Ancestry UK

Popular Myths about the Workhouse

The workhouse existed in Britain for over two hundred years. It became a place that was much feared and, over the years, stories such as Oliver Twist have shaped our image of the institution. But how much of what we think we know about the workhouse is actually true? Let's find out...

Myth 1 - Poor people were sent to the workhouse.

In principle, at least as far as adults were concerned, entry into a workhouse was a voluntary option — you weren't forcibly put into the workhouse. Rather, you were offered it, or you resorted to it if you were destitute. In modern times, this is rather like an out-of-work person choosing to apply for unemployment benefit — it's not obligatory do so.

In fact, throughout the workhouse era, far more people received 'out-relief' — support in their own homes — than ended up in the workhouse. Many people, particularly the elderly and chronic sick, entered the workhouse because they could cope outside, even with the help of a handout.

Returning Boer War soldier heading for workhouse, c.1903. © Peter Higginbotham

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