logo - Join me in the 1900s
logo - from the webmaster

Inmates' work in workhouses



All the adult inmates of workhouses had to work to fund their keep. The men and the women had different work.

to top of page

The work of the men inmates

The main task of male inmates at the Edmonton workhouse

The main task at the Edmonton workhouse was stone breaking - breaking up lumps of granite into knobs, about 1 inches across, which were used in making macadam roads. Macadam was these knobs, set in sand and compacted by rolling. The district was fast developing in the early 1900s - and there was a large demand for this material.

Family notes, left by Edward Cole, son of the Edmonton labour master and nephew of the Chairman of the Board of Guardians and brother of the author of the workhouse page.

Men in the workhouse who were able-bodied had to work at hard manual labour. This was certainly unpleasant, but it was not primarily a punishment. These jobs had to be done and there were no machines to do them. However, workhouse life was not intended to be pleasant.

Teasing out old rope

One job was to tease out the strands of worn-out rope from ships, so that the fibres could be used for other purposes. A tool like a large nail was used. I assume it was called a spike which must have given rise to the informal name of 'spikes' for the associated casual wards where the work was similar. The ropes were tarred, and therefore gritty, so made fingers bleed.

Worn-out rope, ready for workhouse inmates to untangle and tease out.

Worn-out rope, ready for inmates to untangle and tease out.

Bucket of teased out old rope fibres

Bucket of teased out rope fibres.



Both photos taken in the Guildford Spike, now restored as a casual ward.

Section through a reconstruction of an early 1900s road at Amberley Heritage Museum, showing the crushed stones, broken up by the male inmates of workhouses

Section through a reconstruction of an early 1900s road at Amberley Heritage Museum, showing the crushed rocks, broken up by the male inmates of workhouses.

Stone-breaking

Another job was to break up rocks for building and mending roads.

My father had a large hammer in our shed at home which came from the workhouse. It was very heavy indeed.

The pieces of rock had to be small enough to go through a 1 inch heavy-weight sieve - just under 4 cm.


to top of page


The work of the women inmates

The women in the workhouses had to work very hard too.

Washing and ironing

The women had to wash everything that needed washing. At Edmonton, they did this in the infirmary laundry.

There were no washing machines or washing powders. So the women had to use their bare hands, carbolic soap, washboards, mangles and flat irons. It was hot, steamy work. I often wondered if they had any treats, as the men had their tobacco.

Woman workhouse inmate doing washing.

Woman workhouse inmate doing washing.

Woman workhouse inmate doing washing, front view.

Woman workhouse inmate doing washing, front view.

Both photos were taken in the Guildford Spike. The models are full-sized and seem to be made of white unpainted plaster, which is particularly effective for the circumstances.


Food preparation and cooking

It also fell to the women to do whatever mending was necessary and to prepare and cook the meals - basic as these were.

to top of page

This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is Pat Cryer.