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Representing the Workhouse

Curated by Laura Foster

School of English, Communication and Philosophy


Harriet Martineau, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated (London: Charles Fox, 1833)

Before 1834, most paupers were given out-of-doors monetary relief from the parish. Martineau’s short stories represent the devastating effects of this indiscriminate relief on communities, in which the respectable residents are nearly bankrupted by the cripplingly high poor rates that they must pay to support idle paupers.   

The 1834 New Poor Law sought to make the workhouse the only form of relief for able-bodied paupers. The separation of families, rationed diet and the compulsory uniform in the workhouse ensured that only the truly destitute would seek shelter there.


Exhibition case


‘The Poor Law Amendment Act’, Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 27 February 1836

The illustration depicts the Abingdon workhouse which was completed in 1835. Designed by Sampson Kempthorne, the architectural design reflects the disciplinary intentions of the New Poor Law. The hexagonal form of the building provided the workhouse with six yards for segregating the classes of paupers. The master had an ‘observation room’ in the centre of the building, from where he could observe the paupers.


‘New Poor-Law Workhouses’, Illustrated London News, 7 November 1846

The illustrations depict the designs of two New Poor-Law workhouses. Interestingly, the Illustrated London News has made a mistake in labelling the pictures. The top illustration in fact depicts the workhouse to be built at Canterbury and the bottom illustration is of the Andover Union workhouse. The article criticises the design of the Andover workhouse for its similarity to a prison. By contrast, the proposed workhouse at Canterbury will possess more ‘architectural taste’ and provide more comfortable accommodation for the aged inmates and the children.


‘New Poor-Law Workhouses’, Illustrated London News, 7 November 1846


Hubert Von Herkomer, Old Age- A Study at the Westminster Union, The Graphic, 7 April 1877

Herkomer’s sketch represents aged inmates in the female dayroom of the Westminster Union workhouse. In the right of the image some of the women sew, while others sit listlessly on benches, staring into space. Herkomer’s painting Eventide- A Scene at the Westminster Union  (1878) depicts a more sentimental representation of the same dayroom, adding the domestic details of a cat, tea pot and flowers.   


Hubert Von Herkomer, Old Age- A Study at the Westminster Union, The Graphic, 7 April 1877


Hubert Von Herkomer, Christmas in a Workhouse, The Graphic Christmas Number, 25 December 1876

The engraving depicts a middle-class visitor distributing gifts of tea to aged workhouse inmates on Christmas day. The charitable scene is unintentionally subverted by its publication opposite the image Returning Home with the Spoils, which pictures children worn out after a day of Christmas shopping. The juxtaposition of the images places the poverty of the workhouse in contrast with the excesses of the affluent middle classes.  


Anne Thackeray-Ritchie, ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, Cornhill Magazine, November 1867- January 1868

This fictional narrative was serialised in three parts and tells the story of a country pastor, John, who becomes chaplain to a large town workhouse. The story compares the chaplain’s fight against the tyrannies of the workhouse officials to Jack’s fight against the giant in the fairy tale version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.  


Luke Fildes, Houseless and Hungry, Graphic, 4 December 1869

This wood engraving depicts homeless people of all ages queuing outside a police station in order to gain a ticket for admission to a casual ward. Casual wards were attached to workhouses and provided a night’s accommodation in return for a few hours work the next morning. The same scene was the subject of a later painting by Fildes, entitled Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874).


 Luke Fildes, Houseless and Hungry, Graphic, 4 December 1869


Sketches at a Casual Ward, Illustrated London News, 19 November 1887

The illustration depicts a metropolitan workhouse casual ward. The men are shown queuing outside, having a bath before admittance, eating their rations in their sleeping wards and breaking stones the next morning.   


‘Another Workhouse Probe’, All the Year Round, 7 December 1867

All the Year Round published a series of articles in 1867 that investigated the state of workhouses. In ‘Another Workhouse Probe’, the first-person narrator describes his visit to a Staffordshire workhouse and exposes the unsatisfactory care given to the sick and aged. The editor of All the Year Round was Charles Dickens, whose novel Oliver Twist (1837) is one of the most famous attacks on the workhouse system.   


‘The Model Union Workhouse’, Punch, 23 June 1866

The illustration represents the union workhouse as a beehive and the paupers as worker bees. A fat matron and poor-law Guardian recline on either side of the hive. At the Guardian’s feet a pauper bee lies dying, suggesting the inhumanity of the workhouse officials.    


‘The Model Union Workhouse’, Punch, 23 June 1866