Poor Law Union's & Workhouses

I have discovered a number of ancesors who have had to fall on the Workhouse to survive. Some unfortunately hve died whilst in the Workhouse, whilst some have managed to get out of that system and go on to live better lives.

Therefore, rather than constantly writing about Workhouses I decided to pull together this very brief look at the whole system of caring for those who fell on hard times in the past and refer out to it in other articles.

If I have made major mistakes, please advise me but please bear in mind it is only a brief overview and not a detailed study of the subject.

The Poor Law Union's

The Background

Prior to 1349 (in England & Wales), people unable to work either starved to death or were cared for by their wider family.

King Edward III of England decreed on 18 June 1349 that an Ordinance of Labourers be created, following the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The Black Death lasted until 1350. by which time 30-40% of the population had been killed and most of those were agricultural labourers. Because of the massive reduction in available labour, those that were left could demand higher wages & as a consequence prices rose. King Edward's Ordinance tried to correct that staus and force everyone who could work to work the land, drive wages back to pre-plague levels & reduce prices for food. An additional law, the Statute of Cambridge, was brought in 1388 that placed restrictions on labourers & beggars.

The Statute of Cambridge prohibited any labourer from leaving the "hundred", "rape", "wapentake", "city", or "borough" where he was living, without a testimonial, showing reasonable cause for his departure, to be issued under the authority of the justices of the peace. Any labourer found wandering without such letter, was to be put in the stocks until he found surety to return to the town from which he came. Impotent persons were to remain in the towns in which they were living at the time of the Act; or, if the inhabitants were unable or unwilling to support them, they were to withdraw to other towns within the "hundred", "rape", "wapentake", or to the towns where they were born. This Statute also called upon each "hundred" to offer relief to its own infirm (who were no longer capable of working).

In England a "hundred" was the division of a shire for military and judicial purposes. The term dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

In Tudor times, new laws were introduced. The Vagabonds and Beggars Act 1494 stated that "vagabonds, idle and suspected" persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town.

An Act of 1576 required a system of support be created for those individuals who were willing to work, but who were having difficulty in finding employment. This Act stated that the Justices of the Peace were authorized to provide any town which needed it with a stock of flax, hemp, or other materials on which paupers could be employed and to erect a "house of correction" in every county for the punishment of those who refused work.

In 1597 the Act for the Relief of the Poor was introduced into England & Wales that required that Parishes (of the Church of England) be responsbile for caring for the poor, ill and infirm. The operation of the "house of correction" for those who refused to work was at that time transferred to the Parish Commissioners.

A law passed by the English parliament in 1723 introduced a "workhouse test", which meant that a person who wanted to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse (the house of correction) and undertake a set amount of work. The test was intended to prevent irresponsible claims on a parish's poor rate.

In 1782 the Better Relief and Employment of the Poor Act was passed (often called Thomas Gilbert's Act after the person who introduced it). This act aimed to organise poor relief on a county basis with each county divided into large districts corresponding to the old "hundred" or other large group of parishes. Theese groupings were called Unions were allowed to set up common workhouses, although they were only to be for the benifit of the old, sick,  infirm and orphan childrem. Able-bodied paupers were not to be admitted but were to be found employment near their own homes, with employers and land-owners getting support from the Poor Relief Union to supplement the otherwise too low pay of the able-bodied pauper.   

Gilbert's Act introduced the idea that the Unions should be controlled by a board of Guardians - one from each parish elected by the rate payers and appointed by local magistrates. The work of the Guardians was to be supervised by a Visitor who was also appointed by the magistrates. Although Gilbert's Act made the forming of Unions a simpler & cheaper operation, less than 100 of Gilbert Union's were ever created.

The 1800's

During Napoleonic Wars it became impossible to import cheap grain into Britain which resulted in the price of bread increasing. As wages did not similarly increase many agricultural labourers were plunged into poverty and following peace in 1814, the Government passed the Corn Laws to keep the price of grain artificially high.

1815 saw great social unrest as the end of the French Wars saw industrial and agricultural depression and high unemployment. Social attitudes to poverty began to change after 1815 and overhauls of the system were considered. The Poor Law system was criticized as distorting the free market and in 1816 a Parliamentary Select Committee looked into altering the system which resulted in the Sturges-Bourne Acts being passed.

1817 also saw the passing of the Poor Employment Act, "to authorise the issue of Exchequer Bills and the Advance of Money out of the Consolidated Fund, to a limited Amount, for the carrying on of Public Works and Fisheries in the United Kingdom and Employment of the Poor in Great Britain".

By 1820, before the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act workhouses were already being built to reduce the spiraling cost of poor relief. It was suggested that several possible reasons for the gradual increase in relief given to able-bodied males, includinged the enclosure movement and a decline in industries such as wool spinning and lace making. Furthermore, it was believed that some farmers were able to take advantage of the poor law system to shift some of their labour costs onto the tax payer.

The 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws was set up following the widespread destruction and machine breaking of the Swing Riots. The report was prepared by a commission of nine. The Royal Commission's primary concerns were with illegitimacy (or "bastardy") and the fear that the practices of the Old Poor Law were undermining the position of the independent labourer. Two practices were of particular concern: the "roundsman" system, where overseers hired out paupers as cheap labour, and the Speenhamland system, which subsidised low wages without relief. The report concluded that the existing Poor Laws undermined the prosperity of the country by interfering with the natural laws of supply and demand, that the existing means of poor relief allowed employers to force down wages, and, that poverty itself was inevitable.

