I’ve been interested in workhouses since my university days so if I could take a trip to Victorian England, a workhouse would be on my list of places to visit. The visitors’ books of these institutions show that they were regularly visited by people like journalists, local worthies, guardians from the Board and ladies connected with charities, as well as official inspectors.
There’s a common misconception that all Victorian workhouses were dark, depressing places in which the poor were badly treated. That is, of course, a sweeping generalisation, especially as Queen Victoria’s reign spanned sixty-three and a half years of change. By the end of the nineteenth century, workhouses had altered dramatically and there had been a considerable improvement in conditions, particularly in the larger ones.
They remained the last resort for a large proportion of the poor, although there were still regular ‘ins and outs’ who used the workhouse according to their needs. Right at the end of the Victorian period, a reporter for Living London (1901) visited St Marylebone Workhouse. His article, particularly its accompanying photographs, clearly illustrate the differences between a late Victorian and a mid- Victorian workhouse.
In the women’s ward, gone are the drab, bare walls and the uncomfortable, backless benches. There are now pictures on the walls and vases of flowers on the tables. The old ladies sit on Windsor chairs at long tables, around which they congregate and chat. There’s even a rug in front of the stove.
|‘In a Women’s Ward’ from Living London (1901)|
By 1900, this accommodation was more common in city workhouses. The aged married couples’ quarters at St Marylebone consisted of “ten little tenements for as many Darbies and Joans – one room, one couple – and a general room at the end for meals, the ‘private apartments’ form a sort of miniature model dwelling that overlooks the Paddington Street Recreation Ground. Admirable is the only word for this division. The brightly, painted walls, the pictures, the official furniture including a chest of drawers and a table, the photographs and knick-knacks belonging to the inmates, who are allowed to bring in such property and arrange it as they choose – all this makes a ‘private apartment’ home-like and a delight to the eye. If an old couple must spend their last days in the workhouse, one could wish them no brighter or more healthy quarters.”
|‘An Old Couple’s Quarters’ from Living London (1901)|
Another improvement made from the 1880s onwards (and even earlier in London) was to house the children away from the workhouse. The workhouse unions moved towards boarding out their pauper children within the parish as a better, more humane alternative to keeping them in the workhouse. Children were boarded out with ‘foster parents’ who were vetted by the union and paid to look after them. Other workhouse unions chose to set up ‘scattered’ or cottage homes, or district schools instead.
The lack of children in the workhouse, unless they were casual admissions, meant that the inmates were mostly old and infirm. Many of the old men and women were ex-servants who had never had homes of their own. The journalist for Living London commented that in the kitchen there was “a mincing machine, one of the uses of which is artificially masticating the meat supplied to old and toothless paupers”.
In 1900, the Local Government Board ruled that outdoor relief be given to the ‘aged deserving poor.’ If indoor relief was necessary, it was recommended that the elderly be “granted certain privileges which could not be accorded to every inmate of the workhouse”. These privileges were to include “flexible eating and sleeping times, greater visiting rights, and the compulsory provision of tobacco, dry tea (so that they could make a cup whenever they wanted) and sugar”.
|‘In the Airing Yard’ from Living London (1901)|
More concessions were granted to elderly inmates including the recommendation by the Local Government Board that separate day-rooms should be provided for those who had “previously led moral and respectable lives”. By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of unions were implementing some kind of segregation on moral grounds, particularly for elderly inmates.
For many elderly inmates, the workhouse really was a godsend, especially if they were seriously ill and needed hospital treatment. However, in spite of the increased comforts offered, becoming an inmate was a bitter pill to swallow for those who had been fiercely independent and had always been able to get by and look after themselves. The fact remained that they were likely to end their days in the workhouse and suffer that most shameful fate – a pauper burial.