Peter Higginbotham has created an excellent web site that presents the history of workhouses (or poor houses) throughout the UK. The site has extensive descriptions of many historical topics and is supplemented with many photographs. I recently spent more than an hour looking at all the material that Peter placed online. The one section that I will remember for some time is the description of a particular workhouse from the late 1700s.
While we may want to remember our ancestors as upstanding pillars of the community who were always self-sufficient, reality quickly sets in. Almost everyone has numerous ancestors who were not in the upper economic groups of their times. Before today's government-funded public welfare, most areas had workhouses, poorhouses, or almshouses. Those who were too poor to provide their own housing were typically sent to live in one of these government-funded public housing projects. In fact, these residences provided the government-funded public welfare of their times.
Studying the rules of living and other facts about these workhouses can give all of us insights into some of life's problems that our ancestors faced. While today's governments generally do not provide poorhouses, it is interesting to note that many of the rules of government-subsidized living have not changed significantly in 200+ years.
One example described on the web site is the workhouse of the parish of Hackney, established on the south side of the High Street in 1741. The building was originally rented from George Milbourne, but the parish later purchased and expanded it. In 1741, 30 paupers resided within the Tudor cottage. In 1750 a room was reserved for sick paupers, with a matron and a nurse appointed. By the following year a larger room was needed, and the matron's charge was extended to include the insane as well as the sick. The parish also erected a number of sheds to accommodate additional inmates.
According to Higginbotham's website, Richard Charles, a local carpenter and the existing workhouse Master, was contracted to take over the running of the Hackney workhouse in 1755. His pay was 2 shillings 4 pence a week per inmate. Among other things, he was to provide 'wholesome meat and drink," one clean shirt per week for men, and a clean shift each week for each woman who resided at the house. Breakfast was mostly milk pottage, occasionally supplemented with broth. Dinner was bread, butter, and cheese or beef, with boiled mutton on Sundays. Charles was allowed to keep any money he could make from goods manufactured in the workhouse.
Growth in the numbers of paupers led to the parish obtaining its own local Act for the appointment of a Board of Trustees to manage the poor and the workhouse. In 1764 the Trustees appointed a new Master, Matthew Arnold, who was to receive 3 shillings per head each week. The following year Arnold was dismissed for being frequently absent and delegating his duties to a Mrs. Smith, who was unfit to perform them. A new master was then appointed at a fixed salary of £30 per year.
The workhouse was enlarged several times and eventually accommodated 280 inmates. Of course, life was not easy in the workhouse. Those who were healthy were expected to work, and most of the available jobs were menial, at best. The workhouse had its own stone-breaking yard, which specialized in the breaking of Blue Guernsey Granite - up to 1,000 tons a month.
Some people's ancestors may not have behaved very well here. An 1822 report found that a lot of illegitimate children were born in the House, and therefore recommended that "communication between the male and female wards should be forthwith prevented and that a wall should be created from the Master's house down the middle of the yard to the building at the bottom." (This proposal reportedly was never carried out.)
In the early 1750s a set of rules was drawn up for all residents of the house. The rules included the following:
... if any Person shall conceal any Linnen, or Woollen, belonging to the House, with an Intent to steal or imbezzle the same, such Person shall immediately be carried before a Magistrate, in order to be imprisoned and punished with the utmost Rigour as the Law directs.
That Prayers be read in this House every Morning by the Mistress, or some Person deputed by her, before Breakfast; and every Evening before Supper; and that Grace be Said before, and Thanks returned after, each Meal; and all those that are able, and do not attend Prayers, to lose their next Dinner.
If, at any Time, they get drunk, or are guilty of prophane Cursing or Swearing, to be punished in the Stocks as the Law directs.
That no distilled Liquors be brought into the House without Leave from the Committee, nor any strong Beer without Leave from the Mistress; and whoever shall disturb the House by brawling, quarrelling, fighting, or abusive Language, shall lose one Day's Meal, and for the second Offence be put into the dark Room twenty four Hours.
That every Person in Health shall be kept to such Labour as they can well do, according to their several Ages and Abilities; that is to say, from Lady-day to Michaelmas, from Six of the Clock in the Morning to Six at Night; from Michaelmas to Lady-day, from Seven in the Morning till Five at Night (Meal-time excepted)
...if any grown Person refuse to work, to be kept on Bread and Water, or expell'd the House.
...all Persons, who through Idleness may pretend themselves Sick, Lame, or Infirm, so as to be excused their Working; such Impostors so discovered either by their Stomachs or the Apothecary, shall be carried before a Magistrate, in order to be punished as the Law directs.
The Hackney workhouse is just one example. There is much, much more to be found at this interesting web site. Peter Higginbotham is to be congratulated on his efforts to preserve information and to make that information available to everyone on the web.
You can view the history of workhouses at http://users.ox.ac.uk/~peter/workhouse/