The Commission proposed the New Law be governed by two overarching principles:

  • "less eligibility": that the pauper should have to enter a workhouse with conditions worse than that of the poorest free labourer outside of the workhouse.
  • the "workhouse test", that relief should only be available in the workhouse. The reformed workhouses were to be uninviting, so that anyone capable of coping outside them would choose not to be in one.

The overiding conclusion was still that everybody who could work, must work.

When the laws was actually introduced, the workhouse test and the idea of "less eligibility" were never mentioned themselves and the recommendation of the Royal Commission that outdoor relief (relief given outside of a workhouse) should be abolished - was never implemented.

The report recommended separate workhouses for the aged, infirm, children, able-bodied females and able-bodied males. The report also stated that parishes should be grouped into unions in order to spread the cost of workhouses and a central authority should be established in order to enforce these measures. The Poor Law Commission set up by Earl Grey took a year to write its report, the recommendations passed easily through Parliament support by both main parties the Whigs and the Tories. The Poor Law Act gained Royal Assent in 1834.

The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834 and largely implemented the findings of the Royal Commission which had presented its findings two years earlier. The New Poor Law is considered to be one of the most "far-reaching pieces of legislation of the entire Nineteenth Century". The Act aimed to reduce the burden on rate payers. Despite being labelled an "amendment act" it completely overhauled the existing system and established a Poor Law Commission to oversee the national operation of the system. This included the forming together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions and the building of Workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief. Although the aim of the legislation was to reduce costs to rate payers, one area not reformed was the method of financing of the Poor Law system which continued to be paid for by levying a "poor rate" on the property owning middle classes.

Although the Poor Law Amendment Act did not ban all forms of outdoor relief, it stated that no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse. Conditions in workhouses were to be made harsh to discourage people from claiming. Workhouses were to be built in every parish and, if parishes were too small, parishes could group together to form Workhouse Unions. The Poor Law Commissioners were to be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Act.

So now we know how the Poor Law Unions came into being and the fact that they were to be responsible for creating & operating the Workhouses. What is possibly not understood by many, is that the Poor Law Union's were still doing this job right up until the Welfare State & National Health Service (NHS) were created in the 1946. And that Welfare State & NHS still exists to this day.


As we have seen, the passing of the Workhouse Test Act in 1723, gave parishes the option of denying what is called "out-relief" - charity in form of money, food, clothing or fuel - in favour of "indoor relief", i.e. space within the Workhouse.

Initially, parish workhouses were often just ordinary houses, rented for the purpose. Sometimes properties were specially built for the purpiose but still, externally, resembled other local houses.

In some cases, the poor were farmed out to a local contractor, who undertook to look after a parishes poor for a fixed sum. And the contractor could then put the poor to work for him, provding his main business with a source of very cheap labour.

At that time the workhouse was not always regarded as places of punishment or privation. In some conditions were good enough to earn the institutions the nickname "Pauper Palaces".

The new buildings built following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 were designed to segregate the different categories of "inmate" - that term came into popular use, almost for the first time with the major expansion in workhouse building. Men, women, children, the infirm and the able-bodied were all housed separately in different wings within the complex - even if they were part of a family group. If an able-bodied man entered the workhouse, his whole family was forced to enter with him.

Life inside was designed to be as unpleasant as possible. The food was very basic and monotonous and included gruel - watery porridge - bread & cheese. All inmates had to surrender their own clothes and wear the issued uniforms made from cheap, rough cloth. All slept in common dormitories in their segregated wing. Supervised bathing was provided once a week. The able-bodied were forced to do hard manual work including stone-breaking or picking apart old rope called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in day rooms or sick-wards and had very few visitors. Parents were only allowed very limited contact with their children, often for just an hour on a Sunday Afternoon.

By 1850, the majority of work-shy persons had been weeded out of the wokhouses and they instead housed the old, the infirm, orphansded children, unmarried mothers and the physically or mentally ill of the borough or Union. Being foirced by circumstances to enter a Union Workhouse was considered, by society, to be the ultimate degradation.

Although the workhouses grew to accommodate 1,000 or more "inmates", they were not prisons. People could leave whenever they wanted (in principle), when work became available locally. Some people left & returned often, as their "new" work dried up. However, for many the workhouse became their last home, the one from which the only escape was death.

Eventually the poor conditions of the inmates became to be criticised and publicised by people such as Charles Dickens & Florence Nightingale. And as a result of this publicity and changing public attitudes, the general state of the workhouses slowly improved, with better food - especially for children and the sick & infirm.

By the 20th Century all workhouse sites either had a hospital built beside them or they themselves had been turned into hospitals.

In April 1930 the 643 Boards of Guardians in England & Wales were abolished and all their responsibilites were passed to local authorities.Some workhouses were sold off, some were demolished or fell into disuse. Most became known as Public Assistance Institutions, continuing to provide accommodation for the elderly, chronicly sick, unmarried mothes and vagrants. Life was little changed for the inmates apart from the abolition of the uniforms. Yes they had more freedom to come & go but improvements were slow.

On creation of the NHS in 1946, many former workhouses were adapted to become hospitals for the elderly and chronic sick.

Reoganisation of the NHS in the 1980-1990s saw many of the remaining sites turned into offices or demolished to provide car parking space for the newer hospitals beign built at that time.

And those sites that made it throiugh to the 21st Century are finding themselves with preservation orders and often conversion into luxury residential properties.


  • The Workhouse website - created by Peter Higginbotham - LINK
  • The Eastville Workhouse - LINK
  • BBC News & History archives
  • Wikipedia