In 1834 the Poor Law was reformed; the planning for helping poor people, and those who had fallen on hard tomes was introduced in what became known as the Old Poor Law in 1601. The Old Poor Law allowed parishes to do pretty much what they wanted in the way they helped ‘paupers’, the 1834 act was much more systematic, and following it through the 1830’s and 1840’s there was a mass of building large purpose-built institutions to ensure that the poor not only were cared for, but encouraged to work harder to improve their lot. It wasn’t just their fate to be poor, they could change if they were industrious.
In general the workhouses were hated, and it was shameful to be within one, although many people would have staved, many children would have died without these grim places. Men and women were segregated and had to work; however, they were at least clothed and fed, even though the rations were meagre. The children received some education and training, and there was an infirmary in most of the institutions so the sick could be cared for.
There was a young woman called Jane Elsden who is distantly related to our family, and at the end of the nineteenth century, like many other young women, they were driven by poverty following years of failing harvests, to extreme lengths to try to survive. Cambridge in the 1880’s and 1890’s was a University town full of wealthy young men, and poor young women were able to earn money… as you might imagine. Jane and her friend Daisy Hopkins were caught ‘procuring’ and were put in the local spinning house (Workhouse) The young men who had bought their favours were given a mild rebuke. The particular injustice about this was that it was the University police who had arrested and put these young girls in the spinning house, not the local police or the magistrates courts. Jane escaped from the spinning house, and family legend has it that she lead a march through Cambridge, breaking the windows in the Wesley House Chapel as she passed. She aroused such fierce debate that eventually the power of the University was challenged and changed.
When my mum gave birth to me it was in a hospital which had formerly been the workhouse; such was the enduring prejudice against the institution that a friend of hers paid to go into a private maternity home to have her baby, saying that no child of hers would be born in a workhouse… and this was decades after it had closed.
In my novel ‘Radwinter’ and its sequel ‘Magick’ which I am writing now, the shadow of the workhouse looms over some of the characters. The institutions are long gone, but they still have the power to haunt, even though they must have saved countless lives.