The Workhouse Effect

ANNETTE TELLS TALES People would rather die than go there. That was their point. But what if you entered one anyway?

Small boys in uniform
The boys of Crumpsall Workhouse, Manchester, England, 1895. By the time this photo was taken, it was sixty years after the Poor Law Amendment Act had created what we might call modern workhouses. Things had improved since then, including for these children. But conditions were still dreadful—and dreaded. Why were these kids and the other inmates treated badly on purpose? Image: Public Domain, Wikipedia

First, A Quick Word from Annette, Non-Boring Historian

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And now, on with today’s program.

The Terror of the Workhouse: Goatacre, Wiltshire, England. January, 1846

A thousand men are gathered at the crossroads. Thinly dressed, they shiver in the damp winter air. They are starving. All are unemployed farmworkers, as is the man speaking to them.

The speaker tells them he had asked the local welfare authorities for assistance to feed his family.

The only offer they made him was this: One of his kids can be admitted to the workhouse, alone, and be supported. Or the whole family can enter the workhouse. There, they will be split up—husband and wife separated from each other, and from the children. They will all be imprisoned, until the father signs out the whole family. He cannot even look for work while he’s an inmate.

It's an impossible choice. When the father told his family, he says, as they gathered around the empty supper table, each and every child begged not to be the one sent to the workhouse.

If you read Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, or saw the musical Oliver, you have some idea of why a Victorian English workhouse terrified children— and adults.

Why it was so awful, though, and how that connects to how we think in Britain and America two hundred years later, is going to be even more shocking.

Growing Up in the Shadow of the Workhouse

Historian Norman Longmate published The Workhouse, the book on which today’s post is based, way back in 1974. By then, poverty was in retreat in Britain’s postwar Welfare State, and the workhouse, a place the poor had dreaded for so long, was no more.

But workhouse buildings were still physically present in 1974, and there were still old people around who remembered them all too well.

Among them was Charlie Chaplin, by now retired and living in Switzerland, but once a workhouse kid like the boys in the photo above. It was an experience that never left him.

Those who remembered workhouses also included Longmate himself. Although he had never been within the walls of one, he grew up in the 1930s on a council estate (US: public housing) right across the street from a forbidding and active workhouse. And that had an impact, even though, by the time Longmate was born, it was no longer the institution it had once been.

By 1930, Longmate’s local workhouse housed mostly old people and the chronically homeless, what were then called “tramps”. But, Longmate wrote, “Everyone living on the estate was constantly aware of its grim presence.”

When he was researching his book in the 1970s, he learned that “his” workhouse was built in 1836, and was typical of the dozens of workhouse buildings that sprang up across England around the same time.

Then, it had housed everyone from babies to the very elderly, from the “able-bodied” unemployed worker, to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, including severe mental illness.

Nobody living on young Norman Longmate's council estate in the 1930s talked about this history: The workhouse, as far as he knew, had just always been there. It had, he wrote, “proved a bargain: a century later, it was still serving its purpose of terrorising the poor.”

That, you see, was the workhouse’s goal: Not to care for the poor, even in the most austere way, or to rehabilitate them. It existed to deter people from seeking its services, even when their lives were in danger. It was meant to get across to the poor that even death might be preferable to the workhouse.

The cruelty was the point.

But how, you might ask, were the children you see in the photo supposed to avoid ending up within the workhouse walls?

Over the course of the 19th century, the workhouse raised questions about the poor and vulnerable that are still relevant today.

As I read about the workhouse's deterrent effect, I couldn't help but think of a dear friend in Los Angeles, back in the 90s, an exploited adjunct professor from a working-class background, who was driven to tears by the humiliating treatment she experienced when she reluctantly applied for food stamps. She finally walked away, distraught.

Despite the terrible academic job market, my friend, thankfully, landed a real tenure-track job soon afterward. But why, when she asked for such a small amount of help at a difficult time, when she was working incredibly hard and being paid, effectively, less than minimum wage for highly-skilled work, was she put through that spiteful torture, I wondered? I wondered the same thing when I saw another friend tortured for two years, including being driven into bankruptcy, for the sin of applying for social security disability payments, when she had no choice because a physical ailment made holding down a job impossible.

