Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteWorkhouse Life


Link back to main ROSSBRET websiteWorkhouse Life


"The Workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility; it should be administered with strictness, with severity; it should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity."
The Revd. H. H. Milman to Edwin Chadwick, 1832

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 stated that Parishes were to be grouped together into Unions. The Commissioners reported that the Old Poor Law was inefficient, and Parishes were too small to operate efficiently. Each Union was to provide a Workhouse which was to be a large grim building built to look like a Prison. A Local Board of Guardians would be elected from the ratepayers to run the Workhouse, supervised by the Central Poor Law Commission set up by the Government. The Poor Law Commission was headed by three Commissioners and Edwin Chadwick was appointed Secretary.

The principle of Workhouses was that conditions were less comfortable than conditions outside the House, so that only those really desperate would seek relief. This became known as "The principle of less eligibility".

Contents of Workhouse Life Page

Workhouse rules and regulations
The Daily Routine
The Workhouse Day
Classification of Paupers
Admission to the Workhouse
Workhouse Uniform
Workhouse Designs
Workhouse Poem
Workhouse Day Book Extracts
Sources Used

Workhouse Rules and Regulations

Workhouse orders and regulations were compiled and printed by the Poor Law Commissioners, and published in the first annual report, a small sample is shown below:

Rules and Regulations to be observed in the Workhouse of the (name) Union.

I. Paupers are to be admitted into the workhouse in any one of the following modes, and in no other, viz-

IV. As soon as a Pauper is admitted, he or she shall be placed in the probationary ward, and shall there remain until examined by the Medical Officer of the workhouse.

VII. Before removal from the probationary ward, the pauper shall be thoroughly cleansed, and shall be clothed in the workhouse dress; and the clothes which he or she wore upon admission shall be purified and deposited in a place to be appropriated for that purpose; to be restored to the pauper on leaving the workhouse, or else to be used by the pauper as the Board of Guardians shall direct.

XIII. All the paupers in the workhouse, except the sick, the aged and infirm, and the young children, shall rise, be set to work, leave off work, and go to bed, at the times mentioned in the accompanying table "A", and shall be allowed such intervals for their meals as therein are stated; and these several times shall be notified by ringing a bell, and during the time of meals, silence, order and decorum shall be maintained.

XIV. Half an hour after the bell shall have been rung for rising, the names shall be called over in the several wards provided for the second, third, fifth and sixth classes, when every pauper belonging to the ward must be present, to answer to his or her name, and to be inspected by the Master or Matron.

XVIII. The boys and girls who are inmates of the workhouse shall, for three of the working hours at least every day, be respectively instructed in reading, writing, and in the principles of the Christian religion; and such other instruction shall be imparted to them as are calculated to train them to habits of usefulness, industry and virtue.

XIX. The diet of the paupers shall be so regulated as in no case to exceed in quantity and quality of food, the ordinary diet of the able-bodied labourers living within the same district.

XXII. Any pauper may quit the workhouse, upon giving the Master three hours previous notice of his wish to do so; but no able-bodied pauper having a family shall so quit the house without taking the whole of such family with him or her, unless the Board of Guardians shall otherwise direct; nor shall any pauper, after so quitting the house, be again received into the house, unless in one of the modes prescribed in rule 1 for the admission of paupers.

XXVI. Any pauper, who shall neglect to observe of the foregoing rules as are applicable to him or her; who shall make any noise when silence is ordered; use obscene or profane language; by word or deed insult or revile any other pauper in the workhouse; who shall not duly cleanse his or her person; neglect or refuse to work; or pretend sickness; disobey any of the legal orders of the Master or Matron, or other superintendent; will be deemed disorderly, and shall be placed in apartments provided for such offenders, or shall otherwise be distinguished in dress, and placed upon such diet, as the Board of Guardians shall prescribe.

The Daily Routine

The daily routine to be followed by inmates of workhouse was stipulated by the Poor Law Commissioners in the first Annual Report.

  Hour of Rising Interval for Breakfast Time for setting to work Interval for Dinner Time for leaving off work Interval for Supper Time for going to bed
March to September 6 o' clock 6.30 to 7.00 7 o' clock 12.00 to 1.00 6 o' clock 6.00 to 7.00 8pm
September to March 7 o' clock 7.30 to 8.00 8 o' clock 12.00 to 1.00 6 o' clock 6.00 to 7.00 8pm

The Workhouse Day

The model timetable devised by the Poor Law Commissioners meant that the workhouse day began when the rising bell rang out at 6am from March to September and at 7am for the rest of the year. After prayers, breakfast followed from 6 to 7 am. They then worked from 7 until noon. After an hour for lunch work resumed until supper from 6 to 7pm. This was followed by more prayers and then bed, by 8pm at the latest.

The daily routine was designed to be dull and repetitive to remind inmates of their situation and discourage other paupers from entering the workhouse. In the same way, the work which filled the day was made hard and disagreeable. The Poor Law Board recommended tasks such as stone-breaking, oakum-picking, sack-making, corn-grinding, laundry work and gardening. Workhouse paupers were also hired out as a cheap form of labour.

