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The Industrial Revolution would have been an unqualified success – if ordinary people hadn’t got in the way. This section examines the effects that the great upheaval had on people’s lives – from leisure to health.

Manchester was like a wild-west frontier town in the early days of the Revolution, and housing conditions were often revolting. Businessman Friedrich Engels spent his night walking the slums, chronicling the facts.

THE slums of Manchester and other Northern towns and cities were a breeding ground for cholera and other diseases. Illness and early death were accepted as the norms until medical men like John Kay began to fight back.
With men and even children working 13 or 14 hours a day, there was no chance of recreation in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. But the introduction of the 10-hour working day made sport, education and even holidays available to the masses.

But for some, these were just dreams. When there was nothing else left, the poor finished in the workhouse, without hope or even pride. The place so graphically described by Charles Dickens, was feared and hated. It was the last resort.



The word alone was calculated to send a shudder through any honest 19th century worker. It signified the end of the line, the final indignity. It said: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

The mental picture of the gaunt, forbidding workhouse is one of the abiding impressions of Victorian England. Charles Dickens painted the best-known picture of it in his Oliver Twist, but even the great novelist’s vivid descriptions of the repressive, soul-destroying workhouse regime don’t tell the whole story.workhouse1

Just what was the workhouse? Put simply, it was a public institution which housed people who were unable to support themselves. If these people were otherwise fit, they were put to work.

Until the 16th century, there was no state provision for the welfare of the poor. What relief there was was provided by the church, but the Dissolution of the Monasteries ended much of this charitable work.

An Act of 1576 recognised three classes of poor – “sturdy beggars” or vagabonds, the infirm, and the deserving unemployed, who could not find work. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was designed to control the escalating cost of relief under the old system. It attempted to end the provision of “outdoor relief” – payments in cash or kind to poor people still living in their own homes – forcing paupers into the workhouse.

Under the guidance of Edwin Chadwick, the Poor Law Commission was set up, its three commissioners – the three Bashaws of Somerset House, as they became known – despatching representatives across the country to group parishes together into Poor Law Unions, help to form boards of guardians and advise on the construction of new workhouses. Chadwick’s view was that existing relief, being too generous, encouraged idleness and larger families.
The boards of guardians, often parsimonious to a degree, raised their funds through the imposition of a poor rate.
By 1839, the 15,000 parishes of Britain had been grouped into 600 unions and 350 workhouses had been built.
The new system was not a major problem in rural areas in the South, for which it had been largely designed, but it led to large-scale unrest in the industrial North.

Anti-Poor Law committees were formed in many Northern towns, backed by radicals such as Fielden and Oastler. Among the many claimed iniquities of the new system was the fact that, if an unemployed man left his home town in search of work, not just he but his entire family lost all claim to benefit. Families who did enter the workhouse were broken up, males and females being housed in separate sections and not allowed to mix.

By the close of the 1830s, anti-Poor Law riots spread through textile towns like Stockport and Preston, protesting against the perceived harshness of the new law towards the unemployed, and because of this there were major delays in implementing the law. It was not until the 1860s that the workhouse system was fully operational in the North.
By then, the hated Poor Law Commission had already been brought down by what came to be known as the Andover Scandal of 1845. The penny-pinching board of guardians at Andover Workhouse drove the starving inmates to eat rotting bone marrow. Two years after that, the commission was wound up and replaced by the Poor Law Board.
Boards of guardians were not finally abolished until 1929 and the Poor Law was dismantled little by little until the creation of Britain’s current Welfare State.