Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Main Content Area

Workhouse life

Entry into the workhouse

Entry to the workhouse was a voluntary decision, but one that was born out of necessity and desperation. People ended up in the workhouse for a variety of reasons. They may be too elderly or ill to work and therefore unable to support themselves, and have no family who were willing or able to take them in. Unmarried mothers were often disowned by their families and forced to enter the workhouse in order to survive. People who were mentally ill or physically disabled would be entered into the workhouse as there were no medical institutions that were able to cater for them.

The conditions inside the workhouse varied greatly depending on the area and the temperament of the staff that ran it. Rumours of the terrible conditions were common and would have helped to create an aura of fear around the institutions.

One workhouse inspector from Kent reported in 1839:

"A short time back, it was circulated in this county that the children in the workhouses were killed to make pies with, while the old when dead were 'employed' to manure the Guardian's fields, in order to save the expense of coffins." (Public Record Office MH 12/12459, 29th Oct 1840)

Entry into the workhouse was a distressing and undesirable event. The applicant would have to undergo an interview to determine their circumstances and ensure that they were eligible for state help. This interview was usually done by the Relieving Officer who would visit the parishes of the Union on a regular basis. If an applicant was in urgent need of admission then the Master of the Workhouse could also carry out the interview.

If an applicant's circumstances proved worthy of a place then formal admission was authorised by the Board of Guardians who met once or twice a week. In between meeting times applicants would be placed in a probationary ward where the medical officer would check on their state of health. Any new entrants who were suffering from any kind of illness would then be placed in a sick ward to prevent infection of the other inmates. There were also strict rules governing who could receive relief from the workhouse.

Once they entered the workhouse paupers were stripped, bathed and given a workhouse uniform. Their own clothes would be kept in store until the day that person decided to leave the workhouse. Often the workhouse inmates would make their own uniforms as a work task but sometimes they would be supplied from outside agencies.

The workhouse uniforms were very uncomfortable and hard wearing. For the men they included jackets of fernought cloth and for the women there weregrogram gowns and petticoats of linsey-woolsey. Fernought was a strong woollen cloth mainly used by men on ships in times of bad weather. Linsey-woolsey was a fabric made of linen and wool (or sometimes cotton and wool). Grogram was a very coarse mixture of silk, or mohair, and wool, which was sometimes stiffened with gum.

In some workhouses the different categories of inmates would be marked by the different uniforms or badges that they wore, for example unmarried mothers were often made to wear a yellow badge.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]