The Workhouse

Posted: October 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

I was born in Walsall’s Manor Hospital, which was formerly the Walsall Workhouse, and where my maternal Grandmother worked. She was employed in the sewing room altering nurse’s uniforms and mending sheets and then became an auxiliary nurse. Walsall is a deprived English working class town in the heart of the ‘black country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. The Black Country gained its name in the nineteenth century from the abundance of coal in the region and the smoke from the many thousands of ironworking foundries and forges. The region was described as ‘Black by day and red by night’ by Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862. While Charles Dickens described it as a “cheerless region” in which “tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same, dull, ugly form poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”

Much of this area of England has been plagued by poverty for centuries. In the fourteen hundreds, a medieval Poor Law,  the ‘Ordinance of Labourers’ was issued by King Edward III. The Law was introduced in an attempt to address the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, which killed about one-third of England’s population. The Law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise. Later ‘Poor Laws’ against vagrancy were the origins of state-funded ‘poverty relief’ and from the sixteenth century onward a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were able to work but couldn’t, and those who were able to work but wouldn’t: between “the genuinely unemployed and the idler.” While, the Poor Relief Act of 1576 established the principle that if the able-bodied poor needed support, they had to work for it.

The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 classified the poor into one of three groups. It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the “persistent idler” was to be punished. It also proposed the construction of housing for the ‘impotent poor’, the old and the infirm, although most assistance was granted through a form of poor relief known as ‘outdoor relief’ – money, food, or other necessities given to those living in their own homes.The workhouse system evolved during the seventeenth century, allowing parishes to reduce the cost of providing poor relief, by establishing ‘Corporations of the poor’ to ‘rid the poor of the idleness and sloth’ which the ruling class claimed were the root of their condition. If the poor could be made to work harder, they argued, poverty could be overcome. Here the parish Corporations were expected to make a profit from the cheap labour of the poor and increased incomes for the rich were among the expected ‘positive outcomes’ of the workhouse regime.

Among the first workhouses established, Bishopgate Workhouse was built soon after, and in response to, the ‘weaver’s disturbances’ of 1675. These ‘disturbances’ were militant workers’ struggles which were suppressed by the Army. In Walsall, during the seventeen hundreds, there were many similar ‘disturbances’ by large crowds, demonstrating against political parties, the church, the crown, unemployment, and high food prices.

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Walsall Union Workhouse

As Peter Linebaugh explains in The London Hanged; “A new morality became triumphant among the capitalist class at the end of the seventeenth century.” Poverty was now evidence of wickedness, and idleness meant the refusal of discipline, subordination, or obedience. “The workhouses were institutions of incarceration and places for punishment. The purpose of the punishment was both to scare people on the outside and to produce docility on the inside.”

The early years of the eighteenth century saw the adoption of new repressive legislation – the Riot Act, the Transportation Act, the Combination Act and the Workhouse Act.

Under the Riot Act – if twelve or more people were assembled and a proclamation of a riot was read by a magistrate then any person who didn’t disperse was guilty of a felony.

The Transportation Act – authorised a sentence of fourteen years transportation to the colonies for those pardoned of capital offences and seven years transportation for those guilty of a felony such as ‘riot’.

The Combination Act made it illegal to enter into combination to improve wages ‘to unreasonable prices, and lessen usual hours of work’.

Finally, the Workhouse Act was introduced authorising parishes to set up their own workhouses. The Act stated that anyone wanting to receive poor relief had to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work. Here they became the experimental subjects for a variety of work-schemes. By 1750, there were 600 parish workhouses and a government survey in 1776 put the number at more than 1800, with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places. The growth in the number of workhouses was bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, which allowed parishes to share the cost of ‘poor relief’ by forming unions to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm. So keen were some Poor Law authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish. In one such case in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham workhouse, were sold at Croydon market for one shilling.

As Peter Linebaugh outlines, the new repressive legislation of the eighteenth century combined criminal policy and labour policy to enforce labour both at home and abroad, while suppressing worker’s self-organisation by prohibiting public assembly and the formation of unions. Poor Laws and workhouses were counter-revolutionary weapons. The ‘idle’ were seen as a serious threat to the established order and the workhouse was an important innovation in social control.

