Escaping the workhouse
In the 1840s, the government began sparing Britain’s most deprived children the Dickensian hell of the workhouse and placing them in schools that promised good food, healthcare and an education. But did the reality live up to the ideal? Lesley Hulonce inv
Lesley Hulonce traces Victorian attempts to improve the quality of life for Britain’s most deprived children
It’s one of the most enduring scenes in all of 19th-century literature. The pauper Oliver Twist – nine years old, orphaned and consigned to the workhouse – approaches the pompous parish beadle Mr Bumble and begs him for an extra helping of gruel.” “Please, sir,” he pleads. “I want some more.”
Thanks to his pitiless response, Mr Bumble has secured himself a place in literary infamy. Yet so too has the institution in which Oliver uttered his famous request: the workhouse.
By charting Oliver Twist’s travails, his creator, Charles Dickens, perhaps did more than anyone to highlight the neglect and crippling hunger that faced so many children consigned to Britain’s workhouses. And, by the time Dickens wrote his famous novel in the late 1830s, this fate awaited more and more real-life Olivers.
Workhouses had offered accommodation and employment to those too poor to support themselves since the 17th century. But in 1834, the government, eager to slash spending on the rising number of paupers, passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, declaring that poor relief would now
only be offered in the workhouse. And so that was the destination for hundreds of deprived children – those, for example, deserted by their parents, or who had been orphaned at birth.
Social campaigners railed against the inhumanity of exposing children to such a system. And, by the 1840s, the authorities also had their doubts – though for different reasons. They feared that the ingrained immorality of the workhouses’ older residents would rub off on young paupers, turning them into prostitutes or criminals. They also believed that the poorest children were in need of education to “eradicate the germs of pauperism” and fit them for a productive life.
Over the following decades, they came up with three successive solutions to the challenge – ‘separate’ schools, cottage homes and ‘scattered’ homes – each aiming to improve the lot of Britain’s most deprived children, with varying degrees of success…
A life of grime Children in Twine Court, east London in the 19th century. “The authorities feared that the ingrained immorality of the workhouse would turn child paupers into prostitutes and criminals,” says Lesley Hulonce
Sink or swim
ABOVE: Girls in the plunge bath at the North Surrey District School at Anerley, c1908
RIGHT: Pupils do their studies at Anerley. More than £31,000 was lavished on this ‘separate’ school for child paupers before it opened in 1850
BELOW: Boys, also at Anerley, pictured at work in the school’s carpentry workshop