What were poorhouses? They were government funded and run facilities where the poor, infirm, or mentally ill could live. Someone could go to the poorhouse even if they had been successful, but had later fallen on hard times and then were not able to pay their creditors or taxes and became bankrupt. Orphans and widows who could not support themselves went to the poorhouse as a last resort. These institutions were generally filthy dirty, unhygienic and packed with unwanted people. Poverty in Victorian times was seen as coming from a lack of diligence and hard work.
Many of the people who lived in the poorhouses worked very hard in order to contribute to the costs of living in the poorhouse. It was seen as the ultimate disgrace to be a Victorian poorhouse resident and was seen as a last resort.
The poorhouse, or workhouse, needed to be as unattractive as possible, in order to give the poor a reason to leave as soon as possible. Applicants who wanted to enter the poorhouse were interviewed and it was decided by the authorities if the person did indeed qualify for assistance. Inmates were more like prison inmates and led an institutionalized life in the House, especially in the early years of the New Poor Law.
According to one source “Everyone except the feeble and children less than seven years of age performed the same work for the same number of hours and ate the same basic meals. Work, although it was not necessarily designed as punishment, was often gruelling and sometimes even dangerous. Inmates broke rock, ground corn by hand, picked oakum (fibers of old ropes, used for caulking ship seams), and ground animal bones for fertilizer and manufacturing”.
Workhouse conditions in Victorian times gradually improved and by around 1930 the workhouse system came to an end in England.