Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

THE WORKHOUSE: How to penalise the poor

In John Wilmot on March 5, 2015 at 8:17 pm

The Victorians, it seems had their own way of dealing with poverty. It was known as the workhouse, brought in under the New Poor Law in the 1840s, and immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist.

Poverty, of course, has long been with us. But for some decades  before the New Poor Law came into being, it had been dealt with through the granting of “out relief”, paid out by the Parish to those unable to provide for themselves or their families.


But the 19th Century was a time of sweeping change. Industrialisation and the introduction of the factory system was undermining old patterns of employment. Whole swathes of the population found that  their jobs were cut from under them. And the cost of administering “out relief” rose sharply.

But in his book, “A People’s History of England”, historian A.L. Morton suggests that there was another reason for the setting up the workhouse system.  Effectively, he said, those thrown out of work “were offered a choice between the factory and the workhouse.”  Industrialism needed a workforce – and the harsh conditions laid down by the workhouse system ensured that workers were in plentiful supply.


The new Poor Law Commissioners appointed stated that inmates of the new workhouses must be “subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious.” Within the walls of the workhouse,  families were broken up, food was meagre and hard grinding work was the order of the day.


Poor Law Commissioners were appointed to administer the new system (thus making sure that there was no longer even a vestige of democratic control), headed by their secretary, Edwin Chadwick. Morton comments that “they became for a whole decade the most detested men in Britain.”

Opposition to the workhouse system was particularly strong in the north of England. In some towns they were stormed by angry mobs and even burned down. In the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden it took thirty years for the workhouse to be built.


An illuminating talk on the workhouse system in the Forest of Dean was given last month  by Cecile Hunt at a meeting of the Local History Society.

There were some special circumstances that  applied in the Forest. As much of it at the time was Crown land, the pattern of parishes didn’t always exist. Consequently, two workhouses were built to house “paupers” within the Forest. One was built at Westbury, and the workhouses at Chepstow and Monmouth took inmates from the west of the Dean, whilst the second within the Dean was at Newent. Schools were, at first, attached  but these were often ineffective.  The children were often orphans, or were placed in the workhouse by parents who just couldn’t feed or look after them.

Both the conditions and the food were invariably poor.  Patterns of work were strictly regulated and inmates were given bread and gruel for breakfast and soup for dinner alternating with small amounts of meat.

The men worked some ten hours a day, often picking oakum, stone breaking or bone crushing.  Such work was inevitably hard, pointless, manual labour. At Westbury Union, a contract for stone breaking was carried out. Meanwhile, women inmates had to carry out domestic work.

The guardians of the workhouses lasted until 1930, and the name “workhouse” itself was subsequently dropped for something more euphemistic. The institution in Westbury, for example, eventually became Westbury House, and then morphed into homes for the elderly.

Today few signs of the old workhouse buildings remain, either in Westbury or Newnham. Few would wish to be reminded of them. The site of the workhouse in Westbury, for example, is now occupied by new housing.


The workhouse system could be seen as part of those “Victorian values” extolled by Margaret Thatcher. Certainly it was the Victorians (or some of them) who came up with the differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor” – a distinction that many who should know better still hold today. Remember Osborne’s distinction between “strivers and slackers”?



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