pauperism, that is seeking poor relief as it provided a greater income than could be obtained by working, and urged those administering charitable relief to make the most effective use of the large sums habitually contributed by the public. The report pointed out that Britain's Poor Laws granted relief as a legal obligation and emphasized the need to avoid extending rights as these would be counter to the fostering of the virtues of self-reliance and thrift. However the report recognized the difficulty that could arise in some cases, citing the example of widows who were unable to learn enough to support their families, and suggested that such individuals could be given charitable relief, to encourage them to continue working rather than ceasing to do so in order to qualify for Poor Law relief. Since charities were administered under discretionary powers this would not set a precedent for the undeserving poor to use.

Although subsequently conditions in workhouses gradually improved, the system continued into the twentieth century and they were only formally abolished in 1930.

Eventide - A Scene in the Westminster Union, 1878, by Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914)
Eventide by Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914)
This scene is set in the aged female wing of St.James's Workhouse in Soho c.1878


Epsom Workhouse
Epsom Workhouse