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

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

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:...

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