I wondered, because these things were happening in liberal California. And I wondered, because I was a child of 1970s Britain, to whom the deliberate, crushing humiliation of the poor, and the workhouse that symbolized it, had seemed like ancient history. Although attitudes, I knew, were once again changing.

As they always have, like the swing of a pendulum.

Part 1: The Roots of the Workhouse: 1500s-1600s

England came up with Europe’s first secular welfare system, one not grounded in the church, after the Church of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church. It happened gradually, over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The new system that arose at the national level was motivated partly by compassion for the poor.

Mostly, though, it wasn’t. It sprang from fear of the unemployed, men put out of work by advances in agriculture. They roamed the country in search of jobs, often stealing and sometimes robbing. They could, it was feared, end up leading a revolt against the government.

Dealing with these “masterless men”, as they were called, would become a major goal of England's efforts to set up a colony in Virginia, starting at the end of the 16th century (1500s). Virginia would be a place to which the English poor could be tempted (or, in the case of the young or the convicted, sent) as indentured servants to live productive, hardworking lives in exchange for the promise of future wealth in American land, far from England.

But England couldn't ship more than a few of the poor to Virginia. And long before the first colony was set up on Roanoke Island, there were a lot of poor people.

Even as new laws for dealing with the poor took shape, there were many different existing local efforts. Some were kind, like the almshouses for the elderly (a bit like assisted living (US) or sheltered housing (UK)), usually endowed by a rich local man's will. For widows and orphans, there were cash payments from local government.

The group that got no sympathy? Those scary “masterless men”, also called “able-bodied” or, later, “undeserving” poor.

One national law in 1552 sums up the new hard-headed attitude toward the unemployed. The new law instructed local authorities that any man or woman who refused to work for three days should be branded with the letter V on the chest. How did you identify these lazy people? Any citizen could inform on them to the authorities. The “idler” would then be assigned to be the informant’s “slave” (the law’s word) for two years.

What could possibly go wrong with that? Think about it.

Unemployed? Get On Your Bike and Go Look for a Job! Oh, Wait a Minute . . .

What if there were no jobs in your area of late 17th century England, and you hit the road looking for work? Under a new law, you had to return to the place where you were born to ask for help. The thinking behind this makes sense: If a wealthy parish offered generous relief for the poor, it would end up paying out tons of cash to desperate strangers.

To experience that system as a poor person, however, was a very different matter.

Men and women who were found begging, far from their birthplace were now in for a terrible shock. In 1597, a new law had declared that such a beggar should be whipped on the bare back “until his body was bloody”, usually while tied to a wagon dragging him (or her) out of town, and sent to wherever home was.

Anyone tempted to think that’s an appealing way of tackling homelessness today might consider that this was also a serious deterrent to people finding work: Many unemployed men who hit the road in search of jobs found themselves whipped senseless, and forced to return to small villages where no work was available, and the local authorities were already struggling to support the poor.

By the time the 18th century rolled around, leaders began to see that this hard-headed approach to the poor was ineffective, and that these laws caused more problems than they solved. Some people looked for ways not only to lower the cost of caring for the poor, but to make life better for poor people, in the interests of everyone.

Among these new cutting-edge thinkers? John Carey, a merchant in the city of Bristol.

Hold It. John Carey was a What? Where?

Right now, the Brits reading this may hear alarm bells going off. Bristol? Merchant? Was John Carey a slave trader? Eh, not as such, but he was a sugar trader, and the sugar was grown by enslaved people. He also seems to have been very much a fan of the slave trade, which he hoped could involve Bristol.

If you're near Bristol, should you pop out and pull down Carey's statue, if he has one, which I don't think he actually does? Before you rush to cancel him, know that John Carey was complicated. Unlike many of us today, he didn’t just pick a political side like it was a football team.

For one thing, he thought low wages were bad for the economy, which made him progressive by our standards.

And in 1698, Carey opened a “New Workhouse”, which wasn’t quite what you might think.

