Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street (click here to view the book and order it), has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character , Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt, Walking in Austen’s Footsteps, and Food – To Die For: Food Preparation in the Georgian Era. He has graciously sent in an article about crime and an incident involving Jane Austen’s aunt, Mrs James Leigh-Perrot. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit!
Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.
The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-
“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”
A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,
“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.
This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”
The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread. So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”
Read the rest of Paul’s fascinating post and the workhouse in Bath at this link:
In keeping with December, Charles Dickens’ anniversary, and a Christmas Carol, Paul sent this message:
In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’
‘Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”
The well known passage from Oliver Twist:
“Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupified astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
‘What!’ said the master at length, in a faint voice.
‘Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’
More about Avon Street: Order the book
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: The History Press (March 28, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0752465546
- ISBN-13: 978-0752465548