Life in the Victorian Workhouse

A brief look at what life was like in a Victorian Workhouse

men stand outside the front gates of the hinckley workhouse
Men stand outside the front gates of the Hinckley Workhouse.

In 1834 an Act of Parliament was passed called the Poor Law Amendment Act., as a result many Workhouses across the United Kingdom were built to accommodate paupers (poor people). The Workhouses were intended to be harsh and hostile so that only the truly destitute would seek refuge. For an able bodied pauper, it was the Workhouse or nothing.

The Workhouse was administered by Hinckley Union for Hinckley and its member parishes, there would be a locally elected Board of Guardians. By the time of the 1901 Census, life in the Workhouse had improved due to various Acts of Parliament being introduced over time.

Please continue for a brief view of what life was like in Hinckley Workhouse.

Entering the Workhouse

Once an application to the Workhouse had been justified at an interview with the Relieving Officer, a ticket of admission would be issued and a trip along London Road in Hinckley (Leicestershire) to the Hinckley Workhouse. A large pair of gates would separate the outside world with the life of the Workhouse.

Once inside the building, men, women and children would be separated. Clothes taken away to be fumigated and washed, then stored with any other possessions ready for a day in the future of release. A Workhouse uniform would be issued, which would be a striped shirt, ill-fitting trousers, thick vest, woollen drawers and socks, a neckerchief, a coarse jacket for the winter and heavy boots for the men. The women would be issued with a shapeless, waistless dress which reached the ankles, a shapeless shift, long stockings, knee-length drawers and a poke-bonnet.

A supervised bath followed by a medical examination would be next, which was to deem a person is either able bodied or infirm.

Strict daily schedule of the Workhouse Inmate

Once you have become an inmate, a strict daily timetable would have to be kept to and obeyed implicitly without question.

Below is an example of a common daily schedule.

  Rising & Roll Call Breakfast & Prayers Start Work Dinner Finish Work Supper & Prayers Bedtime
Summer 6am 6:30-7am 7am 12-1pm 6pm 6-7pm 8pm
Winter 7am 7:30-8am 8am 12-1pm 6pm 6-7pm 8pm

All inmates would be compelled to take weekly supervised baths.

Earning your keep at the Workhouse

The able bodied inmates would have to work to earn their keep.

Men were subjected to hard labour such as breaking stones for mending roads, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, chopping firewood, corn grinding, boot and shoe making and later in life gardening would become a lighter form of work.

The women would take on domestic work such as cooking, cleaning, scrubbing floors, laundry, sewing, spinning, weaving and picking oakum (old rope) which was used in shipbuilding for caulking or packing the joints of timbers.

The payments for the cheap Workhouse labour by the Inmates would often earn a profit for the Workhouse, the funds would help with the running cost of the Workhouse to keep them self-supporting.

The diet of an Inmate

The inmates would eat breakfast, dinner and supper in a large communal dining hall, silence was observed during all mealtimes.

Below is the typical dietary for able bodied men and women.

  Breakfast Dinner Supper*
Bread Gruel Bread Cooked Meat Potatoes Soup Rice Pudding Bread Cheese Gruel or Broth
oz Pints oz oz lb Pints oz oz oz Pints
SUNDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4 5 ½     6   1 ½
Women 5 1 ½ 3 5 ½     5   1 ½
MONDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4     1 ½   6 1  
Women 5 1 ½ 3     1 ½   5 1  
TUESDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4     1 ½   6   1 ½
Women 5 1 ½ 3     1 ½   5   1 ½
WEDNESDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4     1 ½   6 1  
Women 5 1 ½ 3     1 ½   5 1  
THURSDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4 5 ½     6   1 ½
Women 5 1 ½ 3 5 ½     5   1 ½
FRIDAY Men 6 1 ½         14 6   1 ½
Women 5 1 ½         12 5   1 ½
SATURDAY Men 6 1 ½ 4     1 ½   6 1  
Women 5 1 ½ 3     1 ½   5 1  

Old People of 60 years of age, and upwards may be allowed 1oz of Tea, 5oz of Butter, and 7oz of Sugar per week, in lieu of Gruel for Breakfast, if deemed expedient to make this change.

Children under 9 years of age, to be dieted at discretion, above 9 to be allowed the same quantities as Women.

Sick to be dieted as directed by the medical Officer.

*Supper - The Gruel of Broth may be substituted for the Cheese, and vice versa.

What is Gruel?

Gruel is a type of cereal made from oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice that has been boiled in water or milk. It looks like a thin porridge that is more often drunk than eaten, it may not need to be cooked.

Punishment in a Workhouse

Discipline in the Workhouse was strictly enforced even for minor offences such as swearing, the Inmate could have their diet restricted up to 48 hours.

For more severe offences, the Inmate could find themselves locked up in the refractory cell for 24 hours and feed on bread and water, other punishments could include have hard labour, or being whipped in front of all the other Inmates to be made an example of.

All the punishments handed out were recorded within the punishment book, which the locally elected Workhouse Guardians would regularly examine.

The Workhouse Rules and Orders were prominently displayed throughout the Workhouse, they would be read out aloud once a week for those who were illiterate so that there would be no excuses for disobeying them.

An example of the Rules and Orders of the Workhouse:

Medical treatment at the Workhouse Infirmary

Generally the medical conditions inside a Workhouse up to 1860 were poor, the buildings were usually cold and damp. Nursing duties were done by elderly Inmates, reading instructions from the medical officer or medical bottles was a problem due to the staff not being able to read and write, hard of hearing or even visually impaired. The Medical area would often be cramped with poor ventilation and lighting.

Improvements were made during and after the 1860s with new buildings such as separate infirmaries, along with trained nurses being employed.

During 1948, many Workhouse Infirmaries would become part of the NHS (National Health Service) when it was first introduced in the United Kingdom.

Related Posts

hinckely workhouse
Hinckley Workhouse
The history of the Hinckley Union Workhouse that was built during 1838 by Joseph Hansom along London Road in Hinckley, Leicestershire.
Read More
joseph hansom
Joseph Hansom
Joseph Aloysius Hansom is best known as the inventor of the Hansom Cab, which became so popular in the Victorian period.
Read More
workhouse database
Workhouse Database
Search the Workhouse database that holds the records of the staff and inmates of the Hinckley Union Workhouse in Leicestershire.
Read More