Also looking at the early development of capitalism in Western Europe, Silvia Federici has explored the importance of the enclosures, the witch hunts, and the imprisonment and torture of the poor in prisons and workhouses. These crucial aspects of capitalist ‘progress’ intensified the fight for survival and undermined rebellion by disrupting the care and solidarity relationships which provide the basis for collective struggle. As Silvia explains, “the tendency of the capitalist class, during the first three centuries of its existence, was to impose slavery and other forms of coerced labour as the dominant work relation, a tendency limited only by the workers’ resistance and the danger of the exhaustion of the work-force.”

We Want More!

Growing up with communist parents during the 1960s I attended a wide range of protests and demonstrations. In 1968, as a six year old, we went to see the recently released movie Oliver. The film had a profound impact on me and led to a continuing love of Charles Dickens’ work. Oliver Twist was Dickens’ first major novel. It tells the story of the orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

Dickens had some experience of poverty and incarceration. When he was eleven, his father lost his job and was imprisoned in a debtors’ prison. So, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory, pasting labels on bottles of shoe polish. When he was growing-up, in the early eighteen hundreds, Dickens lived only a few doors down from the feared Cleveland Street Workhouse, which inspired Oliver Twist. ‘He would have seen girls and boys of only six years old — just a year older than him — bundled into carts and transported like cattle, often hundreds of miles away, to work in the factories and mills of Britain’s industrial heartlands, where they would be beaten as they laboured 16 hours a day in exchange for a few spoonful’s of gruel. And he would have shuddered as he saw the thin pauper-coffins arrive to bury the dead in the graveyard behind the poorhouse. He never forgot the sight, sounds and smells of that workhouse. And when he grew up he drew on those memories to reveal to Victorian Britain the inhumanity that went on under their noses in the name of progress.’

For me, as a six year old, Oliver was an eye-opening history lesson and incredibly thought provoking. The most famous and pivotal scene in the film is when Oliver asks for more food for the starving children in the Workhouse. This is the song leading up to Oliver asking for more.

Returning to school after seeing the film, I was struck by some similarities between the condition of the children in the workhouse and the children at my school. It didn’t help that the workhouse depicted in the film was made from stone and constructed in a comparable style to my school. Nor that my school proclaimed that ‘God is Love’, while displaying many of the contradictions and hypocrisy of Christian judgement and charity. As well, there was too much of the same type of regimentation, compulsion, and enforced work as a disciplinary tool for my liking. Obviously things were much better for us kids in 1968. However, it occurred to me that what many of us wanted was not more food, but more playtime. So, I gathered together my friends and organised a playground protest. When the bell went, we refused to go back to class, encouraged the rest of the school to join in, and marched around the playground in defiance of the teacher’s attempts to force us back inside.

The Walsall Workhouse

The former workhouse I was born in, Walsall Union Workhouse, was built in 1838. It replaced an older workhouse and could accommodate three hundred and fifty inmates. Many workhouses were constructed with the central buildings surrounded by work and exercise yards enclosed behind stone walls. A common layout resembled Jeremy Bentham’s prison panopticon, a radial design with four three-storey buildings at its centre set within a rectangular courtyard, the perimeter of which was defined by a three-storey entrance block and single-storey outbuildings, all enclosed by a wall. Entering the workhouse was a humiliating experience. People were stripped, scrubbed and made to wear uniforms of coarse fabric to avoid infestation. Unmarried mothers were put on a starvation diet to deter them from having any more children. Families were broken up: children were separated from their parents and husbands from wives. It was the children who often suffered the most. Pain was used to improve productivity: children were flogged with belts, their teeth were filed and their ears were put in vices to make them work harder. Some died, others were maimed for life. In one workhouse in Hampshire, the supervisor — a former sergeant major — was given to whipping children as young as two if they cried. Workhouse apprentices were often treated like animals and fed on scraps. Many died of malnutrition.

All inmates deemed fit enough would be given tasks such as breaking stones, or ripping apart old rope to separate the strands so that it might be recycled, or to produce ‘caulking’, a substance used to waterproof barges. Some inmates were allocated tasks in the workhouse such as scrubbing, kitchen duties, or caring for the sick. Others picked oakum using a large metal nail known as a ‘spike’, which is probably the source of the workhouse’s nickname. Bone-crushing, useful in the creation of fertiliser, was a common task, until a government inquiry into conditions in the Andover workhouse found that starving inmates were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were supposed to be grinding, to suck out the marrow.

