The Victorian Poorhouse

Sandra Spencer

University of North Texas

The specter of the Victorian Poorhouse haunts both history and literature. The surviving image, although not entirely accurate, is a grim reminder that not everyone flourished during an era whose very touchstones were progress and prosperity. No single historically-accurate image of the poorhouse remains, however, as each poorhouse has its own history. Each facility differed dramatically from others depending on location and time period. The prevailing literary image of the poorhouse as a place of gross inhumanity, enforced deprivation, and unspeakable insensitivity, like many stereotypes, has some basis in fact, but certainly not all Victorian poorhouses fit that description. The fictional image actually exemplifies the nineteenth-century workhouse more than the poorhouse, and the two terms became synonymous. The images merged because the two entities themselves merged, and the surviving image is that of the workhouse.

The ambiguous image of the poorhouse, or "The House" as it was frequently called (or the more ironic "The House of Industry"), reflects the ambiguous position of the poor, especially in the first half of the 19th century. At the time, much of the prosperous English populace viewed the poor as social and moral outcasts. These popular sentiments were supported by Malthusian philosophy, which dictated that money spent on the poor was money permanently removed from the wage pool, and Pauline doctrine, which stressed that the problem of poverty was omnipresent. More enlightened Victorians, however, tried to alleviate conditions for the poor through education and moral guidance. The one principle virtually everyone agreed upon was the need for reform.

As early as 1795, the English implemented new remedies for poverty. A minimum guaranteed income plan was adopted. Workers receiving low wages received supplemental income through parish funds, the stipend calculated by family size as well as wages. Public grumbling soon arose, however, about poor families and unmarried women having children just to increase their income. Fears of rising numbers of paupers materialized as increased industrialization and the enclosure acts forced many people to seek relief. The staggering cost of maintaining the poor soon became critical. Overburdened parishes called on Parliament for help, and Parliament responded by appointing a commission headed by Edwin Chadwick to investigate the situation. The Commission's findings resulted in the New Poor Law of 1834, legislation which created the now-infamous image of the poorhouse.

After conducting its investigation, the Poor Law Commission created several policies, including that of the workhouse system. The new legislation was very unpopular. Neither Whigs nor Tories wholeheartedly endorsed it, and every major urban newspaper denounced it. Many criticized the philosophy behind the law as well as the harshness of its measures.

Instead of each parish being responsible for its poor as in the past, the Commission formed unions comprised of several parishes, each union having a local board of guardians to implement the new regulations. Separate buildings were initially recommended: one for the aged and infirm; one for children, with provisions for schooling; one for able-bodied females; and one for able-bodied males. The Commission contended that different regulations for these groups necessitated separate housing and staff. For reasons unexplained, however, the policy of separate facilities changed. Construction and maintenance of four separate buildings was likely to be too costly or too complicated. The result was one institution to house all the indigent.

Further complications arose over who qualified as the "deserving poor" and who did not, although the initial policy of separate facilities suggests an obvious delineation. The able-bodied poor received a disproportionate share of attention. Critics charged the Commission with inflating the number of able-bodied poor to incense the public and garner support for the New Poor Law. Consequently, policies focused almost exclusively on eradicating the "shirkers" from the relief rolls, and the deserving poor, those least able to speak and act for themselves, faded to obscurity as surely as if they had slipped into the London fog.

A subtle shift in public perception of the deserving poor also contributed to their obscurity. An ugly idea took root that perhaps all the poor were undeserving. Perhaps the indigent elderly should have been more provident. Perhaps the unmarried mother should have made better moral choices. Many people scorned the poor rather than pitying them. Hence, applying for relief was a tacit admission of defeat and moral degradation. And, indeed, one premise of the New Poor Law supported the idea that the workhouse was the last resort. The workhouse needed to be as unattractive as possible to give the poor an incentive to work and save.

The problem with this theory, of course, was that many of the poor deserved help and could not work even if jobs were available or make enough money to save anything. Betty Higden, of Our Mutual Friend, was one of these. When readers first encounter Betty in the novel, she has her own little home and garden, models of cleanliness and industry. Sloppy and two other orphans, the "Minders," operate a mangle (a machine for smoothing cloth) for her. Betty supports the sole surviving member of her family, a young great-grandson. Her life changes after the boy's death, and she dismisses the Minders so Sloppy will have a chance to get a job. She breaks up housekeeping and trudges from place to place, selling handiwork to stay alive. The possibility of being forced into the poorhouse keeps her trudging until she dies, the money for her burial hidden in her clothing. Many of the elderly poor dreaded the poorhouse just as Betty did, doing their all to avoid admittance, because once admitted, they rarely left it except for burial in the pauper cemetery.

Applicants for relief first appeared before the board of guardians who decided if admittance were warranted. If the board decided the applicant were sufficiently indigent, he or she was "offered" a place in the institution. If the applicant declined, the board was absolved of any further responsibility. If the applicant had children or dependant parents, the entire family was presented for admittance if relief was accepted.

The applicant next met with medical examiners who determined whether he or she was able-bodied or infirm. The family was then separated, and in some cases the children and infirm were sent to other institutions, perhaps not even in the same locale. Family goods were confiscated as the law decreed that all inmates must be totally without resources for admittance to the House. Some guardians were more lenient about this regulation than others, believing, for example, that a man's tools should be retained in case he were able to leave the House for prospective employment. In this and other instances, the local board of guardians was often more humane than Poor Law legislation deemed necessary.

