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Slums, Workhouses and Casual Wards


What life was like for workhouse inmates

a fictional representation of a workhouse created for this website by Bing Chat

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.

Sleeping arrangements

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.

Workhouse food

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.

Inmates' work

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:

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

Display in Guildford Spike, reproduced here with permission

Text and images are copyright

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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