Daniel Shannon-Hughes discovers a Walthamstow museum’s history as a Victorian workhouse
From its construction in 1730, for more than a century until 1841, Vestry House was a parish workhouse giving food and shelter to the local destitute and poor, paid by ratepayers living in Walthamstow Village.
State support for the poor dates back to the turn of the 17th century. An Act for the Relief of the Poor made parishes legally responsible for looking after the local poor.
There were two forms of poor relief. Most came in the form of ‘outdoor relief’ – grants of money to allow those fallen on hard times to get by and stay in their own homes until circumstances improved. Minutes from the Vestry Committee show a husband being given money to pay for a nurse to attend his sick wife, and the rent paid for a family whose main breadwinner had abandoned them.
However, as contemporary satirical cartoons displayed in Vestry House Museum’s exhibition on the workhouse show, there was public scepticism about how generous the wealthy committee men were to the less well off.
The alternative was ‘indoor relief’ in the workhouse. Parishes saw the workhouse as a cheaper option and a way to deter the able-bodied poor from avoiding work. Much like today there was a perception that some individuals were taking advantage of handouts.
Workhouses became increasingly popular and Walthamstow parish followed the trend. In 1730 Vestry House was purpose-built as the parish workhouse. The biblical quotation “if any would not work neither should he eat” engraved over the entrance illustrates an attitude that relief did not come free.
Those living in the workhouse were referred to as inmates. While it was not a prison, because inmates could leave if they no longer needed the poor relief, neither was it a hotel. Conditions were harsh. The dormitories were cramped and food meagre. Everyone over seven years old had to work to pay for their keep.
The museum’s workhouse exhibition, running until 17th January, allows visitors to have a go at oakum, one of the most common tasks given to those in the workhouse. Oakum involved picking apart the fibres of old ropes so they could be sold to the navy, who mixed the fibres with tar to seal the hulls of boats.
It was hoped the inmates’ work would make enough money to pay for the running of the workhouse. However, the workhouse struggled to pay for itself. As the exhibition makes clear, too many of the inmates were elderly, sick, disabled or mentally ill, and could not be put to work.
This was a fundamental problem with all workhouses. Built to deter the able-bodied from shirking work and, failing that, put them inside to work, they became home to the most vulnerable in society with nowhere else to go.
Unmarried pregnant women also ended up in the workhouse. The stigma of pregnancy outside of wedlock meant they were often disowned by their families. It was the workhouse that welcomed them and provided basic maternity services. The vestry records note the birth of many babies in the workhouse.
The Walthamstow Vestry Committee, like most of the country, viewed poverty as inevitable, the poor victims of circumstance, and their relief a Christian duty. However, attitudes fundamentally changed in the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 cut out relief and legislated for a massive increase in workhouse provision.
The new act aimed to make life in the workhouse so undesirable that, in the logic of the time, anyone who accepted such humiliating conditions must be lacking the moral determination to survive outside it. In effect the poor were blamed for being poor.
These were the workhouses of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Following the act, Vestry House was closed and a new, far larger workhouse constructed in Leytonstone on what is now Langthorne Road. Combining seven parishes, including Walthamstow and Low Leyton, the West Ham Union workhouse opened in 1841. Like Vestry House, the new workhouse ended up mainly being home to the most vulnerable. Those who could possibly avoid the shame of entering the workhouse did so. Once again children, the old, sick, disabled and mentally ill were the majority of inmates.
Gradually state services such as public hospitals, asylums, orphanages and basic pensions began to provide support and care outside of the workhouse. In 1930 the West Ham Union workhouse was reopened as a home for the chronic sick, aged and infirm. With the birth of the National Health Service in 1948, it became a geriatric hospital and renamed Langthorne Hospital.
Among many other goals, the creation of the NHS and welfare state aimed at providing suitable support for those unable to work, be it because of old age, illness or disability. Many of the services providing this support are being dismantled today, while simultaneously the government’s poor-relief policy is increasingly punitive.
In this light, it is worth considering the workhouse exhibition at Vestry House Museum and remembering how policy intended to deter the ‘undeserving’ work-shy poor, in reality primarily punished those in need with nowhere else to turn.
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The exhibition Workhouse: Life on the Edge in 18th Century Walthamstow runs until 17th January 2016 at Vestry House Museum, Vestry Road, Walthamstow Village. Open 10am-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday. Admission free.