In retrospect, admittance to the House resembled admittance to a penal institution. Inmates were disinfected, their clothes were taken away, and they put on the House uniform. In some unions, unmarried mothers were forced to wear yellow gowns, branding them immoral as surely as if a scarlet "A" had been on their foreheads. Some also had their hair closely cropped as well. Once a week, inmates bathed and male inmates shaved -- all in the presence of workhouse staff. The one marked difference between the House and a prison was that inmates in the House could check themselves out, but doing so was a complicated process as well. Nevertheless, the restrictive and often punitive measures associated with the Poor Law soon earned the House the unflattering nickname of the "Poor Law Bastille."

Inmates led a regimented life in the House, especially in the early years of the New Poor Law. Everyone except the feeble and children less than seven years of age performed the same work for the same number of hours and ate the same basic meals. Work, although it was not necessarily designed as punishment, was often grueling and sometimes even dangerous. Inmates broke rock, ground corn by hand, picked oakum (fibers of old ropes, used for caulking ship seams), and ground animal bones for fertilizer and manufacturing. Smoking was prohibited, as was reading -- even of the Bible. Visits from "outsiders" were closely monitored. Often parents were not allowed to speak to their children. Married women of good character were housed with the aged; loose women were housed separately. Married couples initially were not allowed to live together regardless of their ages, as the Commission wanted to prevent pregnancy for obvious reasons. This rule was later relaxed to allow married people at least 60 years of age to live together if they wished.

Initially, meals were held in silence, and the diet was sparse at best. The recommended weekly menu for men had little variation. Three days a week male inmates were served a pint and a half of broth, a pint and a half of gruel, five ounces of cooked meat, twelve ounces of bread, and eight ounces of potato. On three alternating days of the week, men consumed twelve ounces of bread, a pint and a half of gruel, a pint and a half of soup, and two ounces of cheese. On Fridays, they were served twelve ounces of bread, a pint and a half of gruel, fourteen ounces of suet or rice pudding, and two ounces of cheese. The meager menu was divided into three meals daily. Women received slightly less, and children under age nine were fed at the discretion of the union master. Other than potatoes, the diet was entirely devoid of vegetables, fruit, milk, or eggs. Gruel, a thin porridge, was diluted at will. Oliver Twist must have been very hungry indeed to request another cup of gruel, the unappetizing and unsatisfying dietary staple of the poorhouse.

Diet was only one of many problems with the Poor Law regulations, however. The most prevalent problem was lack of uniform implementation. Many unions resisted legislative regulations because they believed governmental policy interfered with local control. Despite the premise that no "outdoor" relief was to be granted, many rural unions subverted this rule. Other rules were likewise bent, and treatment of inmates varied from union to union and board to board. In some workhouses, officers were very humane and high-principled; officers in other workhouses more closely resembled the officious Mr. Bumble of Oliver Twist. In some cases, unscrupulous officers who trimmed expenses siphoned the savings for themselves. Less money spent on food and coal meant more money in the administrative pocket. Hence, the standard of living varied considerably for inmates in workhouses, depending on the benevolence of the local board and officers.

Abuses in the House were widespread and well-documented, although regulations were revised frequently throughout the nineteenth century. In the Andover workhouse in 1845, inmates assigned to bone grinding were observed gnawing the bones they were to grind. (The workhouse soon abandoned bone grinding, finding it caused disease). In January 1850, the Times mentions a pregnant woman who died on the steps of the Southampton poorhouse from exhaustion and starvation. The officer had refused her admittance despite a surgeon's recommendation that she be admitted. In another poorhouse, an official inspection revealed that as many as seven people shared a bed because of overcrowded conditions. These scandals were not isolated incidences. Hence, fear of the poorhouse was a rational, predictable reaction.

As the twentieth century approached, the poorhouse became a more humane place. Most of the harsh measures suffered by inmates before 1850 had been remedied. The problem of charity and how to best meet the needs of the poor remained, however, because poverty had not been eradicated as the Poor Law Commission had planned. Victorian sentiment remained mixed about how to address the problem.

While Victorians may not have agreed on institutionalizing the poor or on how to dispense relief equitably, most agreed that the New Poor Law of 1834 was poorly conceived and wretchedly implemented. The Commission had neglected to conduct a thorough investigation of the causes of poverty, especially in urban areas. The ensuing policies reflected an almost-obsessive focus on morality while ignoring economic and social factors causing poverty.

Many public figures openly attacked the bill, and Dickens's comments in the postscript to Our Mutual Friend express the contempt many Victorians shared about the Poor Law. He wrote, "But that my view of the Poor Law may not be mistaken or misrepresented, I will state it. I believe there has been in England, since the days of the STUARTS, no law so often infamously administered, no law so often openly violated, no law habitually so ill-supervised." The symbol of this moralistic, short-sighted legislation remains: the image of the poorhouse -- a gaunt, grim building offering meager food and shelter at the expense of human dignity and hope.


Crowther, M.A. The Workhouse System 1834-1929. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1981.

Digby, Anne. Pauper Palaces. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.