The Victorian workhouse system
By the webmaster’s mother, 1906-2002
The workhouse itself was just part of a system for three different ways to support people who were too poor to support themselves and their families. In some places the building housing the three categories were in the same large building; in other places they had separate buildings on the same site.
The workhouse: what it was
The workhouse is the best known of the three types of support in the workhouse complex. It was somewhere to live for local people who couldn't support themselves but were well enough to work. Sometimes whole families had to go into the workhouse if the wage earner could no longer work. It is important to stress local and live because the other two categories are a different set of individuals.
The inmates had to work for their keep, and their living conditions were harsh. In many ways it was like being in prison, except that they were encouraged to find and take up paid work outside and leave.
The infirmary was for the local and poverty stricken aged and infirm. It was like a very basic hospital and was either for short-term residents while they recovered or for those who were unlikely to live long. The infirmary at Southwell was on the top floor of the workhouse building, but in Edmonton it was in a separate building on the same site.
The casual ward: what it was
The casual ward was for poverty-stricken individuals who were not local. They were allowed to stay for one night only, and then had to find their way to a casual ward in another area. Usually they walked, which gave rise to their name of tramps.
Costs of the workhouse system
The costs or running the workhouse system were borne by the local parish, the equivalent of today's local council. Clearly there was no way for the destitute inmates to contribute and equally clearly it was in the interests of the parish to keep the costs as low as possible with as few inmates as possible. Hence the basic nature of everything supplied to inmates and the harshness of the life there.
Management and staffing
Every workhouse was under the management of a Board of Guardians and funded by the local parish. For many years, my uncle was the chairman of our Edmonton Board of Guardians.
The day-to-day manager of the staff was called a labour master. Usually there were several, working in shifts. At one time my father was a labour master at Edmonton.
The tramp major was the casual ward equivalent of the labour master. Whether or not this was the formal title is uncertain since tramps were formally known as vagrants not tramps.
I don't remember my father or uncle mentioning other staff. There were presumably nurses and a doctor on call at the infirmary, but I suspect that the main caring work was done by the female inmates. They certainly did the cooking and cleaning.
The background to the workhouse system: The English Poor Laws
Workhouses were setup under the English Poor Laws which provided relief to the poor in England and Wales. They developed out of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws, and were first formalised in 1587-98.
The end of the workhouse system
In 1930 the last workhouses were officially closed, marking the end of the Poor Law system. However they continued in some form until the establishment of the Welfare State, just after the Second World War.