In 1867, a sanitary commission from The Lancet medical journal paid a visit to the Walsall Workhouse. The Lancet’s report revealed that whole wards of inmates lacked a toilet and shared just one towel for a week. The ‘tramp wards’ accommodated up to twenty seven people, although they were designed for only seven. These wards were described as being like a dog kennel, only less clean and comfortable.

In 1896, the Walsall Workhouse was enlarged to include an infirmary. Further additions took place in 1903, taking the capacity to four hundred and seventy inmates. The eight infirmary wards had a total of two hundred beds and catered for patients who were admitted under the conditions of the Poor Laws. In 1926, more additions were made to the Workhouse, including a nursing home. In 1929, the infirmary was renamed Manor Hospital and the Workhouse was renamed Beacon Lodge. On April 1st 1930, the workhouse system was abolished in the UK, but many workhouses, renamed Public Assistance Institutions, continued under the control of local county councils.

When the Second World War began in 1939, there were still around one hundred thousand people accommodated in the former workhouses. During the War, the ‘infirm’ patients of Walsall’s Manor Hospital were moved into Beacon Lodge, so the Hospital could cater solely for wartime casualties. The former Workhouse buildings were also used as air raid shelters. As the troops went off to fight, including both of my Granddads, my father’s mum, Olive Southall, who lived in Birmingham, not far from Walsall, took the opportunity to support her young family by working the night shift as a capstan lathe operator at the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) factory producing rifles and machine guns. This, of course, made the BSA a major target for Nazi bombers and the factory was repeatedly attacked by the Luftwaffe.

Despite the extreme danger, Olive and her workmates continued working through the raids, boosting production in the hope of assisting the men at the front. On November 19 1940, Luftwaffe bombing killed fifty three BSA workers, injured another eighty nine, thirty of them seriously, and trapped hundreds. On that night, stuck beside her lathe, the factory a chaos of smoke, fire, shattered machines, the dead, dying and injured, Olive was found and saved by a fellow worker. He smothered her burning hair and clothing with his coat and dragged her out of the inferno. Nearby another woman was trapped beneath her machine, crying out for help, begging to be saved for her children’s sake. Sadly, the machine was too big for them to move, and they had to leave her there to die.

After recovering from her physical injuries, Olive returned to work, this time as a brass grinder in another factory, across the road from her old school. Due to the bombing raids, my dad and his brother Brian were sent away, although not far enough that they couldn’t see Birmingham burning at night.

Although suffering from post-traumatic stresses and despite the constant threat posed by the bombing raids during the war, Olive’s work in the factories had given her a social worth, social life, social power and social mobility that post-war was again denied to most women. Olive was now back at home as a housewife, with no labour saving devices, little money, a baby, two older boys, ill health and a war-weary husband. She spent most of her days as a hardworking, but poorly rewarded, housewife. Her only paid work was as a low waged domestic cleaner for a more well-off family. In 1953, she committed suicide by drinking a bottle of cleaning fluid.

My maternal Grandmother, Gladys Grainger, was born in 1918. She grew up in a very impoverished household and overcame many obstacles to win a scholarship to a selective school. However, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her shoes, so she was given some boy’s boots by a charity to attend school in. When she appeared in the school’s play wearing her boots people in the audience laughed at her. As soon as she could, at the age of fourteen, Gladys left school and went to work in a factory. After the war, she went to work at the former Workhouse – what was now the Manor Hospital. Into her sixties, until she was forced to retire, Gran would ride her pushbike to work, up hills, through the rain and the snow. On returning home she would do most of the housework, cook the meals and look after my Mum, her brother Ken and sister Debbie. During these years, Gran became an active unionist and outspoken campaigner around workplace issues, community campaigns, anti-war struggles and many more. She joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s and as she aged became active in the pensioner’s movement.

