workhouseThe Waterloo Road workhouse, Bethnal Green

This month, The East of London Family History Society welcomes Sarah Wise to Wanstead Library, who will be talking about the Victorian workhouses of east London

The workhouse was just about the most feared and hated of all Victorian institutions – every bit as terrifying as prison and the ‘lunatic’ asylum. It wouldn’t be abolished (along with the entire machinery of the Victorian Poor Law) until 1929, but it continued to cast a long shadow across the family memories of many people – my own late mother included.

In the ‘General Mixed Workhouse’ were mingled together the able-bodied, the aged, children, the infirm, the acutely sick and the so-called ‘morally degenerate’. The Poor Law Commission declared in 1909 that this was why it was such a terrible method of dealing with poverty: “The continuous social intercourse between young and old, hardened and innocent, loafer and genuinely out-of-work.” Their report approvingly quoted one chairman of the Board of Guardians of the Poor as saying: “To the reputable clean-minded inmate, this association with the depraved is the bitterest and most humiliating experience.” There were, in 1909, some 24,000 children under the age of 16 in the workhouses of England and Wales, and while the Commission had discovered no large-scale child neglect or cruelty, nevertheless, the effect of workhouse life on a child’s spiritual and intellectual well-being was felt to be immense.

As one example, throughout the 1880s and 1890s, problems continued at the Bethnal Green Workhouse – in particular, their tardiness in adding an infirmary wing, to which the poor of the locality could go when ill or after an accident. Overcrowding was a perennial problem, and cleanliness and lack of good lighting were often cited. Extra premises for an overspill workhouse were leased out of the borough – in Well Street, Hackney – but this was a short-term solution. The Local Government Board (the Whitehall body that oversaw the nation’s workhouses) made a long and unannounced visit to Bethnal Green in 1894 and issued a damning report on the conditions and the corrupt awarding of contracts to supply the workhouse. 

Whether old or new, big or small, rural or urban, the workhouses of the nation were felt to be increasingly out of step with how a modern, technologically advanced country ought to be providing for those who were unable to compete in the workplace. This is why we see, from the early 1880s onwards, a concerted campaign to ‘humanise’ them, with many more creature comforts, better food, entertainments and hobbies.

In my illustrated talk, I’ll be focusing on these changes, with an emphasis on the London experience, and in particular, how the Bethnal Green workhouse was run.

Sarah’s talk will take place at Wanstead Library on 18 January from 7.30pm (visitors: £3). Call 07762 514 238

For more information on Sarah’s research, visit sarahwise.co.uk