What life was like for workhouse inmates
Workhouse life was harsh. So much is well-known, but read on to discover how harsh. The page incorporates observations and insights from the National Trust workhouse at Southwell and family recollections from the workhouse at Edmonton.
By the webmaster based on discussions with older family involved in the workhouse system, visits to museum and with additional research
I know something of what life was like in the workhouse because my grandfather was the labour master at the Edmonton workhouse. Although he didn't speak about his work much, he did say that the life of the inmates was very harsh and that the food was very basic indeed. The idea was to discourage people from going there to live off charity - although doubtless cost had much to do with it as workhouses were funded by the parish.
At the National Trust workhouse at Southwell
One of the very best places to get a feel for life in a workhouse is the National Trust workhouse at Southwell which is kept as a memorial to the workhouse system. When I visited it, I found it a dismal place. The aim was to make workhouse life so unpleasant that no-one wanted to stay. The fewer the number of inmates, the less cost to the parish and the more apparently ethical its parishioners.
The common room meetings with family
Husbands and wives were separated, but families were allowed to meet for a short time in a common room on Sundays.
Inmates sleeping accommodation was in dormitories on separate floors which even had separate staircases so that men and women couldn't meet in passing.
Illness and the top floor workhouse infirmary
The top floor of the Southwell workhouse was for people who were too old or ill to work or be looked after in their homes. It wasn't pleasant, but it was not intentionally made unpleasant, as was so much in the workhouse system.
The Edmonton workhouse which my mother remembers had its infirmary facility in a separate building - which may or may not have been the case in other workhouses.
At the Edmonton workhouse
Because my grandfather was a labour master at Edmonton, I know something of the inmates life there.
Food in the Edmonton workhouse was basic and fairly typical of the food in other workhouses. It was based on course bread, porridge called gruel, soup called broth and potatoes. For the mid-day meal there was also a little meat with the ever-present potatoes. Sometimes there were other vegetables like onions and turnips.
Inmates were normally always hungry.
There is a separate page about the work in the workhouse.
Inmates' treat - tobacco
In the Edmonton workhouse the men were given some tobacco once a week as a treat, which seems rather strange from the viewpoint of today.
A child's experience of a workhouse
In June 1930, my mother put my brother, my sister and me into the workhouse at Bishop's Castle. I was three years old; my brother was 13 months older and my sister was just a baby. We were to remain there until the following year.
I can recall something of the workhouse:
being bathed in a big white bath with a piece of red soap, which I now know was carbolic;
being wheeled out in a big pram which held three infants;
being smacked for wetting the bed;
playing in a big yard with high walls; and
being given sweets by an old man (probably an inmate) from a tin box marked OXO.
extract from the memoirs of
Brenda May Wilson, courtesy of her son, Kevin Flynn
Rules, regulations and punishments for workhouse inmates
You know that the life was harsh, but the following list of rules and regulations really explain what that meant for the inmates' lives.
Rules and regulations
Able bodied inmates to get up by 6 am in the summer and by 7 am in the winter and to go to bed at 8.00 pm in the summer and 7.00 pm in winter. All candles be put out by that time.
Every inmate to be employed in such labour as their respective age and ability will admit.
Work in winter to be between 6 am and 6 pm in summer, from 7 am till dark in winter, with half an hour for breakfast, one hour for dinner [mid-day lunch] and half an hour for supper. Anyone refusing the work to go without the next meal or be otherwise punished.
Grace be said before and after dinner; inmates may not depart until after grace.
Dinner three times a week to be hot meat and vegetables properly cooked. [By implication from the various punishments cited in the rules and regulations, other meals included one or more servings of cheese, butter, sugar, tea and broth along with bread, potatoes or rice.]
All who are able and can be spared from duties shall attend church or some other place of worship twice every Sunday; those who refuse must go without their next meal or be punished in some other way.
No spiritous liquors or smoking except in the hall, on punishment of losing next meal or other punishment.
Punishment for defacing or destroying rules to be bread and water for two days.