Crowd-sourced insights into the Victorian workhouse

by Andy Polaine on August 19, 2010

in General

The UK National Archives have just released the 19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records. The history of workhouses in the UK is a typically Victorian approach to social problems. From the archive introduction:

The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834, centralising the poor relief administrative system. Previously, poor relief had been largely the responsibility of the parish. Expenditure had risen during the Napoleonic Wars and local rate payers and authorities decided that looking after paupers was too costly. […] The new system was expected to reduce expenditure, using a harsh workhouse test. Claimants would be ‘offered the house’, but if they turned it down then the legal obligation to offer relief was considered to have been met.

The workhouse was partly social ‘support’, but also a deterrent. People would refuse the workhouse because they were so afraid of it and instead starved to death outside. It’s an unusual archive because normally history only records the activities of the wealthy and privileged, but this gives and insight into the lives of those who were at the bottom of the pile:

Apart from the fascinating stories (see video below), the whole project relied heavily on crowd-sourcing it to volunteers, without which the National Archive wouldn’t have had the resources to complete the project, according to Paul Carter the Archives’ principal modern domestic record’s specialist. Volunteers – local history and family groups, academics and historians – were given access to the archive in order catalogue the material and send this back to the archive.

Here is Paul Carter with an introduction to some of the stories from the archive:

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