WORKHOUSE. The word alone was calculated to send a shudder down the spine of 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.

Just what was the workhouse? Put simply, it was a public institution which housed and fed people who were unable to support themselves.

If these people were otherwise fit, they were put to work. But these simple facts hide a tale of horror and despair.

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.

Victorian workhouse
Plan of a typical Victorian workhouse. Chadwick designed them as "uninviting places of wholesome restraint"

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.

Andover workhouse, in the Hampshire town's Junction Road, was opened on March 25th, 1836 and a former soldier named Colin McDougal was appointed master. McDougal, who had fought for Wellington at Waterloo, had left the army that same year at the age of 42, having achieved the rank of segeant major.

He was a drunkard, a bully with a proclivity for beating women and children - he once violently whipped a two-year-old child for crying - and he had a taste for sex with the frightened female inmates.

McDougal ran the institution like a Nazi concentration camp. An absolute minimum was spent on food, and the penny-pinching attitude of the board of guardians forced starving inmates to eat the rotting marrow from the animal bones they were breaking to sell as fertiliser.

Local MP Thomas Wakeley persuaded the Home Secretary to order an enquiry. McDougal resigned, Poor Law Commissioner Henry Parker was made a public scapegoat and two years later, 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.