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Paupers and the workhouse 1851-1911

Paupers and the workhouse 1851-1911

The workhouse was a central feature of the new poor law (1834-1948). This pilot research used I-CeM individual level census data to identify workhouse residents in England and Wales at decennial intervals and explore the potential for mapping geographical changes in the age and sex structure of the indoor poor. This forms part of an ongoing wider research programme on the workhouse by Williams, also including analysis of pauper offences and punishments.

graph showing distribution of pauper disorder offences in seven workhouses

Under the new poor law, parishes were grouped into some 630 Poor Law Unions which were largely coextensive with census Registration Districts (RDs). Each Union was expected to provide a workhouse as the central focus of poor relief. These workhouses became iconic embodiments of a new regime of restricted access to welfare. Workhouses were intended as a deterrent to working age men especially, for moralistic, economic and ideological reasons. By 1841 around 320 new workhouses had been built, with numbers increasing steadily so that by 1870 there were more than 520. Workhouses varied greatly in size. The most populous workhouses were in urban areas, London in particular.

maps showing geographical distribution of workhouses by size in 1851 and 1901, with overlaid urban/rural/mixed spatial typology

Identifying workhouse inmates from the digitised I-CeM census transcriptions is not always straightforward. Many workhouses were enumerated on standard household schedules rather than institutional schedules, and full details of institution name and location is not always available, nor repeated on every Census Enumerators' Book page. We used published Census Report tabulations of the total number of workhouse residents to evaluate completeness of workhouse extractions and reject workhouses only part-identified. We retained large samples consisting of half to three- quarters of all workhouse residents in England and Wales.

table detailing workhouse samples extracted from Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM)

By comparing population pyramids from our workhouse samples over time, it can be seen that the age and sex distribution of residents changed considerably. General workhouses were not the only type of poor law institution. Over time, the number of elderly workhouse residents increased while the number of children diminished considerably, at a rate far exceeding shifts in the whole population. Poor Law Unions gradually developed specialised separate provision for children, in industrial schools and cottage children's homes. Similarly, sick paupers were increasingly housed in separate infirmaries and asylums.

Population pyramid of general workhouse residents in 1851Population pyramid of general workhouse residents in 1911

The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 granted to those over 70 years of age a means of state support that was no longer dependent on the Workhouse Test. This produces very interesting shifts in the age and sex structure of workhouse residents, as seen in the population pyramid for 1911. The proportion of the elderly in age groups 60-64 and 65-69 immediately below pension eligibility now formed a pronounced peak, especially among men. This increased masculinisation of older workhouse residents is striking and does not reflect the sex ratio for the whole elderly population at this date. We can therefore see that the Old Age Pension enabled elderly women to avoid the workhouse for longer than men. This probably reflects better opportunities for elderly women to supplement their pension income. Physical prowess is less critical in feminised occupations such as cooking or laundering than traditionally male roles such as agricultural labourer. Gendered domestic arrangements in multi-generation households also favoured elderly women's co-residence. Grandmothers could assist with housework and childcare while grandfathers typically did not.

Large London workhouses were distinctive in having more female than male elderly residents at all dates (see map insets below). But London proved very much the exception in this respect. Across England and Wales we found remarkably persistant similarities between Poor Law Unions in the masculinised nature of elderly workhouse residents. The geographical homogeneity of this phenomenon can be observed through Registration District level mapping of the sex ratio for workhouse residents aged 60 and over, compared as shown below in 1851 and 1901. The great majority of workhouses in our samples had an imbalanced elderly sex ratio well above 100. Many workhouses had more than twice and some more than five times as many elderly men as elderly women. This held true in every census year sampled, for both rural areas and towns other than London.

Maps showing sex ratio of elderly workhouse residents aged over 60 in English and Welsh Registration Districts in 1851 and 1901