Workhouse Voices

What did paupers say about the Poor Law?

Students and teachers can discover the voices of the poor who wrote to the Poor Law?Commission?and explore how they?understood, experienced and exercised agency under the New Poor Law from 1834.?

This collection?of documents?represents a?small?sample of the letters that have been identified and transcribed as part of?In Their Own Write’, an Arts Humanities Research Council?funded?project,?2018 to 2021, which uses letters from paupers and other poor people, and other material such as petitions, sworn statements?and advocate letters written on behalf of paupers?to investigate the lives of the poor between 1834 and 1900.?It is run jointly by?The National Archives?and the?Department of History?at the University of Leicester.?

The majority of work focuses on the thousands of?volumes of poor law correspondence (MH12)?held by?The National Archives?much of which has been little used by historians.?

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About this classroom resource

Teachers' notes

This document collection includes?letters written by the poor and paupers to?New Poor Law officials after 1834.?It allows students and teachers to develop their own questions and lines of historical enquiry on the nature of?the?legislation, the role of the authorities and?the?impact of the law on?those who experienced?it first-hand. The collection offers a unique insight into this world with these documents?available?digitally for the first time.

To begin with, ask?your?students?to?look at the short quotes shown on the document web page. Can?they?detect any key themes or issues??For further context, read the introduction to this collection and highlight the main points.?You could also do a?Google search for workhouse images, or find out about a local workhouse in your area if one exists.

Now read a sample of?these?letters.?We have included a modernised transcript in terms of spelling and punctuation. Here, some?words have been defined within the text using square brackets.?We have also in some cases included transcripts for the notes made on the original letter by the Poor Law Officials who received it, providing insight into how the officials responded and how the bureaucratic system worked.??As?the?students become familiar with their?content, discuss the following questions in pairs or groups:

  • What?issues or?complaints?are?the?writers?raising?with the Poor Law Commissioners?
  • Who?wrote on behalf?of?the poor?in?letters??Why do you think they were motivated to do so?
  • For what?reasons did people find themselves?in the workhouse?
  • Were?men and women?treated differently?
  • What work did paupers have to do inside the workhouse?
  • What was the purpose of this labour?do you think?
  • Is there evidence of?medical treatment?received in the?workhouse?
  • What can we?infer?about diet in the workhouse?
  • What evidence is there that some letters were concerned about corrupt?the workhouse?officials?or the Board of Guardians?
  • How did the?Poor?Law impact on families, children and the elderly?
  • How did the?Poor Law Commission respond to these letters?
  • What can we infer from the language?and tone?used in these letters?
  • Why did some?people?request ‘outdoor relief’ rather than?‘indoor relief’?or admission to a workhouse?
  • Were any writers in favour of the Poor Law system?
  • What do these letters reveal about the causes of poverty at that time?
  • What general conclusions can students draw from considering this group of documents as a whole? How could study of the topic be extended?
  • Write your own version of a couple of letters and compare with a partner.?What does?this?process reveal?about the nature of historical interpretation?
  • Compare?and contrast?a selection of letters?covering similar topics.
  • Many people are familiar with?Charles?Dickens’s?novel,?Oliver Twist?containing scenes inside?the workhouse. How accurately does it compare to the content of these letters?

It is hoped that these documents will offer students a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis concerning aspects of?poverty, pauperism?and?social reform. How does Poor Law legislation fit into a study of the development over time of the welfare state in Britain??They might consider how?this?has?been interpreted in debates between historians and social scientists.

Finally teachers could also use the collection to develop their own resources or encourage students to ‘curate’ their own ‘exhibition’ of the most significant sources on the topic. Please note that some sources?may?contain sensitive material so use with care.

Audio files have been added to the resource to enhance engagement with the documents.?We?have?created?an interactive map?to show?the location?of?each?letter?with its particular Poor Law Union and county.

Connections to the Curriculum

Key?Stage 3?

Ideas, political power, industry and Empire: Britain 1745-1901: party politics, extension of the Franchise and social reform.?

Key Stage 5?


  • Industrialisation and the people: Britain, c1783–1885: Political change and social reform, 1832-1846?


  • Britain, c1785–c1870: democracy, protest and reform:? Poverty and pauperism, c1785–c1870?
  • Poverty, Public Health and the state c1780-1938: Aspects in depth, poverty, the people and the poor?


  • From Pitt to Peel: Britain 1783—1853?


Dr Peter Jones, Research Assistant, ‘In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law, 1834-1900’, The University of Leicester.??

