Ancestry UK

Workhouse Literature and Arts

The poor laws and the workhouse inspired many works of literature and art. The writings of Charles Dickens are probably the best-known examples that feature the workhouse in novels and journalism, but many other authors were drawn to the subject. Popular songs and poems of the era ranged from the sentimental (e.g. In the Workhouse: Christmas day), through the satirical (e.g. The New Poor Law in Force), to the sheer gruesome (e.g. The Vorkhouse Boy). James Greenwood's lurid account of A Night in a Workhouse spawned a whole line of undercover exposés of workhouse life by numerous "social explorers" including Jack London (The People of the Abyss) and George Orwell (The Spike) and the less well-known but equally significant Mary Higgs (Glimpses of the Abyss) and Olive Malvery (The Soul Market). In more recent times, commemoration of the Irish Famine has produced some remarkable works of sculpture. Perhaps surprisingly, the workhouse could even be subject for humour and satire, while the graffiti from workhouse casual wards are revealed as being the social media of the day.

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