The Workhouse concept

Picking oakum was a common form of hard labour in a workhouse © Public Record Office

Picking oakum was a common form of hard labour in a workhouse

Built in 1824, The Workhouse is the best preserved example of the hundreds of workhouses built across the country.

The system implemented here was developed by the Reverend John T. Becher and George Nicholls whose ideas shaped the way in which the poor were treated during the 19th-century.

An economic solution

Becher's idea was for local parishes to combine funds and build a workhouse to house the destitute rather than each parish supporting individuals with food, fuel and clothing.

Up to 158 inmates at a time, from 62 parishes, entered this building as a last resort. Becher's view was that workhouses should be a 'deterrent' to ensure that only the truly destitute would submit themselves to such a harsh regime.

It was also intended to achieve a 'moral' improvement, with the poor providing for themselves if at all possible. However, children and the 'old and infirm' would be treated tenderly.

Segregation

Adults were divided into categories - those unable to work (called 'blameless') and those capable of work but unemployed (considered 'idle and profligate able bodied').

These categories and further subdivided into men and women and children were kept separate. Each group lived in different areas, meaning families could not meet. Inmates were fed, clothed, housed and some were made to work. Children received a form of education.

The New Poor Law

Becher and Nicholls’s ideas were based on the social welfare schemes that evolved after the Old Poor Law of 1601.

Their revolutionary but strict system attracted much attention. The Poor Law Commission used their model to inform the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, known as the New Poor Law.

Hundreds of workhouses were set up across the country as part of a national government system, run from London offices. Workhouses were often referred to as Union Workhouses to reflect the union of the local parishes.

Changing times

For most of the 20th-century, Becher’s Workhouse was known as: 'Greet House'.

In 1929 the New Poor Law system was disbanded and workhouses were handed over to local authorities. Most continued either as hospitals or, like The Workhouse, as institutions for the poor, homeless and elderly.

With the advent of the modern welfare system in 1948, the building's use changed, providing temporary homeless accommodation until 1976.

It was mainly used for staff accommodation and storage until the 1980s while the rest of the site became a residential home for the elderly.