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Walsall Manor Hospital

When, in 1957, the Walsall Workhouse officially merged with the Manor Hospital, some of the old Workhouse inmates were kept in after it had closed. This is one reason that, for many of the old people in Walsall, the continued existence of the Workhouse haunted their final years. My Mum vividly remembers how, when she was young, her maternal Grandmother would beg “you won’t let them take me to the Workhouse will you?” This was a common fear amongst her generation, with many Walsall residents reporting similar experiences. The aged poor were terrified of ending up in the ‘Spike’, scared of going to the Manor Hospital, and often experienced humiliation and shame when they ended-up in the Hospital’s geriatric wards, which had previously been part of the Workhouse.

Work for the Dole

For a long time, I’ve been writing about the use of work, poverty, and joblessness as tools for social control. Part of the motivation for this writing were the many years I spent being unemployed. Having also been an activist in the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) I learned a great deal about how joblessness is organised to discipline the poor. During the 1980s, WOW and other unemployed people’s unions were a thorn in the side of the Federal Labor Government, powerfully opposing their neoliberal work and ‘training’ policies. In 1986, the Hawke Government introduced ‘Work for the Dole’ as part of a strategy designed to increase the effectiveness of the unemployed as a ‘reserve army’ of labour and to re-impose work on better terms for capital. Then in 1987, as part of a concerted attack on the organised unemployed, the Government introduced an ‘activities’ test’ to proscribe political activity by the unemployed. The test imposed a wide range of activities on, and increasingly strict requirements to be met by, unemployed people to avoid losing their social security benefits. Soon after its implementation, the test was used to harass and cut the benefits of unemployed people attending protests and those active in ‘political’ organisations, such as unemployed unions, as they were deemed not to be ‘actively looking for work’.

Under the ‘activities test’ I was persistently harassed by Centrelink and the Commonwealth Employment Service and forced into attending ‘job clubs’, applying for crap jobs, and signing an ‘activities agreement’. This ‘agreement’ gave government agencies more control over what I did with my time and a new means to deal with my ‘recalcitrance’. Around the turn of the millennium, I was given an ultimatum, ‘if you want to continue receiving welfare benefits you must undertake work for the dole, or enrol in an educational institution’. After some deliberation, I chose to enrol at Wollongong University. Since then, I have continued to interrogate the use of work and unemployment. Recently, I was asked by the Australian Unemployment Union (now Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union) to give a talk about WOW. The part of my talk that received the most positive response was when I spoke about how being unemployed and active in the Out of Workers’ Union seemed to me much more important than any other type of work I could have been doing.

The Struggles Continue

For hundreds of years the workhouses were powerful weapons used to scare and punish the poor and it took many years of intense struggle by millions of people to dismantle the workhouse regime. Today, wide-ranging and powerful struggles continue, seeking to improve working conditions, to reduce work, to redefine it, to change how it is valued, to democratise it, to share it, and to eliminate all capitalist work. Yet, the more people challenge and refuse the imposition of work that benefits a few, the more the bosses try to force us to labour for them. In contemporary Australia, ‘Work for the Dole’ schemes are being widely expanded and the Government has introduced the ‘Welfare Debit Card’ to further attack and punish the poor. Under the $5 billion Jobactive system, not only do privately-owned employment service providers have the unprecedented power to effectively fine job seekers for missing their ‘job search appointments’, but unemployed people under 30 are forced to work 25 hours per week, for six months, in order to receive the dole. Many of those taking advantage of this enforced labour are authoritarian and conservative religious ‘charities’, like the Salvos. The Government and those they serve continue to benefit from the cheap labour of the poor, seeing multi-billion dollar corporate profits from the ‘Job Services’ industry as a positive outcome of the current work regime. Successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, have increased the harassment, intimidation and poverty of the poorest, enacting and enforcing a wide range of new ‘Poor Laws’, whilst amplifying the lies of their wealthy sponsors and agenda setters, claiming the unemployed, sole parents, the sick, the aged and the disabled are leaners, bludgers, cheats, scammers and idlers.

Meanwhile, groups like the AUWU are exposing the modern ‘Corporations of the poor’ which seek to make us all work harder for less. For those seeking help with the new Work for the Dole/Jobactive system, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union has now launched a National Advocacy Hotline to help unemployed workers deal with Employment Service Providers. You can call between Monday-Wednesday, 10am-3pm, on 03 83945266. They also offer a call-back service, just email them – – with your concerns and they will get back to you.

You can also find out more here:

Nick Southall


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