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The poorhouse

Between the time of the reign of Elizabeth I and the nineteenth century there was a marked rise in the number of people applying for poor relief. This led to a belief that many of the people claiming relief were work-shy and idle. In 1723 an Act of Parliament was passed that aimed to deal with this problem. This set out a system by which parishes, or a group of parishes, could provide a workhouse where the able-bodied poor might be set to work. If they refused to enter the workhouse they could be refused poor relief. This Act was called the Workhouse Test Act.

By 1776 there were over 2,000 workhouses in the country but the problem of distinguishing between those who deserved aid and those who were too idle to care for themselves remained.

In 1772 the government had to set out a new Act that tried to distinguish between the different types of poor claiming relief. The Act was introduced to Parliament by Thomas Gilbert, an MP from Staffordshire. His aim was to allow parishes to combine into groups to build a workhouse that would serve all their poor. This would enable poorer parishes to join with richer ones and help evenly distribute the burden of poor relief.

This new workhouse system also employed ways of dealing with the different classes of poor: the sick, old or orphaned would be housed in the workhouse and fed and watered. All others who claimed relief would be given money but expected to look after themselves; this was called "outdoor relief".

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]