Carey started his workhouse project by sending his staff to visit poor people who were receiving support at home, to assess their needs. “Where we found them oppressed,” Cary wrote, “we stood by them.” That meant poor people in Bristol got what Carey and his men agreed they needed: If they needed clothes, they got clothes. If they needed houses, Carey arranged for their rent to be paid.

If they needed work, they came to live and work in the workhouse.

This was not work as punishment, however, work like breaking rocks and pulling apart old ropes that was later given to workhouse inmates. This was meant to be work that would set up inmates for employment: Carey brought a hundred orphan girls to the workhouse where they were taught to spin. While there, he wrote, they got “wholesome diet and good beds to lie on”. That wholesome diet he also described as “good nourishment”, including:

“beef, peas, potatoes, broth, pease-porridge, bread and cheese, and good beer (such as we drank at our own tables), carrots, turnips, etc . . . and bought the best of every sort.”

John Carey’s humane workhouse seems to have been successful. But this model did not catch on outside Bristol.

A New Day for the Poor, and Not in a Good Way: The Early 18th Century

Most thinking about the poor soon started changing in a very different direction from John Carey’s. Unlike Carey, country gent Matthew Marryott argued that the point of workhouses was not to help the poor become gainfully employed. It was not even to extract work from them to cover the cost of their support.

The point of a workhouse, Marryott said, should be to deter the poor from seeking help at all.

In London, Parliament was interested in Marryott's ideas. They passed a law authorizing parishes (the smallest unit of local government, and not just for church matters) to build workhouses on the lines Marryott suggested.

Within a few short years, a hundred and fifty small parish workhouses were opened, and they were run (at least in theory) on the harshest principles. Poor people who wanted help were often told they had to enter the workhouse to get it.

Parishes that opened workhouses immediately claimed success. After all, they had achieved their goal: The cost of supporting the poor immediately fell, because people desperately tried to avoid moving into the new workhouse.

But the savings, and the draconian attitude to the poor, didn’t last. Parishes which built workhouses were not big areas. People knew each other. And it's much harder to be cruel to someone you know than to someone you don't.

So parish leaders quietly returned to providing “out relief” (cash payments), at least to what was later called the “deserving poor”, like widows and people with disabilities.

What about parishes that were too small even to support the poor, much less build a workhouse? That was most of them. About two thirds of parishes in England and Wales were home to only 300-800 people, and that’s not a typo.

Some thinkers had the idea for parishes to club together in “unions” to build huge super-workhouses, holding hundreds, possibly even thousands, of poor people of all kinds.

In the county of Suffolk, 28 parishes did just that, and opened a large workhouse in 1765. Everyone in the whole area getting out-relief (cash payments in their own homes) was ordered instead to come live in the workhouse to get help.

Shortly after the workhouse opened, the committee that ran it met for a meeting in a pub called the White Hart.

Hundreds of poor folk and their supporters, men, women, and children, gathered outside to make their feelings known about the workhouse. They carried clubs and, for all I know, pitchforks. They went on to vandalize the workhouse, and were only stopped when the army was called out.

Surprisingly, the cost of keeping the poor in parishes that helped build super-workhouses soon began to rise. Partly, this was because, again, the authorities took pity on the “deserving poor”, and began quietly granting “out relief” in people’s homes once again.

But this expense was also due to poor supervision of the system, and because of that, corruption. Posh gentlemen soon lost interest in supervising workhouses that housed lots of poor people they didn't know, from many parishes they barely knew. The only time the Suffolk committee had enough members show up to make a quorum for a meeting was when the meeting was held at the same White Hart pub where the protest had taken place. That way, at least they got a good meal and beer out of it.

Meanwhile, most workhouses continued to be small buildings, for one parish only. Some were clean and well run. Most were dirty, disorganized, and dangerous places, with children, the elderly, the ill and the disabled, men and women, all mixed together.

The poor, it seemed, were still a problem. They were not going away.

So Maybe It's Not Poverty That's the Problem. It's the Poor. Or Maybe Not?

How would you feel if you had to subsidize working people through your taxes because the profitable companies that employ them aren’t paying them enough to live on? Actually, if you’re an American taxpayer, you have been doing that for years.

