The Workhouse in Victorian Times

“Building very old and dilapidated; walls in terrible condition; no screens; swarms of flies everywhere; no comfortable chairs; rooms very dirty; inmates do the work; food very poor. A so-called hospital is a miserable place more like a prison. Am impeccable women’s; the only bed is an old box filled with straw and a dirty quilt. A disgraceful place.”9

Why are we bringing up The Workhouse? If you have not caught the theme this month, it is about reminding us about how far we have come. I hate sounding like a mom here, but if anything should shake our foundation of reminding us of how we have transformed our understanding and made things better it was the destruction of The Workhouse. There was evidence of widespread abuse of children, use of the insane abuse of women, it was a terrifying place.

One thing that we should learn about the workhouse is how it transformed our understanding of the poor and how it changed how we care for people. The National Assistance Act 1948 was the reformation of aid that helped usher in a new state of financial welfare that would destroy the workhouse and create the modern ‘dole’ it would help lift up the poor and give rise to the Children’s Welfare Society. It would change the way we viewed children and create education for them, and move children from industrialized environments to colorful classrooms. 

The Workhouse is a symbol in Oliver Twist as a place that was something to dread and avoid and one that would be a good place for children who might be born due to ‘unfortunate’ circumstances. An interesting divergence in this post can be made actually about another issue that was somewhat central, due to the changing landscape of The Victorian era, marriage was actually finally formalized. Before that, marriages could be performed at local taverns and I am certain that many an ‘accidental’ baby has been born from that. 

There are also stories of many chambermaids who had ‘affairs’ and who may have lost husbands in the war, there were few prospects for women who were unmarried, and if the workhouse held an opportunity for their child that they could not provide, they would likely send them there, while they worked, so at least they could be somewhere ‘safe’. 

If anything things like this should remind us to not take for granted that life was always the same as it now, and remember the things that once were. Now, to share with everyone, the poem by James Greenwood 1832-1929:

“All you that dwell in Lambeth, listen for a while, 

To a song to enlighten and amuse you, 

In the workhouse the only mark, there’s queer doings after dark. 

And believe me, it is true I now tell you; 

It’s of the ups and downs, of a pauper’s life, 

Which are none of the best you may be sure sir? 

Strange scenes they do enact, believe me, it’s a fact, 

In Lambeth workhouse among the casual poor, sir. 

Oh my, what a rummy go, oh crikey, what a strange revelation, 

Has occurred in Lambeth workhouse a little while ago, 

And through the parish is causing a great sensation.

Now agent, with good intent, to Lambeth workhouse went, 

The mystery of the place to explore, sir, Says he, without a doubt, I shall then find out, 

What treatment they give the houseless poor, sir. 

So he went through his degrees, like a blessed brick, 

Thro’ scenes he had never seen before, sir, 

So good luck to him, I say, forever and a day, 

For bestowing a thought upon the poor, sir.

Says he, when you go in, in a bath you are pop’t in, 

To flounder about just like fishes, In water that looks like dirty mutton broth,

Or the washings of the plates and the dishes; 

Then your togs are tied uptight, to make sure all is right,

 Like parcels put up for a sale, sir, 

A ticket then you get as if you are for a trip, 

And a-going a journey by the rail, sir.

Then before you go to bed, you get a toke of bread, 

Which, if hungry, goes a small way to fill you, 

And if not too late at night, you may chance to be all right, 

To wash it down with a draught of skilley; 

Some they will shout out, Daddy, mind what you care about, 

And tip me a comfortable rug now, 

And be sure you see it’s whole, for I’m most jolly cold, 

And mind you don’t give us any bugs now,

Then you pig on a dirty floor, if you can, you’ll have a snore, 

And pass away the time till the morning. 

Then you’re muster’d up pell-mell, at the crank to take a spell, 

Just to give your cramped up body good warming. 

Thou see them all in rows in their torn and ragged clothes, 

Their gruel and their bread they swallow greedy, T

hen through London streets they roam, with neither friends nor home, It’s the fate of the suffering and the needy.

Now a word I’ve got to say, to all you who poor rates pay, 

Tho’, of course, an offence to none is intended. 

Before you your poor rates pay, just well look to the way, 

And inquire how your money is expended; 

Do as you’d be done to, that is the time of day, 

And with me you’ll agree, I am sure now, 

As you high taxes pay, it is but fair I say, 

To look a little to the comforts of the poor now.”

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