A Day in the Workhouse

Britain’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed by Parliament and was designed to reduce the cost of looking after the poor as it stopped money going to poor people except in exceptional circumstances. Now if people wanted help they had to go into a workhouse to get it.

The new Poor Law ensured that the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse paupers would have to work for several hours each day.

Some people welcomed it because they believed it would reduce the cost of looking after the poor; take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves.  However, not all Victorians shared this point of view. Some people, such as Richard Oastler, spoke out against the new Poor Law, calling the workhouses ‘Prisons for the Poor’. The poor themselves hated and feared the threat of the workhouse so much that there were riots in northern towns.

The Stamford Union Workhouse Minutes for Tuesday 15th May 1838 give us a graphic view of life in a typical place of the time.

The clerk reported the result of inquiries that had been made with regards to the settlement of Widow Bartholomew.  It appeared, he said, that her late husband had gained a settlement in the parish of Stamford by being a yearly servant to Thomas Smith (now deceased) and also that her own Maiden Settlement was in that parish by living in the same service for several years immediately before her marriage.  It was therefore ordered that the necessary relief due to Widow Bartholomew should be charged to the Stamford Parish of St. George.

At this same meeting it was agreed that William Froggatt was ordered 2 days provisions on taking himself, his wife and family, out of the workhouse.  What is not clear here is whether they were being given the provisions as a farewell.  Some people welcomed it because they believed it would reduce the cost of looking after the poor; take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work hard to support themselves.

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