The question of what to do with the poorest members of society is one that has exercised?human?communities for as long as those communities have existed. All the major religions teach compassion and encourage charity towards?the poor;?but by the early-modern period in Europe,?population increase and a gradual move towards urbanisation,?meant that local piecemeal responses were no longer sufficient to contain the growing problem of poverty.?In?England?and Wales, the response was to establish a set of national regulations in the 16th?and 17th?centuries?that?required?local?communities to look after their own poor?(the ‘Old Poor Law’). The so-called ‘deserving poor’ (that is, the elderly, widows, orphans,?the sick and disabled) were given ‘relief’ in money or goods.?Those who were?thought?to be less deserving – in particular, the ‘able-bodied’ poor who, it was thought, should be able to look after themselves – were?put to work for their relief.?This system of welfare was administered at?the?level of the parish?(which commonly overlapped with a village or township)?and it continued in place until the early-19th?century.?

By the 1830s, however, as?the?population rocketed and urban poverty became endemic, the rising cost of relief alarmed?large ratepayers and those who governed?England and Wales. The response of the authorities was (as it very often is) to drive down costs by deterring people from seeking relief?in the first place.?In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ushering in the New Poor Law which, in theory at least, made the welfare landscape a much less hospitable place.?Poor relief?would now be?administered by local boards of?guardians, who oversaw?whole?groups of parishes?(known as ‘unions’), and?instead of money and food being given to paupers in their own homes?unions were given the right to place their poor?in?local?workhouses;?large prison-like institutions where?families were separated and?individuals?were?required to?perform?hard labour?for meagre?rations. Unsurprisingly,?the new system, and particularly the workhouse,?was hated by many paupers. Not all?paupers?were sent to the workhouse?(most were not), however?most?of the so-called ‘deserving poor’?who?were given relief in their own homes?often felt that?it?was?completely?inadequate for their needs.?

The Central Authorities and?Pauper Letters?

Sometimes, paupers felt so aggrieved at their treatment that they wrote to the central?poor law?authorities in London to complain.?The Poor Law Commission?was?set up in 1834 to ensure that relief was administered properly?under the New Poor Law. Its main focus was on ensuring consistency of?practice in unions across England and Wales, but paupers?soon?realised that if they had a complaint about ill-treatment or the rules being broken by local officials then the Commission ought to do something?about?it.?Many such complaints were received?between 1834 and 1900?by the Commission and the bodies that succeeded it?(the Poor Law Board in 1847, and the Local Government Board in 1871), and?these?were?bound up volumes?along with all?the other?correspondence received?by the Commissioners. These?volumes?are now held at?The National Archives, and there are?more than 16,000?of them?in total!?

As you?will?see from the letters in this sample,?paupers complained about all kinds of things; but there are some broad themes which it is?useful to tease out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common complaints were about the workhouse.?In?particular,?paupers?felt that they should not have to go?there?in the first place when their only ‘crime’ was poverty. Many in our sample complain that the relief?they were given?in their own homes?was?either inadequate, or?was?reduced or stopped altogether,?so that their?only alternative?was?to?become an inmate in?the ‘house’.?Others complained bitterly about the treatment they received?once?there, whether it was the terrible food, the appalling living conditions or the arduous work. A large proportion of the letters come from those?who?were traditionally considered as the ‘deserving poor’: the elderly, young widows with children,?and the sick or disabled,?who?felt that they deserved different treatment from the able-bodied, or ‘idle’?poor.?

Sometimes, the letters reveal?really?terrible?treatment, beatings or abuse by the officials and other paupers;?and taken together it is easy to conclude (as many historians have done) that?the New Poor Law really was an inhuman and cruel system. But?it is important to?remember that these letters are?a?‘self-selecting’?sample;?that is, paupers rarely wrote to?say what a fine time they were having in the workhouse, and how generous the master and matron were?(although there are one or two examples of more positive letters, even here)!?But despite this note of caution, the one?thing that?comes through loud and clear in these letters is the voice of the paupers themselves, and the multitude of fascinating stories they had to tell.?

External links

In Their Own Write?

Find out more about?Charles Dickens, his experience of?poverty?and purpose in writing his novel Oliver?Twist.?

Workhouses: The story of an institution.?

Beneath the surface: A country of two nations?

The ‘In their own write’ project, show casing more pauper letters?2020?

The ‘In their own write’ project, show casing more pauper letters 2015?

Why did people fear the Victorian workhouse? webinar

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