Workhouse: The People The Places The Life Behind Doors

  Workhouse: The People The Places The Life Behind Doors
  Simon Fowler,
  The National Archives
  ISBN: 1905615035


I remember as a social work student in the early 1980s arranging a much needed short break for on older person in North Yorkshire, writes Don Rhodes. It was all more or less sorted when the old lady asked me where in Selby the home was located and I said “Union Lane”. I received a withering look and that was the end of the short break. Union Lane linked the old people’s home to the workhouse tradition. So great was the dread of the workhouse in the old lady’s mind that there was no way she was prepared to go, even to a purpose-built, state-of-the art home on the site of the old institution.

The Workhouse has an established place in the folk memory of older Britons. Younger generations may share something of the memory if they have seen the musical Oliver.

The workhouse, or something like it, formed the core of welfare provision in the UK for two and a half centuries until its abolition in the middle of the last century. Workhouses provided the most basic form of shelter, food and some level of care for a range of people unable to provide these for themselves. This meant that a volatile mix of people co-existed under the one roof, if not usually within the same ward. To use the terminology of the time, the insane, the feeble-minded, old and sick, orphans and other children were all housed in the same institution as petty criminals, the unemployed and vagrants.

No wonder, then, that the workhouse developed such an intimidating reputation for misery, humiliation, danger and abuse of various sorts. With their poor food, inadequate ventilation and hygiene, and mindless work, the workhouse came to be regarded by those they were set up to help as “the last resort of the desperate”.

Simon Fowler makes good use of national archives, local records, parliamentary papers and newspapers to present a fascinating account of daily life in workhouses throughout the UK. He also puts the institution in the context of economic and social policy at the time.

Lest we get too smug about our subsequent progress since the demise of the workhouse system, the core themes throughout Fowler’s account are still dominant today. Both the workhouse tradition and welfare today are a constant re-balancing of the three interlocking themes of the care of the vulnerable, the control of the delinquent and dangerous, and the cost control to protect the public purse.

The following scenario has been played out over the ages. The public would be shocked by some scandal, such as the starvation of the workhouse residents at Andover in 1834, followed by Whitehall prescription to raise care standards, in this case nutritional. These regulations would then be ignored to varying degrees by penny-pinching local guardians or callous and corrupt workhouse officials in defiance of government’s poor law inspectors. No change there then. Indeed, some of the cost control measures employed by local guardians to keep the rates down could well be recycled as today’s Gershon efficiencies.

It is also chastening to be reminded that the appalling institutional abuse exposed at Budock hospital in Cornwall last year was taking place on the site of the old Falmouth workhouse. Is this the spirit of the place living on?

Don Rhodes is head of adult services, East Riding of Yorkshire Council

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