History Detective

Workhouse Children during the Industrial Revolution

Episode Summary

Learn about the Workhouse Children in the Industrial Revolution

Episode Notes

Discover the stark realities of workhouses, which were intended to provide shelter and employment for the impoverished but often became prisons for the most vulnerable members of society, including women, children, and the elderly. Explore the cruel conditions, child labor, and the shocking abuses these young souls endured.

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase, and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history, and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case 40: Workhouse Children.

Often when we think of the Industrial Revolution, we look at the incredible mechanical and agricultural progress that happened during this period. You might also think about the atrocities that occurred in the factories to the children. But there was another place where children suffered from maltreatment and indignities, and that was the workhouses.

The workhouse was a place that was designed to provide work and shelter for people who were very poor and were unable to support themselves. In theory, it sounds like they were trying to take positive steps to help people living in poverty, but in reality, they became more like a prison for vulnerable members of society, including women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. It was a harsh environment with long workinghours, child labour, appalling food provisions that led to malnutrition, physical abuse, and neglect.

The following is an extract of an anonymous letter written to the Poor Law Commissioner in 1842, by a woman who signed the correspondence “Pauper.” She wrote, “I have a little boy only eight years old who has been cruelly beaten by the Master and is still very bad, and another sister was driven from the house and struck by the Master, and when I complained to the guardians, they only laughed at me.”

Firstly, I would like to address who she was writing to; then, I want to unpack why she may have felt the need to write anonymously. The Poor Law Commission was set up by the British government in 1834 after there was a new law called the Poor Law Amendment Act. Their job was to look into the problems that existed in the poor communities and suggest solutions for fixing them. As a result of this Poor Law Amendment Act, the workhouse system was formalised. Workhouses had been around in some capacity for centuries, but in the new system, the workhouses were set up and run by local businessmen who were more often than not cruel to the inmates. Their only crime being that they were poor.

Therefore, if you had an issue with the workhouse, the person you would need to write to was one of the nine Poor Law Commissioners. The British National Archives has a wonderful website where they have scanned, transcribed, and done audio recordings of some of these letters. At this time, there was no such thing as children’s rights, and the laws and punishments for harming children were very sparse. There were the Factory Acts that were laws introduced to reduce children’s workload in factories, but they were still harsh. Factories could employ children as young as nine, and fourteen-year-old children were working twelve-hour days.

The reason that the woman writing probably kept herself anonymous was that if the Commissioner was to mention her complaint to the Master who ran her workhouse, there could have been severe ramifications for her and her children.

People of the time were awakening to the fact that children were being treated poorly. In 1842, there was a town meeting by the local rate payers (which meant they owned property) to fight for an increase in the amount of food that was being served to the poor people of the workhouses.

There were also other people in society who were either trying to help or agitating for change. Today, some of the main sources I am using are from the British Medical Journal. A Journal is a collection of articles (kind of like a magazine) but it is written by academics, scholars, and experts in the field. So, it is interesting to note that people in the medical profession in the late 1800s were aware of the poor nourishment, poor treatment, and poor conditions that the children who lived in workhouses endured.


In 1868, an article was published about a Mrs. Summers Hutchinson, who had donated two large cases of toys to the workhouse children. The article explains how workhouse children were not allowed to have toys or even make noise. And it states the importance of play for children. “Amusement is as necessary as food and clothing for children.” And goes on to admonish the monotonous and cheerless existence of pauper children.

Another woman, Henrietta Barnett, who visited a workhouse in Sutton, found that 38% of the children were suffering from illnesses. Some from chilblains, which is blistering on the hands and feet from exposure to cold, some from headaches, some from eye conditions, and some unspecified illnesses.

Other concerns arose about the state of the children’s teeth. An article focusing on dental care in the institutions mentions the terrible mouth diseases that the children suffered, such as toothache, abscesses, ulcerations of the tongue and cheek, and lockjaw.

A further article goes into the epidemics that were occurring in the workhouses. One of these was cases of ophthalmia, which is a burning and itching of the eyes, as well as ringworm and cases of scarlet fever. The author was concerned because the children who contracted these illnesses were no longer able to access education in the local public schools, nor were they allowed to access the workhouse school. He explains that, “This is but another instance of paupers being ousted from their rights.”

However, education of workhouse children did begin to occur, but it was a hotly contested topic whether these children should be allowed to attend the local public schools or be educated within the workhouse. In May of 1894, there were a series of letters and replies in the Journal of Medicine discussing the benefits and downsides of sending workhouse children to the local public school. On the 5th of May, Dr. Dolan raves about how a local workhouse is sending children to a public school and that they have “lost the beaten look of a workhouse child” because of this opportunity. On the 12th of May, Dr. Magennis replied and explained how a workhouse near him tried this, and the children would be given food - like bread, meat, and currants - on the way home by their cousins and aunts. These children needed to have the pockets checked and food confiscated by the guardians in case they got stomach troubles from the food. God forbid that the children eat anything but the workhouse slops. Then, on the 17th of May, Dr. Dukes wrote in to tell of another workhouse that was successfully sending students to the local school.

Conversely to the stories of children, I came across many sources about the treatment of the elderly in the workhouses as well as people with disabilities. But the stories are so vast that it would indeed take an entire separate episode to include those stories.

A suffragette, Rosa May Billinghurst - you can find an entire episode about her in my podcast feed - did some volunteer work in a workhouse, and this work led her to believe if women gained the vote, they would use their political power to try and end poverty. You know what, she may have been onto something. It was not until 1928 that all women in the UK were able to vote, and two years later in 1930, workhouses were finally officially abolished.

However, because of the extent of the number of people in the workhouse system, it took years before the system was truly dismantled. It wasn’t until 18 years later, in 1948, that the National Assistance Act was introduced. This new law provided financial assistance to disabled, sick, aged, and other persons.


This is Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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