Life in Buckinghamshire's Workhouses 1834-1948


 “The workhouse should be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility.  It should be administered with strictness and with severity.  It should be as repulsive as is consistent with humanity”

The above statement was made in 1832 by the Reverend H.H. Milman, in a letter to public health activist and Poor Law reformer, Sir Edwin Chadwick.  Chadwick was instrumental in bringing about the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which was introduced to reduce the rising costs associated with caring for the poor. With this new legislation came an overhaul of the workhouse system which was now designed to be as harsh and as punitive as possible, so that only the truly needy were desperate enough to apply for assistance. Take a look at an 1834 admission ticket for a young mother Anne Pierson, who sought shelter for herself and her baby at Aylesbury workhouse.

Workhouse inmates consisted of able bodied paupers and their families, orphans, widows, vagrants, unmarried mothers, the elderly and infirm, as well as those with mental and physical disabilities.  On entry into the workhouse, inmates were often issued with a coarse uniform, and a pauper’s badge which usually consisted of a piece of red or blue cloth with the letter “P” preceded by the initial letter of their parish.  The pauper’s badge here was struck in bronze, and was intended for a pauper from Wooburn parish.  Meals were monotonous and basic and often consisted of bread, weak broth, or watery porridge.  Inmates slept in communal dormitories where bed linen was spartan and often dirty.

Paupers' Badge for Wooburn Parish

Male able bodied paupers who were desperate enough to seek assistance, were obliged to enter the workhouse with their families.  Men were usually set to work breaking stones for road repairs or crushing animal bones to produce fertiliser.  Female inmates picked oakum, undertook domestic duties or were forced to care for the sick.  Able bodied paupers often received relief in the form of food and money in exchange for labour.  The ledger in this display case contains records of payments made to pauper labourers at Iver Workhouse from 1834 to 1835.

By the 1850s and ‘60s, the workhouse system was facing a barrage of criticism as conditions were considered to be unsanitary and inhumane.  Florence Nightingale and tea heiress Louisa Twining were among the growing number of dissenters who felt strongly about the treatment of the mentally and physically sick.  Patients often found themselves at the mercy of women who were medically untrained, illiterate, and often had visual and hearing impairments to boot.

The introduction of the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act stipulated that workhouse hospitals were to be located on sites away from the workhouse.  Although progress was slow, eventually all workhouses across the country had separate infirmaries staffed by medically trained nurses.

By the end of the 19th century, workhouses had ceased to cater for the able bodied poor, and increasingly became refuges for the elderly, the sick and infirm. The Poor Law system was finally abolished with the introduction of the National Assistance Act of 1948, which also swept away the last vestiges of the workhouse system.

Further Reading

‘The Victorian Workhouse’ by Trevor May.

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