Here’s where that started, and it started in England, yes, after the Revolution. Local leaders—judges, clergy, landowners— met in May, 1795, at a pub in Speenhamland, a village in Berkshire, to the west of London. Unemployed farmworkers in their area were starving.

The committee came up with a plan that America is still living with: They would subsidize the wages of farmworkers, on a formula based on the current price of bread.

But this also meant that farmworkers had no need to demand higher wages, and that farmers had no need to raise their pay. The cost of the “Speenhamland system” to the taxpayers quickly skyrocketed.

Now, it seemed to everyone in authority, from local clergy to members of Parliament, that almost everyone in England was poor, and in need of support, or else who knows what the desperate poor might do? The Speenhamland system spread. And again, the cost of relieving the poor rose.

Not surprisingly, attitudes toward the “able-bodied” poor hardened once more. Reverend Thomas Spencer, a clergyman who had once kindly assumed that the poor were all “deserving”, who had defended cash payments to the unemployed, changed his mind.

This happened when Spencer noticed that most of the relief money was going to the “able-bodied” unemployed, while smaller payments were going to the sick.

He decided that this was because these unemployed men, unlike the meeker sick and vulnerable, threatened to revolt if they weren’t adequately supported. He observed them spending the taxpayers’ money in pubs. Another observer, in a parish in Buckinghamshire, saw unemployed men on relief would disappear when a farmer approached them to offer them work.

I could go on. Longmate offers several stories like these. We can interpret them however we like.

But one thing these anecdotes have in common? They are all about the alleged misbehavior of able-bodied men. And it was they who became the target of discussions about the poor, and what to do about them, as the 19th century dawned.

By the 1820s, Matthew Marryott had been forgotten. But his idea from a century earlier, of a nastier kind of workhouse, was being revived, and expanded.

George Nicholls, a retired sea captain appointed as Overseer of the Poor in Southwell, in the Midlands of England, made his workhouse as uncomfortable and miserable as he possibly could for the able-bodied poor.

Then he started publishing articles about what he was up to.

He wrote, in words that I don’t need to translate for you,

“I wish to see the poorhouse looked to with dread by our labouring classes and the reproach for being an inmate of it extend downwards from father to son . . . Let the poor see and feel that their parish, although it will not allow them to perish through absolute want, is yet the hardest taskmaster and the most harsh and unkind friend they can apply to.”

Nicholls’s blunt essays, and similar pieces written by others, caught the attention of more and more people at the highest reaches of government in London. And in the early 19th century, the national government was more and more willing and able to get involved in local policy on the poor.

Clergymen, and gentlemen in rural areas, as we have seen, had a lot of time on their hands to argue how to deal with the problem of the poor. As we have also seen, the elite were not happy about the rising costs of supporting the poor of all kinds. They were also now influenced by the ideas of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, who argued that if something weren’t done about overpopulation, then the food supply would not be enough to feed everyone in England. This did not bode well for the poor who hoped to be allowed to live.

A London bureaucrat named Edwin Chadwick took the lead. He already held a very hardline view of the “able-bodied” poor. Chadwick was excited to craft policy and put it into action around England and Wales.

The New Poor Law of 1834, and the workhouse as we think of it (and so much more) was on its way. Within two years, workhouses had sprung up around the country. Chadwick had wanted small workhouse buildings, to completely separate able-bodied men from women, the elderly from children, and so on. But that cost too much. So big workhouses (called “union workhouses”) were built instead, with help from London.

But Chadwick and the other hard-line reformers got most of what they wanted.

And what was that? Strict rules to ensure that the lives of workhouse inmates were worse than those of the poor outside the workhouse walls, in every respect, so that nobody was tempted to enter one.

Part 2: The Workhouse

Cruelty in Action: The Scandal at Andover Workhouse

Middle-class Victorians, the sort of people who cringed at the mention of women’s ankles, shrank from the horrors they were reading in their newspapers in 1844-45.

Actually, no, they lapped it up. But they were still horrified.

Able-bodied male inmates at Andover Workhouse, in the southern English county of Hampshire, were assigned the hard, miserable labor of crushing animal bones into dust, to be used as fertilizer.

