Ancestry UK

Rules and Punishment

One source of insight into life in the workhouse comes from the lists of rules under which workhouse operated. These were often printed and prominently displayed in the workhouse, and also read out aloud each week so that the illiterate could have no excuse for disobeying them. The rules for Aylesbury parish workhouse from 1831 outline the daily regime:

Aylesbury parish workhouse rules, 1831

After 1834, the Poor Law Commissioners issued detailed orders about every aspect of the running of a poor law union and its workhouse. In 1847, 233 separate regulations or 'articles' were brought together as part of the Consolidated General Order which governed workhouse operation and administration for the next sixty years. For example:

ART. 119.—No written or printed paper of an improper tendency, or which may be likely to produce insubordination, shall be allowed to circulate, or be read aloud, among the inmates of the Workhouse.
ART. 120.—No pauper shall play at cards, or at any game of chance, in the Workhouse ; and the Master may take from any pauper, and keep until his departure from the Workhouse, any cards, dice, or other articles applicable to games of chance, which may be in his possession.
ART. 121.—No pauper shall smoke in any room of the Workhouse, except by the special direction of the Medical Officer, or shall have any matches or other articles of a highly combustible nature in his possession, and the Master may take from any person any articles of such a nature.

After 1834, the breaking of workhouse rules fell into two categories: Disorderly conduct, which could be punished by a withdrawal for food "luxuries" such as cheese or tea, or the more serious Refractory conduct, which could result in a period of solitary confinement. The workhouse dining hall was required to display a poster which spelt out these rules:

Toxteth Park rules poster, c.1900

Workhouse punishment books record the severity of punishments meted out to inmates. Some chilling examples of this can be seen in the "Pauper Offence Book" from Beaminster Union in Dorset. Offences against property, for example breaking a window, received particularly harsh punishment:

Elliott, BenjaminNeglect of work31 May 1842Dinner withheld, and but bread for supper.
Rowe, SarahNoisy and swearing19 June 1842Lock'd up for 24 hours on bread and water.
Aplin, JohnDisorderly at Prayer-time22 July 1842Lock'd up for 24 hours on bread and water.
Mintern, GeorgeFighting in school26 July 1842No cheese for one week.
Greenham, Mary and Payne, PriscellaQuarreling and fighting14 Dec 1842No meat 1 week.
Bartlett, MaryBreaking window21 Mar 1843Sent to prison for 2 mths.
Park, JamesDeserted, got over wall4 Sep 1843To be whipped.
Hallett, IsaacBreaking window25 April 1844Sent to prison for 2 months hard labour.
Staple, JohnRefusing to work7 Jany. 1856Committed to prison for 28 days.
Johnson, JohnRefusing to work19 Oct 1858Cheese & tea stop'd for supper. Breakfast stop's altogether.
Soaper, ElizabethMaking use of bad language in bedroom.
Trying to excite other inmates to insubordination. Refusing to work.
17 Jany. 1863Taken before the Magistrate & committed to prison for 14 days hard labour.
Note by Chairman of the Guardians: "Would not 28 days be better—J.F.?"

Being "lock'd up" might well mean a spell in the "refractory cell" — this was often underground in one of the workhouse cellars, such as the one at Keighley workhouse:

The subterranean cell at Keighley, 2000.
© Peter Higginbotham.

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