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In England and Wales, a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able- bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly 2 Early Victorian workhouses.
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Workhouse - Wikipedia

A workhouse was a place that sheltered the poor people who did not have the means of supporting themselves. The oldest workhouse can be traced back to though there are records which suggest that such workhouses existed even before that. The Poor Law also suggested building of houses for those who were elderly or terminally sick. In the 17th century, the system of workhouses slowly developed. There were Acts like the Workhouses Test Act of , the Gilberts Act of and the Poor Law Amendment Act of which were brought into force to regularize and systematize the workhouses.

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The workhouses had captured the imagination of the Victorian writers who termed this place as papuer palaces. The Consolidated General Order monitored the workhouse functioning in terms of diet, dress, education, discipline, etc. The routine of the workhouse inmate was designed in such a manner that it was harsh and degrading. The reason behind this was to only enable those people to stay in the workhouse who are genuinely poor and have no place to stay nor have any job for a living.

In the workhouse men, women and children were kept in separate quarters. Such an arrangement was devastating for those children who were living in the workhouse with their parents. The inmates were given a uniform which they had to wear during their stay at the workhouse. Just a year later a school for pauper children in Tooting was the scene of a cholera outbreak which claimed lives.

The inquest found that the effects were exacerbated by a lack of food, poor clothing and overcrowding. It was uncommon but some people guilty of cruelty in the workhouses were brought to justice.

Victorian Era Workhouses History

Ella Gillespie was sentenced to five years of penal servitude for mistreating workhouse children. She whipped them with stinging nettles, forced them to kneel on the wire netting that covered the hot-water pipes and deprived them of water for so long that they resorted to drinking from the toilet bowls.


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Charlie Chaplin in his youth spent a few weeks in the Newington workhouse. In his autobiography Chaplin recounts the Friday morning punishment sessions where the boys lined up on three sides of a square. The miscreants were then caned in front of their peers, often fainting or even requiring treatment in the infirmary.

Charlie Chaplin spent a few weeks in a workhouse where canings were common [REX]. Politician Will Crooks was a real rags-to-riches story. He was a child inmate of the Poplar workhouse in the East End of London but returned later in life as one of its guardians. Before the Poor Law Amendment Act Christmas was a day of rest in the workhouses and dinner included baked veal and plum pudding.

After the law stated that although inmates would continue to have the day free from work they were not to be allowed extra food and drink paid for by the workhouse's own funds. In most workhouses Christmas became a time for the guardians to visit and demonstrate their largesse. The usual punishments for adults who broke the workhouse code involved losing their next meal although for more serious breaches they could be brought before magistrates.

However, they could be subjected to humiliating rituals.

Victorian Era Workhouses – The poor people’s shelter

Use of pillories and stocks were common. One poor woman in the East Retford workhouse in had to cut her hair off and was forbidden from wearing a cap for three months because she allowed another inmate to have "very improper connections with her".

Victorian Workhouses - Dickens Show

One solution to the problem of poor children was simply to send them away. In the first organised emigration of poor children took place when the London Common Council sent vagrant children to join the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia. After large-scale loss of life during attacks by native Americans in and , further waves of children were sent to bolster the colonialists' numbers. Entering almost entirely voluntary process.


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Applicants would approach their local relieving officer who would issue them with an "offer of the house" if they were deemed to be sufficiently deserving of the workhouse's aid. It was up to them if they accepted or not but it was expected that families entered and left the workhouse together. Although known which workhouse was the one which Charles Dickens used as the model for Oliver Twist's home the strongest contender is the Cleveland Street workhouse in London's Fitzrovia.

Food, Clothing and Identity: Life in the Workhouse