Local farmer Hugh Mundy, who served on the local Board of Guardians, who administered the workhouse, was often the only voice on that committee speaking up for the poor. He heard rumors, and investigated. He learned that the Andover Workhouse inmates were so hungry, they were eating rotting scraps of meat and marrow from the bones they crushed. They even quarreled over the best bones.

When the Guardians refused to act, Hugh Mundy took this news to the media.

There was a massive public outcry. An investigation followed, conducted by one of the seriously overworked staff at the Poor Law Commission in London, which oversaw workhouses around the country.

Why was the Poor Law Commission so understaffed? This is pretty typical of how things work, then as well as now: The New Poor Law was old news. Ten years after it passed, triggering the frenzied building of union workhouses, the national government had lost interest, and moved on. The number of Poor Law Commissioners who oversaw and inspected workhouses had shrunk by more than half, an ominous development.

What this one overworked inspector found confirmed Hugh Mundy’s enquiries, and sparked a Parliamentary enquiry into workhouses.

Andover inmates weren’t even getting the amount of bread they were legally entitled to. The money saved? That went to Workhouse Master Colin M’Dougal (pronounced MacDougal), 44, a disabled combat veteran from Dundee, Scotland.

M’Dougal, along with his wife Mary Ann, ruled the workhouse with an iron rod. Known as “Old Mac” and “Mrs. Mac”, the couple terrorized the inmates, with the full approval of the entire system. One of the Guardians who hired them said, glowingly, of Mrs. Mac that she was “a violent lady, rather.” Perfect for a workhouse matron, then.

“Old Mac” spent the money he saved on the inmates’ food on delicacies for himself. While men who worked all day smashing bones got one ounce of cheap cheese with their scanty bread ration, M’Dougal was buying the best quality cheeses from local grocers, who now testified to the parliamentary committee.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Both M’Dougals degraded inmates, calling them “good for nothing.” When a baby died, M’Dougal accused the mother of murdering her baby, called her a “good for nothing hussy” and “whore”, and locked her overnight in the mortuary with the body of her child.

“Mrs. Mac” constantly slapped and beat the young women and children, because of course she did.

M’Dougal sexually assaulted and harassed the young women, because of course he did.

What shocked middle-class Victorians most of all, with their attachment to religion and their reverence for the dead, was that M’Dougal saved money by burying a dead newborn and an unrelated old man together, and that many workhouse babies died unbaptized, again to save money.

M’Dougal resigned, and he and “Mrs. Mac” went back to Dundee.

But really, hadn’t the M’Dougals done exactly what they were told to by the system? Hadn’t they done exactly what they had been encouraged to do by the Poor Law Guardians?

They had made Andover Workhouse a living hell, one that nobody with a choice would want to enter. They had not, as many workhouses had done since the law passed, ignored the rules, and extended small comforts to the inmates, like a Christmas dinner. Indeed, the inmates weren’t even given fancy implements to eat with: They ate with their hands. Andover’s Board of Guardians did not allow the poor to stay in their homes and get a check. Everyone had to come to the workhouse. Everyone had to suffer.

The M’Dougals operated without hesitation or interference because Andover Workhouse followed the principle that the reformers had laid down to the letter: To repeat: The workhouse was nasty enough to deter anyone but the most desperate from entering its gates.

Even without the excesses of monsters like the M’Dougals, workhouses were terrible by design. When a family entered, husband and wife were always separated from each other, and from their children. Babies were taken from mothers’ arms. Brothers and sisters were led away to different wards. Everyone wore uniforms like prisoners.

According to the law, inmates only received food that was adequate to keep a person alive, but no more. They got nothing to drink but water. Even the very elderly were required to sit on backless wooden benches. Inmates typically slept without pillows on uncomfortable beds, often made of woven iron strips, covered in the thinnest of mattresses. At the Southwell Workhouse, now a museum, I once sat down on such a bed, unawares. I almost bruised my tailbone.

And yet.

Poor people who would actually end up in the new, harsh institutions inspired by George Nicholls’s Southwell workhouse, the people who found themselves living with the results of his innovations, were mostly not the able-bodied men for whom the cruelties had been intended.

