If you were poverty-stricken, or an unwanted orphan, an impoverished widow, if you were too old to work, if you were a tramp, or you were sick or deranged, you could end up in the dreaded union workhouse. The workhouse, sometimes referred to as the Bastille, was a ruthless attempt in 19th century England to solve the problem of poverty. There was much sickness in the little Farnham workhouse, especially smallpox and sufferers were taken by cart on what was normally a ‘one way journey’ to the Pesthouse, an isolated cottage by the Bourne steam where on the sick and their nurses were allowed to go!
The Workhouse site 1822
- In Oct 1795 there were 124 inmates, of whom 50 are old and infirm, and generally about the same in winter.
- There are a few out-pensioners, but the payments are very trifling, as it is more for the interest of the contractor to offer the
- Poor who apply for relief no alternative but the house.
- The infirm who can work are employed in picking wool, the children attend the carding machine, spin, etc., and are taught to read twice a day.
- Boys and girls, men and women sleep in different quarters of the house.
- The contractor says he keeps no account of expenses or earnings.
- Life was meant to be much tougher inside the workhouse than outside, and the buildings themselves were deliberately grim & intimidating - they were designed to look like prisons. They were full of illness & disease brought about by over-crowding & the starvation diet. When you were admitted to the workhouse, you were stripped, searched, washed & had your hair cropped. You were made to wear a prison-style uniform.
- In 1803, 16% of Surrey inhabitants were in receipt of poor relief and the country was spending 13s 3d per head on poor rates.
- In 1847 the workhouse was enlarged to cope with the still growing number of paupers. The arrival of the Army in Aldershot in 1856 exacerbated the situation and created enormous problems, where, within ten years, 633 prostitutes were sent to the workhouse suffering from VD
Typical of the time, most Workhouse plans were laid out in the same fashion throughout the country. Women, men, children were kept in separate dormitories. Family groups were split up.
In 1867, Farnham was the subject of one of a series of articles in the medical journal The Lancet investigating conditions in the country's workhouse infirmaries. The report made a number of serious complaints about the establishment which it described as 'a scandal and a curse to a country which calls itself civilised and Christian'.
Amongst the criticisms were that:
Many of the buildings were dark and poorly ventilated, with bare dirty walls and narrow beds. Sanitary facilities were poor. Only two towels per week were provided for each ward. No toilet paper was provided. Only one nurse was employed and there was no nursing cover at night-time. Inmates were not given forks with which to eat their food.The casual wards were described as being like rabbit-hutches. Vagrants staying there were given no food.
Its publication resulted in an extensive inquiry by the Poor Law Board.
The Board concluded that some of the most serious charges were either untrue or exaggerated. However, many of the Lancet complaints were accepted.
For women and girls, there were strong 'grogram‘ (coarse fabric of silk, or mohair and wool and stiffened with gum) gowns, calico shifts, petticoats of
Linsey-Woolsey (flax and wool) material, Gingham dresses, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers – the under-mentioned photographs are typical of the time.
At its peak there were 700 Workhouses in England alone.
Over 100 years 16 million people had passed through Workhouse doors. They were expected to work 10 hours a day, six days a week often on hard labour. 7000 babies a year were born illegitimately in the Workhouse. Life on the inside was made worse than living on a pittance outside. Abuse was commonplace, its inmates stripped of any dignity. 5 million people had died in the Workhouse by the time they closed.