The Workhouse was built for the poor and needy, and intended to be so harsh and hostile that only the truly destitute would seek refuge there. It was hoped it would solve the problem of poverty as many rich people believed people were poor because they avoided work, but for many, this simply wasn’t the case. For example, a family could be surviving very well until the head of the house died suddenly possibly in a work-related instance such as a pit accident, some other injury or illness. The mother and children might well end up in the workhouse as there were too many mouths to feed and they couldn’t survive off the parish. Once there, the whole family would be kept apart from one another, sorted into the following categories.
Men infirm through age or illness
Women infirm through age or illness
Able-bodied men over 15 years
Able-bodied women over 15 years
Boys between 7 and 15
Girls between 7 and 15
Children under the age of 7
The idea behind this was so that people didn’t breed, even the elderly were segregated. Each section had its own exercise yard and there were separate boys and girls schools.
The buildings themselves were stark, foreboding places, undecorated and very much like prisons. High walls encompassed the workhouse cutting inmates off from the outside world.
Workhouses contained dormitories, washrooms, workrooms, a ‘refractory ward’ which was for solitary confinement, a mortuary, bake-house, receiving wards, dining halls and a chapel. Any sick or old person housed on the upper floors would be become a prisoner in the ward because he or she might not be able to manage the stairs.
Space was to a premium. Too many people were crammed into the smallest space possible: for example, eight beds could be put into a narrow dormitory only sixteen feet long; thirty-two men were put into a dormitory 20 feet long; ten children and their attendants were put into a room 10 feet by 15 feet.
The hospital ward took in all cases, so at any one time there may have been patients suffering from any variety of complaints ranging from dysentery to diphtheria, and let us not forget there were several outbreaks of cholera up and down the land during the Victorian era. But sometimes people were better off in the workhouse if they were ill than if they were outside of it as they may not be able to afford good medical care otherwise.
Furniture was basic: cheap wooden beds, flock-filled palliasses as mattresses, only two or three blankets would be provided and pillows considered a luxury, sheets were not provided. Most inmates shared beds. There were no comfy chairs just wooden benches, tables and stools. Seats were not upholstered. Walls were bare apart from lists of rules and regulations and various Bible passages were displayed.
The day began early at 5.00 am with the tolling of the bell. Prayers and breakfast were between 6.00 am and 7.00 am. The inmates were expected to work between 7.00 am and 6.00 pm but they were allowed an hour’s break for lunch between midday and 1.00 pm. Prayers were said between 6 and 7.00 pm. Supper took place between 7 and 8.00 pm and then they were expected to go to bed and sleep, when the whole rota began again with the toll of the bell at 5.00 am the following morning.
The sort of work the men were expected to undertake was: bone crushing, stone breaking, oakum picking [which was untying threads from ropes used on ships etc’,] and sometimes working in the corn mill or on vegetable plots at the workhouse.
For women, it often involved domestic duties such as working in the laundry, scrubbing floors, blacking leading fire grates, etc.
On admission, the inmates own clothing was removed and sanitised. They were searched and washed and made to wear a uniform and their hair cropped to prevent infestation of head lice. Women wore a shapeless dress which reached ankle length, long stockings and knee length drawers and a poke bonnet. Men wore striped shirts and ill-fitting trousers that were made shorter by tying pieces of string at the knee, thick vest, woollen drawers and socks and a neckerchief and, in wintertime, a coarse jacket.
Meals lacked nutrition for the inmates and often the Board of Guardians got to dine like kings and queens whilst the inmates made do with a thin watery gruel for breakfast, and at other times a thin vegetable soup and piece of bread. Sometimes they had meat but it was very sparse.
Children were sometimes educated inside the workhouse where there was a boys’ school and a girls’ school, so in that respect, workhouse children might be better educated than those who received no education at all in the community. When children got older they learned new skills and became apprenticed to learn crafts such as carpentry or midwifery. And some workhouses had industrial schools where children learned such skills.
Lynette Rees has written several works of historical fiction. Her latest novel, ‘The Workhouse Waif’ is available from Amazon Kindle:
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