Ancestry UK

Visit to an English Workhouse.

This anonymous report of a visit to an unidentified English workhouse near London was first published in 1837 in the Dumfries and Galloway Courier. Although the 'explorer' gets no further than susbisting on the inmates' diet for two or three days, his account mayjust about qualifies as the earliest example of a 'social explorer' — a non-pauper gaining access to a workhouse to experience its conditions and subsequently write about them.

"A friend who travels a great deal in summer, and is fond of making the most minute inquiries into the state of trade, commerce, agriculture — in short, the great interests of the country generally — has furnished us with a number of particulars touching the working or practical operation of the new English Poor Law — alike valuable from their perfect genuineness, and the conclusions to which they so directly point. Although a wayfarer when the weather is fine, the gentleman alluded to winters for the most part in London; and having become weary of the abuse and praise alternately lavished on the workhouse system, he determined to substitute for endless discussion the evidence furnished by his own senses, aided by a judgment too cool, calculating, and matured, to suffer itself in any thing to be misled by the partial glossings of others. Of the numerous workhouses in the different unions, our friend selected one about ten miles from London; with the governor of this well-regulated establishment, he became slightly acquainted, and without difficulty obtained permission to inspect and overlook every thing. For two or three days he became an amateur boarder, and although he slept elsewhere, confined himself strictly to the fare or diet of the house. And the result of an experiment, which perhaps no other gentleman has made within the range of the multitudinous population of Britain, will be best given in his own words:— I have seen and tasted all the articles — they are all good; in fact, so much so, that I could myself board permanently in the house with comfort, were I inclined or permitted to do so. The establishment contains 120 inmates, classed as follows:— 29 men; 49 women and children, above nine years of age — under nine, 42; in all, 120. The weekly expenditure amounts to £20, 4s. 9¼d.; which sum, when divided by 120, leaves 3s. 4½d. for the board and lodging, washing, &c., of each individual. The women receive weekly 1 oz. of tea, 8 ditto of sugar, 4 ditto butter, and 4 ditto cheese. Meat is allowed three times a-week, say at the rate of 5 oz. per day without bone. The meat is previously boiled in barley broth, of which one pint is given, and is afterwards eaten along with ¾ lb. potatoes, skins off. During the other three days the diet is pea soup, with meat cut up — in quantities of from 1 to l½ pints. Sunday, which completes the week, brings a welcome variety in the shape of 14 oz. of excellent suet pudding to each person. The men fare the same as the women, with the exception of tea; but in lieu of this, they receive a full supply of well made gruel or thin porridge; and in addition to the above bill of fare, 12 oz. of good wheaten bread is the daily allowance of all adult inmates.

Each of the children receives 1 pint new milk per day, 2½ oz. meat and bread, and potatoes, with the exception of Monday and Friday, when they receive in the one case 10 oz. of rice, and in the other the same quantity of suet pudding. Beer is only allowed in cases of sickness, or when extra work is done about the establishment, such as washing, cleansing, &c. The situation is splendid, and commands a variety of the finest views imaginable — city, suburban, marine, cultured, with here and there dales at least bordering on the picturesque. The play or airing grounds for the boys and men are tastefully adorned; while the women and female children have what may well be called landscape gardens of their own. The whole apartments are airy and roomy; every thing is kept as clean as a new shilling, and wears an air of comfort which would entitle, at least, an Irishman to say, 'a palace to a hovel,' and, but for the want of privacy, add—

And may at last my weary age.
Find out some peaceful pilgrimage."

A correct list of the items included in the weekly expenditure of £20, 4s. 9¼d., signed by the governor, is at present before us; but we need only give a few examples. The butcher-meat, including legs of beef shins, for broth, costs £5 3s. 8½d.; the bread, £4, 16s.; the milk, 233 quarts, 4 to the gallon, L£1, 14s. 9d.; the tea and sugar, as good as in the shops, £1, 3s. 9d.; the porter, 25¾ gallons, £1, 8s. 10½d.; the butter, 1s 8d.; the coals, per ton, which is surely high, £1, 11s., and the soap, 9s. 9d. weekly. Almost every kind of provisions have been high now for a number of months; but the tide has already turned in this respect, and with agricultural prospects so favourable before us, diminution by a fourth or fifth may be confidently anticipated in the expenditure of the workhouses.

Our informant conversed with one old woman, who gains her bread by washing, who complained that the overseers had taken from her a money pittance of some 1s. 6d. per week, because she declined entering the workhouse. That similar cases of hardship exist, there can be no doubt; but much depends on the humanity of the guardians, who, contrary to the general understanding, can, and do in many instances, exercise a wise and benevolent discretion."

This obviously impartial statement of recognised facts, corroborates the general testimony on the subject. It is clearly established, that the effects of the new poor-law arrangements on the labouring population, viewed collectively, as contrasted with their condition previous to the change, have been most beneficial. But other benefits will speedily follow. Frugal habits must necessarily be cultivated; and the number of improvident and wretched marriages — diminished. Discontent will thus he abated, and the moral and social condition of the whole mass of the people in every way improved.

[Top of Page] [Explorers index] [Journalism index] [Home Page]

Ancestry UK

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *