Workhouse inmates and why they were there
Workhouse inmates were individuals who had fallen on bad times and families who had lost their income. They were there as a last resort because they needed food and shelter. They had to work hard, follow strict rules, and live in harsh conditions, but worst of all was the social stigma and shame for being there. This page elaborates: The author's father was a workhouse labour master and her uncle was the chair of the Board of Guardians that oversaw the local workhouse system.
Why people had to go into the workhouse
In general, workhouse inmates were people who had fallen on bad times - not always of their own making. Such people were so impoverished that they could not feed or clothe themselves or their families. They were known as paupers.
Their extreme poverty, their understanding of the harshness of workhouse life and the associated stigma meant that they were desperate. The workhouse was their last resort.
Conditions for acceptance by a workhouse
Workhouses would only accept people as inmates if they were:
- too impoverished to care for themselves
- sufficiently able bodied to undertake work
- resident in the parish
Irrespective of their poverty, individuals of no fixed address - known as tramps and vagrants - had to rely on the charity of the casual wards.
Impoverished individuals unable to work were put into the infirmary.
The variety of backgrounds among workhouse inmates
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 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.
The fear and stigma of the workhouse
Families were always afraid that they might have to go there if the money stopped coming in for any reason. Irrespective of the harshness of the life, it was a dreadful stigma to be in a workhouse - or to have been in one.
If something expensive had to be bought, a common remark among older people up even until the 1970s was, "You'll have me in the workhouse". Younger people never knew what that meant.
An even worse stigma
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.
Pat Cryer, webmaster