Oliver!

Background

The Life of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth. Due to his father’s employment, the family moved to London soon after, but growing financial difficulties led to the termination of Charles’ schooling and a move into a much less affluent area of London. Charles Dickens took to taking long walks around his neighborhood and he was particularly fascinated with the slums that surrounded his new home. His father was arrested in 1824 due to his inability to pay off debts and Charles was forced to begin working for a family friend at twelve years of age pasting labels on bottles. His family’s experience with poverty, his wanderings through the slums of London and his rampant imagination spurred the social commentary so pervasive in all of his work. These experiences influenced all of his writings, such as Oliver Twist (1838), A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852) and Great Expectations (1860).[ i ]

Nineteenth-Century London

During the Industrial Revolution that began in the early nineteenth century, rapid industrialization dramatically reshaped the urban landscape within British cities such as London and Manchester. As the countryside emptied due to mass migration into industrial centres in search of work, serious social, economic, and health issues quickly grew to unmanageable scales. The overcrowded slums that grew within the East End of London, in areas such as Whitechaple, Bethnal Green, Holborn and Westminster, became poorly ventilated, cramped and decaying hotbeds for epidemic disease and what many Victorians saw as moral and cultural degeneracy. The worst of the slum areas housed approximately 225,000 Londoners, with over 100,000 receiving official relief under the stringent regulations put forward by the New Poor Laws of 1834.[ii]  The most pessimistic social commentators of the nineteenth century have suggested that in total, over a third of the urban population of London, close to one million people, lived under the poverty line without adequate food, shelter and clothing.[iii]

Sanitation in the poor districts of London was also a major concern. Sewage was often put in cesspools behind houses, thrown directly into the street or piped directly into the Thames River that also supplied much of the city’s drinking water.[iv]As a result, London had a severe problem with cholera outbreaks, transmitted in contaminated water and brought to London via ships from the East. Due to inadequate medical knowledge, it was assumed that disease was transmitted by ‘miasma,’ or smell. This misconception led to poorly managed, devastating outbreaks in 1849 where 14,000 Londoners died, and in 1866 where over 3,000 perished.[v]Though living standards were generally rising throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, this did not improve the lives of the most destitute, living in urban slums in major centres such as London.


 

The Origins of the Workhouse

In the sixteenth-century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a rapidly growing population, reduced farmland, rising prices and a huge population shift from the country into towns created a large unemployment problem in Britain.[vi]In response to this growing crisis Elizabeth passed legislation in 1601 that would form the basis for what became known as the Old Poor Law, making parishes responsible for providing aid to the poor and the sick within their boundaries.[vii]Each householder in the parish was responsible for paying a ‘poor tax,’ known as the ‘rates,’ in order to finance various relief projects.[viii]The Old Poor Law left it up to each individual parish to decide the best way of providing support to those in need. Though the most popular form of support was through ‘out-relief,’ which was simply individual handouts of money or goods, there were attempts at finding alternative methods of relieving the sick and poor within a parish. In the early 1600s, a public institution called the workhouse was born.

Workhouses, funded by the parish poor rates, traded the labour of its residents for room and board.[ix]Workhouses served as a relief center for the deserving poor, corrective institutions for those who refused to work and as an almshouse for the sick.[x]  Though workhouses were not the most popular way to provide relief before the nineteenth century, the passing of the Workhouse Test Act in 1723 provided parishes with the power to withdraw out-relief from the poor and instead offer them a place in the workhouse.[xi]In the 1830s, due to rising costs and poor administration under the Old Poor Laws, a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the state of poor relief in Britain and make suggestions for future relief schemes. The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834, creating what came to be known as the New Poor Laws, which continued to influence Britain into the mid-twentieth century.[xii]

Under the New Poor Laws, highly regimented workhouses became the main form of providing for the poor. Instead of leaving poor relief up to individual parishes, the New Poor Laws created a nation-wide Poor Law Commission that oversaw a number of Poor Law Unions made up of twenty or thirty individual parishes.[xiii]  Each union was required to provide a central workhouse for its paupers, with the ‘general mixed workhouse’ being the most popular. In these workhouses, inmates were segregated into seven groups: Old or sick men, able-bodied men and youths above 13, youths and boys 7- 13, old or sick women, able-bodied women and girls above 16, girls 7 - 16, as well as children under 7.[xiv]The diet was also strictly controlled, with six different menus being provided by the Poor Law Commission for workhouses to choose from.[xv]Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, written throughout the 1830s and first published in 1838, was written in the transition period between the Old and New Poor Laws.

