Text and images are copyright. All rights reserved.
In general workhouse inmates were people who had fallen on bad times - not always of their own making. They were known as paupers.
In order for a workhouse to keep and feed them, they had to have been resident in the parish. Individuals of no fixed address - known as tramps and vagrants - had to rely on the charity of the casual wards.
Workhouse inmates were often whole families, because once the man of the family was out of work, there was no way that his family could keep themselves. Children were even born in workhouses.
My father, who was at one time a labour master in the a Edmonton workhouse, came across interesting characters among the inmates. For example he saw an old sailor who had had the cat of nine tails as punishment on board ship, and still had the grooves from the flogging in his back. My father also told me that when he was a child, it was not uncommon on a hot day in the street, when men had taken off their shirts, to see backs scarred by the cat.
Another thing my father said was that it was always worth keeping a bit of money in his pocket because inmates were so short of money that they sometimes offered quite nice possessions for sale at knock-down prices.
Dreadful as the stigma of being in the workhouse was, I understand that inmates of workhouses looked down on inmates of casual wards. The page on casual wards shows why.
It was a dreadful stigma to be in a workhouse - or to have been in one.
Families were always afraid that they might have to go there if the money stopped coming in for any reason, often through no fault of their own.
If something expensive had to be bought, a common remark among older people up until the 1970s was, "You'll have me in the workhouse".