Friday, 26 April 2013

A-Z 2012 'W' is for Workhouse

(Bermondsey Union Workhouse, Lewisham, c.1900)

Searching through my Family Tree I have so far not found any reference of any family members being forced into the Workhouse. Poor though some of them may have been, it seems they were able to keep the wolf from the door - or at least had other family and friends willing to support them.

For that, I am grateful - reading of the harrowing and spartan conditions in many workhouses, especially in Victorian times, it is no wonder that it really was the last resort for many.

Many of these establishments were grim and prison-like, with different accommodation blocks to segregate the genders. On arrival, families would be separated, mothers nursing children would be kept together, but most often older children were housed separately - I wonder if some ever saw each other again.

Diet was poor and subsistent - despite regulated inspectors, Workhouse overseers were largely masters of their own domain and would often seek to save money by serving low quality food.

Aside from all this, the days were long and tedious with menial tasks to be performed - it is small wonder so many inmates developed mental problems.

Census records for Workhouses list the Overseer as the Head of the 'household' and then his own family, followed by a list of all the inmates and details of their age, place of birth and occupation. Given the fact that they were housed and treated indifferently, I suppose at least with every decade-wide census they were afforded the courtesy of appearing as individuals in their own right.

This verse perhaps sums up the despair that so many tried to avoid when faced with the prospect of ending up in the Workhouse:

Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top,
When you grow old, your wages will stop,
When you have spent the little you made
First to the Poorhouse and then to the grave.

(anonymous verse from Yorkshire)


  1. I never heard that verse to rock-a-bye baby. Very sad song to sing a baby. I was looking at a census record for the poorhouse in Elmore County, Alabama the other day. They recorded it just like you said - overseer and his family and then the inmates.

  2. Sue, I wanted to stop back and let you know I will be catching up on all your posts I have missed once I return home. Internet here on an idyllic tropical island is not so idyllic!

  3. Hi Sue, am stopping by from the A-Z
    I really like your theme this year, will be reading back to A.
    Please drop in and say g'day.