Many can’t go there and many would rather die

The famous scene played out in A Christmas Carol is  Ebenezer Scrooge who has a man come to his door asking for contributions to help the poor.  After wondering if they were no prisons Scrooge says:

‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman,’ I wish I could say they were not.’

This now has much more meaning for my life now.  A line in a book decrying the Victorian methods of dealing with the poor and showing the true meaning of Christmas leaves me with a haunting scene of the poor being forced into these work houses, or worse being excluded.

These Union work houses were set up in various parishes around Britain after the 1834 Poor Law was issued.  Based on the idea of giving a place for poor people to get on their feet.  At the same time it was supposed to also help you avoid staying on the government housing in two methods.  One was to make you work so that you developed a work ethic.  Second the nature of these places were not considered very nice.

Demeaning might be a nice word.

The general look of these work houses was the same across Britain.  They were developed to host inmates in very simple, some might say bland, set of buildings.  The one above was in Wales and I want to discuss it specifically in a minute.

Many found these places offered very simple meals meant to feed but not necessarily bad for the period.  One of the first things done in these places was to seperate the men and women and the children into separate groups.  This must have been difficult and one can imagine the Oliver Twist images coming to mind thinking about the children.

The Poor laws and Workhouses remained in effect until 1930 with the construction of social programs meant to help the poor in a different way.  The record of the workhouses were not terribly great and social reformers would come to see them as places like prisons.  Florence Nightingale for example was appalled by the conditions of these houses.

Generally the conditions of the work houses improved by the turn of the century but still the stigma of having to go these places left many unhappy to have to use these places.   By the 1850s many of the inmates were old, unmarried women with children and those disabled.

In the view of social darwinists of the turn of the century the only way to cure being poor was to force it out through education.  The idea being that being poor and destitute was something that was critical to remove from children see the example from the Poor Law Officers Journal:

The care and training of children are matters which should receive the anxious attention of Guardians. Pauperism is in the blood, and there is no more effectual means of checking its hereditary nature than by doing all in our power to bring up our pauper children in such a manner as to make them God-fearing, useful and healthy members of society.

These opinions often meant that there was a need to separate children from their parents “for their own good.”  Often treated horrifically children until the late 1800s would often be beaten or maltreated.  These incidences led to reforms to the law to get the children away from this environment.  So often they would be sent out to farms and other cottages to create a more familial environment.

An example of this reform could be seen at the Pwllheli Union Workhouse in north Wales.

House of Commons Debate 28 March 1911 vol 23 c1145  1145


asked whether, in the Pwllheli workhouse, there are seventy-nine inmates including twenty-nine children, also vagrants to the amount of about one hundred a month; whether there are only three attendants at this workhouse; if so, whether he has satisfied himself that under the circumstances the children are properly attended to; and what steps he is prepared to take to enforce a more humane administration on the guardians?


I have recently received a special report from one of my inspectors with regard to this workhouse giving me the facts generally as stated in the question. I understand that the guardians have recently appointed a boarding-out committee to deal with as many children as possible, but the whole situation is engaging my attention, and I am in communication with the guardians respecting it.

So from this point on many of the able bodied school age children were separated from their parents and sent away to live in places which were in the parishes surrounding the workhouse.

In this workhouse was Elizabeth Williams, widowed when her husband was killed at the Pub he owned called Ty Hwnt I’r Afon in Rhyd-y-Clafdy.  Widowed, pregnant and with four other children to take care of Elizabeth faced the prospect that she must take her young family to the work house in Pwllheli.   By the 1911 census Elizabeth and her family were living in the workhouse.  But as seen earlier she would soon find herself separated from her children.

Two of the boys were sent off to live in what now would be called a foster home.   These boys were worked on the farm as labourers while trying to gain their education.  As time went on Stanley, the younger brother, found himself being drawn to a girl who sang in the church choir, Elizabeth Jones.  Elizabeth’s father was a carpenter and her family had lived in Rhiw for hundreds of years but with a new home and new start on the horizon Elizabeth and Stanley left Wales moving to Canada.

Stanley, who remembered his separation from his mother at an early age had learned to blame her for what happened to him so when he left Wales he broke away from the old life completely.  He never spoke Welsh again except around relatives and never once visited his home again, only visiting Wales once more after his mother had died.   The workhouse had created a separation which was never repaired between the two.

Many had better conclusions to their stories but certainly many felt the work houses were horrid things.  They were attached with such negative stigma that there was an active form of forgetting, including wiping out physical signs they were ever in existence.

For more information on these places see:

2 Responses to Many can’t go there and many would rather die

  1. Ron Watt’s biography of his ancestor George D. Watt (the man responsible for our having Conference Reports the way we do, among many other contributions), is due out from USU Press later this year. George D. spent some time in his childhood in a workhouse. I don’t know what Ron will include to describe that period, but I know when I read it I will have this post in mind. Thanks, Jon.

  2. Jon W says:

    thanks Ardis. this post was spurred on after glancing at the 1911 census and seeing my grandfather and his mother and siblings in the workhouse. I had to know more and I felt like sharing as it is such a huge part of our culture.

    Threats of “putting me in the poor house,” take on new meaning.

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