Workhouses have been immortalised in the tale of Oliver Twist and bring to mind images of Victorian poverty. Although many were built earlier, they became the central part of poor relief after 1834. Workhouses were feared institutions and the last resort for the poor. However, their records also give us insight into the lives of paupers that otherwise might have been lost.
Before 1834, poor relief varied across the country. It was determined by parishes and paid for by local taxes. However, it was getting more expensive every year. The middle and upper classes began to complain that they were paying for the lazy poor to not work. The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834 to address these complaints.
The New Poor Law grouped parishes into unions. Each union was run by a local Board of Guardians who administered poor relief through a workhouse. With few exceptions, people in need only received help if they left their homes and entered a workhouse.
There were twelve workhouses in Northamptonshire. Due to lobbying from local landowners, the boundaries of the unions followed those of the great estates. For example, the Brixworth Union covered Earl Spencer’s estate and the Potterspury Union was on the Duke of Grafton’s lands. Many landowners also became Guardians. This gave them greater social control over the people living in their parishes.
Workhouses provided inmates with food and a uniform in return for several hours of hard work a day. Conditions were deliberately miserable to discourage people from seeking relief unless they really needed it. Workhouses admitted and discharged families as a group, but split them up in the workhouse. People were separated by sex, age, and fitness.
The meals were bland and basic. This diet only varied at Christmas, when the workhouse inmates might receive a few simple ‘treats’. In 1887, the master of Oundle Workhouse recorded that oranges, sweets, and a card were given to the pauper children. Men received half a pint of ale.
There was a strict daily routine, as shown below.
There were also strict rules and harsh punishments for poor behaviour. For example, at Oundle Workhouse in 1901, John Loakes had his tobacco allowance stopped for a week for using bad language. Two years later, Henry Giddings was put on a bread and water diet for forty-eight hours as punishment for returning drunk after leaving the workhouse.
Many people left the workhouse only to return repeatedly. Francis Watkins was a nine-year-old orphan from Sutton whose relatives were too poor to help him. He was admitted to Peterborough Workhouse in 1842, but he ran away on several occasions. The authorities always caught up with Francis, bringing him back to the institution. He died there in 1847, still only a child.
For these reasons, the Poor Law was greatly disliked and workhouses became feared institutions.
However, workhouses did also try to help the poor. Medical records show that the sick were treated and a few basic comforts provided. William Wilson, who was paralysed, was given an ounce of tobacco a week at Oundle Workhouse in 1912. Children were also educated and given work. For example, Maud Burgin of Thrapston Workhouse was found a place as a domestic servant in 1911.
In 1839, children made up almost half the workhouse population. However, by the end of the century, workhouses were seen as an inappropriate place for them. In some workhouses, children were ‘boarded out’ to foster families. Others, such as Daventry and Kettering, built cottage homes in villages to house children away from the workhouse.
The photo above shows Kettering Union's cottage homes in Burton Latimer.
Workhouses increasingly only looked after the young, the old, and the sick, rather than the able-bodied poor as they were intended. The system was abolished in 1929. However, many workhouses continued to be used by local authorities to house the poor until 1948. Some buildings were then reused as hospitals and care homes.