 

Entering and Leaving the Workhouse

In order to be admitted to a workhouse it was necessary to go through an application process. Paupers were not forced to enter and it was generally assumed that if someone applied for admission it was their last resort.[xvi]The applicant was required to meet with the ‘guardians’ of the workhouse and this interview in many cases resembled a legal trial with the workhouse officials acting as the judge.[xvii]If accepted into the workhouse, the applicant and their family, if applicable, were brought to the workhouse and segregated into different areas. The incoming residents were required to go through a search for banned goods, such as alcohol and tobacco, and then were required to trade their street clothes for a workhouse uniform.[xviii]Technically, workhouse guardians had the right to acquire any property of their incoming residents, but this was generally not done as it made it far more difficult for a pauper to leave later on.[xix]As residence in the workhouse was voluntary, a pauper could leave the workhouse at any time with three hours notice. However, if the head of a family checked themselves out of the workhouse, they had to leave with their dependents.[xx]

 

Workhouse Clothing

Once a pauper had entered the workhouse, their clothes were fumigated and then stored until they checked themselves out or passed away. Uniforms were intentionally shapeless, unattractive and uncomfortable. Men were provided with rough woolen jackets, pants, striped cotton shirts, cloth caps and boots.[xxi]These extremely heavy boots generally fit very poorly and in many cases caused permanent damage to children growing up in the workhouse.[xxii]Women were provided with stiff gowns, calico shifts, coarse petticoats, gingham dresses, day caps, wool stockings and woven slippers.[xxiii]

 

Working in the Workhouse

If an inmate was deemed to be able-bodied and not infirm, they were sent to work immediately after arriving. Women were generally tasked with things such as sewing, laundry and cooking while men were generally tasked with heavy manual labour.[xxiv]This work was not supposed to be seen as a punishment, but rather as preparation for future independence.[xxv]However, in many cases jobs in the workhouse were done not for practical reasons or profit, but simply to be monotonous or disgusting for inmates. One of the most tedious jobs for both women and men was the picking of ‘oakum,’ which consisted of pulling the individual fibers from old ropes.[xxvi]           


 

The Workhouse Diet

Gruel, a form of watery oatmeal, has become a symbol of the nineteenth-century workhouse due to Oliver Twist’s plea for more. Workhouse food was notoriously bland and portions were tightly controlled.[xxvii]In 1835, the Poor Law Commission published a set of six different menus for workhouses to provide to their inmates. The following is a sample of what was offered on a weekly basis to adult men in British workhouses.[xxviii]

 

 

Day

Breakfast

Dinner

Supper

 

Bread (oz.)

Gruel (pint)

Meat (oz)

Veg. (lb.)

Soup (pint)

Bread (oz.)

Cheese (oz.)

Bread (oz.)

Cheese (oz.)

Sun.

8

1.5

-

-

-

7

2

6

1.5

Mon.

8

1.5

-

-

-

7

2

6

1.5

Tues.

8

1.5

8

3/4

-

-

-

6

1.5

Wed.

8

1.5

-

-

-

7

2

6

1.5

Thurs.

8

1.5

-

-

1.5

6

-

6

1.5

Fri.

8

1.5

-

-

-

7

2

6

1.5

Sat.

8

1.5

5

3/4

-

-

-

6

1.5

 

In regards to modern standards, it has been found that on average the workhouse diets provided enough protein, but lacked in carbohydrates and fat, thus making the diets deficient in energy, minerals and vitamins by at least 25%.[xxix]

 

 

Workhouse Scandals

Workhouses were rife with scandal throughout the nineteenth century. However, it is important to note that though many scandals were true, opponents to the New Poor Laws fabricated many scandals in order to damage the reputation of these laws and of the workhouse.

Basford Workhouse (11 July 1837)

A man, his wife and children entered the workhouse, but after many months the husband decided that he needed to reunite his family and start fending for himself. However, when he applied to leave he was told that though he could take his children, he could not take his wife as the Union had buried her three weeks earlier.[xxx]

Andover Workhouse (1845)

The workhouse in Andover was notoriously strict due to its unyielding master and his wife and was run much like a prison. Cutlery was denied at meals and absolutely no communication between separated family members was allowed. The workhouse provided the diet above, but due to a ‘clerical error’ served only six instead of eight ounces of bread at every meal. Men became so desperate in their hunger that they began to eat the marrow and gristle left on the bones that they were tasked to crush in order to create fertilizer. The guardians for the workhouse were simply replaced, with no legal action taken against them.[xxxi]

 

Please see Resources for further information on footnotes.

[ i ]Michael Slater, “Dickens, Charles John Huffam(1812–1870),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): online edn, May 2011.

[ii]Aldon Bell, London in the Age of Dickens (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), 158.

[iii]Bell, 155-6.

[iv]Nead, 18.

[v]Nead, 19.

[vi]Higginbotham, 11.

[vii]Crowther, 11.

[viii]Higginbotham, 8.

[ix]Higginbotham, 8.

[x]Wood, 54.

[xi]Higginbotham, 8.

[xii]Higginbotham, 40.

[xiii]Higginbotham, 40.

[xiv]Higginbotham, 40.

[xv]Higginbotham, 53.

[xvi]Higginbotham, 41

[xvii]Crowther, 194.

[xviii]Crowther, 195.

[xix]Crowther, 194.

[xx]Higginbotham, 46.

[xxi]Higginbotham, 42.

[xxii]Crowther, 195.

[xxiii]Higginbotham, 42.

[xxiv]Higginbotham, 44.

[xxv]Crowther, 197.

[xxvi]Crowther, 198.

[xxvii]Higginbotham, 8.

[xxviii]Higginbotham, 54.

[xxix]Higginbotham, 56-7.

[xxx]Higginbotham, 59.

[xxxi]Higginbotham, 61-4. 

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