Classification of Paupers

The indoor paupers shall be classed as follows:

To each class shall be assigned by the Board of Guardians that apartment or separate building which may be best fitted for the reception of such class, and in which they shall respectively remain, without communication, unless as is hereinafter provided.

In addition to the separate accommodation for each class of pauper, a number of rooms for other staff had to be included in the workhouse. The Master and Matron were always resident, and porters, schoolmistress and schoolmaster might be employed if not chosen from the pauper inmates. Offices also had to be built for use by the Clerk and a meeting room for the Board of Guardians. A waiting room was required for the applicants requesting relief.

Admission to a Workhouse

A Pauper that wanted to request relief would have to sit in the waiting room at the Workhouse prior to being interviewed. The other methods of gaining admission was to apply to the relieving officer, or in cases of emergency to the Master of the workhouse.

Once admitted they would be taken to the receiving ward. There were separate receiving wards for men and women, and in some workhouses, for children. Families would be split up from this point.

Paupers were stripped, searched and washed and then issued with a workhouse uniform. Their own clothes would be removed for washing and then stored for when they left the workhouse. They would usually stay in the receiving ward for a couple of days until they had been examined by the Medical Officer, who would determine which category they were in. The Pauper  would then be taken to the appropriate ward.

The Workhouse Uniform

The women wore shapeless, waist less dresses reaching their ankles, with a pattern of broad, vertical stripes in a rather washed out blue on an off-white background. Beneath such exterior garments, at least during the 19th Century, the women wore under-draws, a shift and long stockings, with a poke bonnet on their heads. 

The men wore shirts of a similar pattern, and ill-fitting trousers, tied with cord below the knee. The men wore thick vests, woollen draws and socks, with a neckerchief around their throats, and, in cold weather, a coarse jacket. 

The children's outfits have been described as a singularly ugly and disfiguring uniform, too often adopted, that brought real misery to the wearers, besides being hated as a badge of pauperism.....The dress of the pauper girl is usually of stout woollen material, good for winter, but generally worn all the year round. They were too often clumsily cut and badly sewn and the long skirts in which the little were attired (to allow for growth) impeded their movements, adding to their awkward gait, which was made worse by hobnailed boots with iron tips.

Workhouse Designs

Model designs were published in the first annual report in 1835. One of the designs was by an Assistant Commissioner, Sir Francis Head, which was for a courtyard plan workhouse. The others were by Sampson Kempthorne, who became the official architect to the Poor Law Commission.

Workhouse Poem

"By day I must dwell where there's many a wheel,
And female employed to sit down and reel,
A post with two ringles is fixed in the wall,
Where orphans, when lasted, loud for mercy do call,
Deprived of fresh air, I must there commence spinner,
If I fail of my task I lose a hot dinner;
Perhaps at the whipping post then shall I be flogged,
And lest I escape my leg must be clogged.
While tyrants oppress I must still be their slave,
And cruelly used, tho' well I behave:
Midst Swearing and brawling my days I must spend,
In sorrow and anguish my days I must end."
James Chambers, workhouse inmate.

In The Workhouse : Christmas Day -

It is Christmas day in the Workhouse,
And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables
For this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for - with the rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's" 
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes?
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside;
"Great God" he cries; "but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died"

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master's face went white;
"Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
"Could their ears believe aright?"
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.
George R. Sims.

Workhouse Day Book extracts for Ringwood Union

February 3rd 1827
John E. says he will not go to Church as he belongs to the Upper Meeting House, punishment bread and water until he does.

February 24th 1827
the weather being very cold Jane C. would feel much obliged to the Gentlemen (overseers) if they would give her a quill (blanket) for use on the bed. Reply: No.

June 26th 1827
William B. taken before Mr. Jupp and Mr. Shute (both JP's) and committed to Winchester Prison to hard labour for three weeks for using indecent language and misconduct before Martha H., Charlotte B., and Amelia M., when they was at work in the field.

June 26th 1827
Charlotte B. taken before Mr. Jupp and Mr. Shute at The Woolpack, Sopley, and sent to Winchester Prison for three weeks for running away from the workhouse having the Parish clothes on.

October 20th 1827
The Governor beg to inform the Gentlemen (overseers) that there is a considerable quantity of small carrots and potatoes in the House and think it advisable to buy a large pig to eat them. Reply: Buy one.

July 18th 1829
Speak about Robert F. using impertinent language to the Governor. Punishment, to be kept on bread and water for four weeks.

September 9th 1829
Ann M. sent to Winchester Prison for fourteen days by John Mills Esq., for beating Jane W. and being impertinent to the Governess.

Sources Used

Christmas Day submitted by Alan Longbottom
Honor Kennedy; submitted documentation.
P. Anne Chambers RGN; Course on Nursing Elderly People.
Mr K. Hill, County records Dept. Cambridge.

Page updated March 12, 2008 by Rossbret