Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Work in the workhouse

Advertisement in the Local Government Directory 1891
The workhouse was given its name for a reason. The Poor Law Union might have an obligation to look after the needy and the destitute, but it also had an obligation to its ratepayers. So the running of the workhouse would be done as economically as possible. This involved seeking out the best bargains from suppliers of food and other essentials, and getting the inmates to do as much of the work themselves as possible, such as cooking, cleaning and so on. The inmates could also generate income for the Union, which could take on contracts from businesses looking for a cheap source of labour. These were typically repetitive low-skilled occupations such as oakum-picking, wood-chopping and so on. There is more information, and some pictures, on work in the workhouse on Peter Higginbottom's excellent site The Workhouse

I love old reference books, as much for the adverts they may contain as the reference material itself. The advert above is from the Local Government Directory of 1891, and is full of information for and about local government and Poor Law institutions, and the people who worked in them. It includes, among other things, long lists of the printed forms required by various officials in the course of their work - available at a modest cost from the publishers of the Directory, of course! But the advertisements are the most interesting feature, partly because they may include pictures, but mainly due to the insight they give into  their particular world. There are adverts for laundry, hospital and kitchen equipment, but Glover & Co's Firewood Bundling Machine caught my eye; 'Being so powerful, yet easy to work, little boys and girls, also old men and invalids are enabled to use and knock off a load of work.' 

Good to know that the aged, the infirm and small children need not be kept in idleness by the hard=pressed ratepayers! 



  1. I want one!

    Have placed a link to this on my blog at

  2. Another advert geek! I collect old magazines more often for the ads and graphics than the articles.

    This post was priceless, L O V E D it. Thank you.