They were women, including widows and pregnant teenagers. The elderly. The sick. People with disabilities.

And children.

Suffer the Children

Elizabeth Gillespie, 54, said she was “fond of children” when she was hired as matron in the late 19th century to oversee kids who were sent from a workhouse in the East End of London to Brentwood, Essex, where they could be cared for separately from the adults. That “fondness” didn’t stop her from carrying a stick with which she regularly beat the children, or from whipping them on the bare back with stinging nettles, or from withholding water from them, so that some drank from puddles outside. Finally, she pushed a girl downstairs, killing her. Gillespie, convicted of cruelty in 1894, was sentenced to five years at hard labor.

Honestly? It’s hard to imagine that the most vulnerable children can ever be safe from cruelty in any setting. But workhouse culture, even at this late date, even in a separate institution to which kids were now removed to get them away from the general workhouse population, was not that safe place.

Workhouse culture was grounded in the principle that life on the inside should always be worse than for the poor on the outside, and despite the modifications of this rule through the 19th century to allow more kindnesses the culture remained.

A workhouse visitor in the 1880s asked a boy what he wanted to do when he grew up. The kid’s ambition was to move from the workhouse children’s quarters to the men’s ward. He had entered the workhouse seven years earlier, and he hadn’t been outside since. Hard to imagine how he could ever have become independent.

In earlier decades, workhouse children had led an even more miserable life. Separated from parents or, more often, orphaned or abandoned, they had nobody looking out for them. They were not allowed anything to play with: No toys, no art, not even books. Schooling was in the form, perhaps, of an alcoholic ex-schoolmaster turned workhouse inmate, or, more often, some random guy, himself illiterate, who saw his job as just keeping the kids in line.

One example to sum up: A real-life Oliver Twist. John Rowlands, abandoned by his mother as a baby, was passed among relatives until, aged six, he was dropped off at the workhouse in 1847. He never saw his family again. His hair was shaved off, and his clothes taken away, and replaced with a uniform. He cried and cried, but nobody comforted him, and he came to realize that nobody at the workhouse cared.

He woke to a bell ringing at 6. He went to bed in a cold dormitory when another bell rang at 8. In between, he was fed mostly cheap carbs, like bread, rice, potatoes, and gruel, a thin oatmeal. He did mind-numbing chores, like sweeping with an adult-sized broom, often freezing cold in his thin uniform, and sore from his latest beating. He was frequently slapped or thumped or brutally flogged by the sadistic workhouse schoolmaster.

At fifteen, John grabbed his teacher’s stick, and beat him with it, before escaping over the workhouse wall.

In another life, famed American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, was sent to Africa in 1871 by his newspaper in New York to track down missing Scottish missionary David Livingstone. He found him near Lake Tanganyika. He may, or may not, have uttered the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

What is certain is that Henry Morton Stanley was John Rowlands. He had emigrated to America, reinvented himself, and led an extraordinary life. Be clear: He was the exception, not the rule, of the workhouse children. The same was true, later, of Charlie Chaplin. And even though both men found material success, their horrendous workhouse childhoods haunted them all their lives.

We haven’t time for the whole, horrific story that Norman Longmate and his sources told. The stories of the abuse and neglect of elderly folk, of people with mental illnesses, of people with disabilities, will have to wait. As will the stories of the kindly privileged, like Louisa Twining and George Lansbury (grandad of actor Angela), who worked to end this horror.

The workhouse poor, the supposedly “deserving poor”, were not “collateral damage”. The new law had declared in 1834 that the workhouse would be the only help offered to the poor, including the elderly, abandoned and orphaned kids, as well as to unemployed working men.

The workhouse substituted for old age pensions and disability support (US: social security), for foster care and children’s homes, for the care of teenage mothers, for Medicaid and Medicare (or the NHS) and unemployment benefits.

The workhouse was, according to its own mission, a great success. “Able-bodied” people were mostly deterred from seeking help, and even after conditions improved, because the workhouse was still very much what it had been intended to be: A deterrent to seeking help, no matter how desperately needed.

