The destination for history

Welfare and the workhouse


Most people think of publicly-funded ‘welfare’ as a relatively modern invention - often linked to the social reforms in Britain after the Second World War. These included the new National Health Service, financial benefits for those unable to work, and a massive programme of council house building. Or perhaps, going back a little further in time, the introduction of weekly pensions for the elderly in 1908 is sometimes regarded as the launch-pad of the modern social welfare system.

In fact, organised welfare provision in Britain has its roots in Elizabethan times. In the decades after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and other religious houses, which had been a major provider of support for those in need, that task gradually passed to the public purse. The new order was crystallised in the 1601 Poor Relief Act, under which householders in all of the country’s fifteen thousand or so parishes paid a local tax – the poor rates – based on the value of their property. The money was collected and then distributed to those in need by parish officers known as overseers.

The poor rates could be dispensed to those in need in various forms. These included regular pensions for the elderly or widowed, or one-off hand-outs in the form of bread or as cash payments for articles such clothing or shoes. The poor rates could fund accommodation for the ‘deserving’ poor such as the old, the blind, the lame and so on. Parishes could also pay for medical care for their sick poor. For the able-bodied destitute, the parish could buy materials, such as wool or flax, in order to provide then with work. Help was restricted to those who were legally resident or ‘settled’ in a parish.

The problem that parishes increasingly found themselves faced with was the steadily growing cost of providing this support – a dilemma that still preoccupies us today. A particular issue was how to deal with able-bodied relief claimants, particularly those who might be viewed as spendthrifts, lazy spongers, or morally suspect. What many parishes came to see as a magic bullet appeared in the shape of the workhouse – an establishment that provided a refuge a for the deserving poor and a place where able-bodied paupers could perform work in return for their board and lodging. Replacing hand-outs with the offer of a place in a workhouse could dramatically reduce the number of claimants and so put a check on the escalating poor rates.

From the 1720s onwards, there was a parish workhouse boom, with almost two thousand in operation by the 1770s, capable of housing around 90,000 inmates. One in seven parishes now had a workhouse. Of course, this meant that six out of seven parishes had stuck with hand-outs, or had perhaps tried running a workhouse but found it had failed to pay its way. Even where parishes had workhouses, there were differences in the extent to which the poor were pushed towards them. Their use was particularly favoured in areas with large and shifting populations such as London, where it could be difficult to verify a claimant’s entitlement to a hand-out. Parish workhouses also differed considerably in how comfortable or strict they were, some even proving to be positively attractive abodes. The poor relief on offer varied widely from parish to parish – what we’d now view as a postcode lottery.

The ever-rising cost of hand-outs, or out-relief as it was officially known, particularly during and after the Napoleonic wars, eventually led the government to adopt a new policy in the shape of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The Act introduced a new national system based on groupings of parishes known as poor law unions, though still financed by local poor rates. The intention was that the only help that would now be on offer, for able-bodied paupers at least, would be in one of the new strictly run union workhouses. In fact, the hope that the new regime would drastically reduce the out-relief bill failed to materialise and throughout the Victorian era, more was always spent on hand-outs than housing the poor in workhouses.

Although the workhouse always played a smaller role than out-relief in the nation’s welfare efforts, the fact of it being bricks-and-mortar makes it a far more tangible image of how the poor were dealt with, particularly following Charles Dickens iconic portrayal of a pre-1834 parish establishment in Oliver Twist. As TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? have demonstrated, there is a particular potency in being able to literally trace the footsteps of an ancestor, particularly one who was in poverty. This is what sparked my own interest in workhouses when the death certificate of my great-great-grandfather Timothy revealed that he had died in the Birmingham workhouse, whose entrance block was then still standing. I also discovered that many more of these fascinating buildings, often designed by leading architects of the day, still survived and with the help of old maps their development could be traced down the years.

As well as the buildings themselves, the workhouse story has many dimensions. It was popular subject in art and literature, Christmas Day in the Workhouse being a well-known example. Workhouse sites provided valuable accommodation for military purposes during both World Wars. Perhaps its most enduring legacy is the part it played in the development of free medical care for the poor. By the end of the nineteenth century, the workhouse infirmary had in many places become the local hospital for anyone unable to afford to pay for a doctor’s services. Many prominent London hospitals, notably the Highgate, Archway and St Mary’s wings of the Whittington Hospital, were previously workhouse infirmaries. When the NHS was launched in 1948, a large proportion of its real estate consisted of former workhouse sites.

At one time, the workhouse was regarded a symbol of the shame of being poor but, ironically, many surviving workhouse buildings have now been converted to very desirable up-market residences, some even surrounded by high fences and electric gates. I sometimes wonder what the former inmates would make of such scenes. 

By Peter Higginbotham

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books