Inmates at Wimborne Union Workhouse (1905), courtesy of Priest's House Museum
Prior to 1834, most towns and villages had erected a poorhouse, or ‘house of work’, which was intended to provide relief for the most destitute and needy inhabitants of the parish. Until this time relief had been administered largely on an ad-hoc basis and was meted out by officials elected from the ratepayers of the parish, known as the Overseers of the Poor; but as the population started to swell as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and as the economic hardships began to bite in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, the Old Poor Law, which had been in place since the Elizabethan era, finally began to collapse under the strain.
Not only had the Old Poor Law become inefficient and costly but corruption and abuses were widespread. Most importantly of all, it was considered that the system acted as a disincentive to paupers by allowing them to become too reliant on ‘hand-outs’ from the parish. It was therefore decided that measures needed to be taken to instigate reform on a nationwide basis and so in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was finally passed to stop the problem in its tracks.
Under the terms of this new Act, parishes were to be organised into Poor Law Unions, each of which was served by its own union workhouse, where paupers would be compelled to reside as a condition of receiving relief from the parish. Each union was governed by its own Board of Guardians, made up of elected representatives from each of the parishes concerned. They were responsible for the daily management of the workhouse, the employment of the staff, the conduct of the inmates and the administration of poor relief.
Here in Dorset some 282 parishes, containing upwards of 150,000 inhabitants, were initially grouped into 14 unions, although this was reduced to 12 in 1836 due to the amalgamations of Cranborne with Wimborne, and Purbeck with Wareham. The largest of the unions was that of Dorchester, which consisted of 39 parishes under a board of 43 guardians, whilst the smallest by far was Poole, with only 8 parishes and 11 guardians. Where larger parishes were concerned, more than one guardian might be elected to represent the parish on the board.
Inmates at Wimborne Union Workhouse, courtesy of Priest's House Museum
The new system appears to have been readily adopted in Dorset, with the majority of the unions managing to establish a workhouse within a few years of the Act being passed. Whilst some attempted to reduce the costs by adapting existing buildings, such as at Blandford and Wimborne, most constructed new workhouses based on the designs laid down by the Poor Law Commissioners. The most popular design was evidently the cruciform, or square, plan, which was adopted at Bridport, Cerne, Dorchester, Poole, Shaftesbury, Sherborne, Wareham, and Weymouth, whereas the Beaminster and Sturminster unions were built to the hexagonal, or “Y”, design. Both plans, however, essentially consisted of a central block with wings radiating out from the centre; these buildings were then surrounded by a series of exercise yards, with a high wall running around the perimeter. Besides being efficient in terms of space, the designs also helped to enforce one of the main clauses of the New Poor Law: the segregation of inmates. That is, men from women, children from adults, and the aged and infirm from everyone else.
Whilst this was particularly harsh on young families, it was merely part of a wider system to break down the spirit of the inmates and ensure that life inside the workhouse was less desirable than the worst possible conditions on the outside. This was an attempt to deter people from seeking relief from the parish unless they were truly needy - a policy which was to become known as the ‘principle of less eligibility’. As well as segregation, inmates could expect to receive daily menial tasks, a meagre diet and harsh punishment as part of the regime. The pauper offence book for the Beaminster Union Workhouse, which is now held at the Dorset History Centre, provides a chilling insight into the stringent measures taken by the Board of Guardians to tackle even minor misdemeanours. In January 1842, for example, one John Aplin found himself “locked up” for 24 hours on a bread and water diet for being “disorderly at prayer time”, whilst in January 1856 John Staple was committed to prison for 28 days for refusing to work. Damage to property was taken particularly seriously, as in April 1844 a pauper by the name of Isaac Hallett was whipped for simply breaking a window.
Demolition of Sherborne Union Workhouse (1939), courtesy of Sherborne Museum
Besides menial labour and a harsh regime, inmates also had to endure the daily living conditions of the workhouse, which were particularly dire in the early days of the New Poor Law. Overcrowding, squalor and disease were rife. Extreme cases, such as the Wimborne Union Workhouse scandal of 1839, quickly attracted public outrage when the true extent of the inmates’ suffering was reported in the pages of the local and national newspapers. Indeed, instances such as these eventually caused the reform of workhouse conditions in the latter half of the nineteenth century; although the institution still remains a symbol of extreme want and oppression to this day. It is no wonder that local newspapers often contained reports of errant paupers who had made off with workhouse property, such as clothing and blankets, hoping to affect their escape; sadly, though, the only form of escape for most was in a wooden box, destined for a pauper’s grave in the local parish churchyard.
Given that so many people passed through the doors of the workhouse system in its long history, it is not unusual to find a pauper inmate whilst researching your family tree. Fortunately for family historians, though, the Poor Law administration created a wealth of documentation which can be particularly useful for finding out more about ancestors who fell on hard times. Here in Dorset the original records can be found at the Dorset History Centre, although the holdings are by no means as extensive as those for other counties. The records which do survive include Guardians' minute books, lists of those receiving relief, baptism registers, property registers and pauper offence books.
Despite the recent leaps forward in digitisation most of these records are not yet available to search online, so it will be necessary to either visit the archives in person or commission an independent researcher to undertake the research for you.