The people who actually entered the workhouse, of course, were not deterred. They were typically the most vulnerable people in society: Women, the elderly, the sick, people with physical disabilities and mental illness, and children. Plenty of them died prematurely within its walls, from abuse and neglect, saving the taxpayers money.

The elderly were the largest group in the workhouse. But the second largest group were women of all ages. Most people in Britain had been paid far too little to provide for a dignified old age. That was especially true of women, even skilled women, like two London sisters who had been shoemakers, but were ripped off by the middlemen who sold their products. They both landed in the workhouse in their old age, as did many servants of the wealthy.

Over time, the worst cruelties of the New Poor Law could not stand in the face of publicity, public awareness, and common decency. More and more, the national government tried to persuade local Poor Law Guardians to treat workhouse inmates more humanely.

But change came slowly at the local level. Increasingly, Poor Law Guardians were no longer the gentry and clergy. They were often ill-educated men who enjoyed getting together for sumptuous committee dinners, who blamed the poor for their own plight, and who mocked any suggestions for improvements in the lives of inmates.

This culture would not change overnight, but was slowly chipped away, piece by piece. However, it was too late for thousands. It took a century of suffering, especially among the children, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly who represented most of the permanent workhouse population, before the workhouses, finally, went away.

Child of the Workhouse

I was born in Maryfield Hospital in Dundee, Scotland.

Yesterday, I learned that Maryfield began life as a hospital for the city's poor. It was built in 1895, as an extension of the city’s East Poorhouse.

Large Victorian buildings
The Eastern Hospital (later renamed Maryfield Hospital), originally built to serve the East Poorhouse (workhouse), to the right, in Dundee, Scotland. Image: Public Domain, Wikipedia

So, in short, I was born in a workhouse.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The Labour Government of 1945 that launched the National Health Service did so in the aftermath of a devastating World War. In fact, the country was bankrupt, but they started the NHS anyway, and people learned what they had been missing, which changed everything. The NHS is still popular, and getting rid of it, bit by bit, by private contracts and budget cuts since 1979, is still playing out. Do I have a bias on this subject? Oh, hell, yes. And for excellent reasons. I would not be writing this for you if my family had not had the NHS. We would have been financially destroyed.

But in the beginning, to save money, the 1945 government had to work with what it had. Many of the hospitals created to offer free universal healthcare started out in old workhouse buildings.

By the time I was born, Maryfield Hospital, as part of the National Health Service, served everyone in Dundee, free, from the poorest to the very richest (who didn’t object to saving money while getting excellent care), and it was also the city's maternity hospital.

Still though. This was quite a discovery.

Onward and Backward

By 1945, the workhouse system had been officially ended many years before, by votes from MPs of every party. But it was that Labour Government of 1945 that launched the movement toward cradle to grave care for all. As Norman Longmate observed in 1974, “Not only a vast range of benefits available, but large sums of public money are spent urging those qualified to apply for them.”

He could not have known that, as the last people who remembered the workhouse died, as the workhouses were finally being demolished, the pendulum was already swinging in the other direction. Five years later, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, with a very different view from those of her predecessors.

The workhouses have not returned. Southwell Workhouse, blueprint for so many others, is now a museum. Andover Workhouse is now divided into luxury housing. Most of the rest? Demolished.

As for the poor, there are now foodbanks all over the UK, things that were unheard of in my 1970s childhood. The available government benefits of which Longmate wrote nearly fifty years ago have been sharply reduced. Anyone seeking assistance, including people with disabilities, is subject to stringent interviews, and urged to go back to work. And people who arent’ paid enough to live on, despite working full time, are urged to apply to the government to “top up” ( a relatively new expression) what they earn with a supplement. It’s the Speenhamland system.

Every generation, the argument starts again, over what to do about the poor.

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Norman Longmate, like many of those who turned to writing British social history in his generation, was working-class, but won a scholarship to an excellent school, followed by Oxford. He was a trained historian, but not employed by a university. His books were scholarly, but also aimed at the British public. Today, however, these books aren't light reads. I recommend The Workhouse all the same, with these reservations. A library can help you get a copy.