*** workhouse children's clothing

Work Houses / Poor Houses

work houses
Figure 1.--This photograph was taken at Crumpsall Workhouse, probably about 1910. The frocks were for summer wear and were as simple and inexpensive to buy as possible. The girls probably wore identical frocks.

The 'workhouse' is a name given in England to establishments where the town poor were maintained at public expense, and provided with labor. It was also referred to as the poorhouse. They were facilities to segregate and maintain paupers. If you were poverty-stricken, or an unwanted orphan, or an impoverished widow, if you were too old to work, or you were sick or deranged, you could end up in a workhouse. The workhouse was in fact a ruthless attempt to solve the problem of poverty. The term is sometimes applied in the United States to institutions in which vagrants, drunkards, and other minor offenders are detained on short sentences and at labor, but which are usually and properly known as houses of correction.

Industrial Revolution

The history of the work house conicides with the industrial revolution. Thi is because along with the wealth and poperity created by the industrial revolution, many people were reduced to penuary status. These were people shose jobs were destroyed by machiery and new techmologies, such as people doing piece work that could not compete with the new factories. The enclosures to change large estates to sheep ranching to produce wool for the expanding garment industry was another factor.

Poor House

We note some references to "poor" houses. We think that this was essentially another name to work houses. They were facilities for the poor. Although work was mot in the name, we think individuals in poor houses had to work just as in work houses. We do not believe that that the different name signified any actual fifference in the nature or operation of the facility.


Work houses were established in many European countries and America. Most of the information we have been able to obtain, however comes from American and British sources. The British sources also cover Ireland which was part of the United Kingdom in the 19th century. The English workhouse dates back to the 17th century, although it is the 19th century workhouse that is most in the popular mind. The workhouse in Englnd was not abolished until 1929. Conditions in Irish work houses were even more horendous than in England. The situation in America was somewhat different than Britain, in part because the the Frontier and a less strict class system offered opportunities that were not available to the British poor. We know little about these institutions in other countries.

Figure 2.--The older boys seem to be about 7-10 years old, but there are two tall boys at the back that could easily be 12 or 13 years of age. They wears the same simple frocks as the other boys--even the infants. At that age they must have felt rather awkward having to dress like that.


The workhouses were created as a progressive measure to provide relief to the power at a time when the Industrial Revolution while creating wealth and jobs was also creating unemployment in unproductiveareas such as hand weavers that until the rise of the mill produced cloth by piece work at home. Thus one can not help, but wonder with this laudable goal in mind why they were such unpleasant places and why such horror occurred there. The reason was that there were two other purposes forthe workhouses. ome wantd them to be unpleasant places to force the poor who were generally seen as malingeres off the public welfare rolls. Thus manywere convinced that the workhouses were a chraper means of providing relief to the poor. Others saw the poorhouses as way of reforming the poor. Many believed that poverty was a character flaw and the result of misbehavior. Thus by accumulating the poor in facilities like work houses, they could be reformed. They were in effect reformarories for adults and their children. Themeans of reform was a tight daily schedule, strict rules, required labor, and uually a large dose of religious preaching.


Rules in workhouses varied. They were generally financed and operated by local authorites and thus the rules set locally. This means that the clothing and haircuts provided the children were also determined by the local authorities. Life was meant to be much tougher inside the workhouse than outside, and the buildings themselves were deliberately grim and intimidating - they were designed to look like prisons. They were full of illness and disease brought about by over-crowding and the starvation diets. When you were admitted to the workhouse, you were stripped, searched, washed and had your hair cropped. You were made to wear a prison-style uniform. When a family entered the workhouse, they were separated. Women were at all times kept separate from the men, including their husbands. The attitude of the authorities was if a family needed public assistance, the husband and wife hardly needed to be together to conceive additional children. The children were also separated from their parents and the boys and girls also separated. They lived in stark baracks. In one instance, a girl aged 15 years died in the workhouse. Her records showed that she was born in the workhouse and had never been outside the place.

Figure 3.--This close up of the boys playing on the seasaw shows the back-buttoning pinafores the boys had to wear. By the 1910 period that this photograph was taken it was rare for little English boys to wear pinafores, let alone boys of this age.

Daily Schedule

The work inmates were made to do was deliberately tedious. Householders objected to supporting idlers, so work was meant to keep people busy and to subsidise the cost of relief provided by the parish. Work was not always available and there was sometimes local hostility to the workhouse's cheap labour. I not sure what the daily schedule was like. Perhaps husband and wife might manage to see each other fleetingly, but I don't think this was common. A well known story tells how a labourer gave notice to leave the workhouse with his wife and children--only to be told: "You cannot take your wife out. We buried her 3 weeks ago". This probably varied from workhouse to workhouse. Often it was the mother and children that were admitted to the workhouse. I believe the adults had to work 6 days a week. Presumably the childrenhad chores. In some work houses families could not even vist on Sunday. I do not believe the inmates were even free to visit on Sunday. Basically they stayed within the forbidding walls of the workouse all day 7 days a week. In one instance, a girl aged 15 years died in the workhouse. Her records showed that she was born in the workhouse & had never been outside the place. After rising at 5am (in summer), an inmate worked 7-12am and 1-6pm; which is a 10 hour working day. Bed was 8pm. As well as gardening, cooking & sewing, there was corn milling, sack making, oakum picking (unravelling short lengths of rope) & crushing stone. The inmates would work in the garden or perhaps even attached farms. [Note: I am sure the inmates were employed in gardening, I'm less sure to what extent they were involved in farming. I think some workhouses were much more restrictive keeping the inmates within the four walls of the institution almost like a prison. Others may have hired them out for farm or other labor.]

One activity at many workhouses was bone crushing. Bones in the mid-19th Century were crushed by hand to make fertiliser. Sometimes the inmates were so hungry that they would pick scraps of flesh off the bones and eat it. The bones were not all animal bones either! Bone crushing was banned after 1845.

Until 1842 all meals were normally taken in silence, and no cutlery was provided--inmates had to use their fingers. And the meals were kept dull, predictable and tasteless. There were 6 official diets which were so meagre that they were described as "a slow process of starvation". A typical diet was:- BREAKFAST 6 oz bread; DINNER 4 oz bacon and 3 oz bread or potatoes; SUPPER 6 oz bread & 2 oz cheese. [Note oz is short for ounce, 1 ounce = 25 grams]. The official ration in Her Majesty's prisons at the time was 292 ounces of food a week. The workhouse diet was etween 137 and 182 ounces a week only.

Inmates faced an oppressive regime and there was inevitably trouble, with riots at Chesham (Bucks), Huddersfield, Bradford, Todmorden (near Manchester) and elsewhere. The larger workhouses were often out of control, & we hear an interesting report from the COSFORD HOUSE OF INDUSTRY in Suffolk: "... the windows of the dining hall were much broken by the practice of throwing stone at the governor as he was pressing through the hall ...The insubordination of the inmates was so extreme, that if the governor attempted to correct any disorder, the whole of the paupers rose in a body to resist his authority, and more than once violently assaulted him, tearing his clothes and subjecting him to gross personal indignities".

Public Aversion

Aversion to the "house" was extremely strong. At Cuckfield in Sussex they had deep snow December 1836 & all outdoor work ceased. 149 desperate men applied for parish relief. 118 of them were offered the workhouse and 112 refused. Later another 60 men applied & 55 of them refused the "house". Of the 5 who were admitted, 3 left within hours of discovering what life in the workhouse was like.

Adult Clothes

A workhouse inmate wrote in the 1840s: "And now then my clothes I will try to portray; They're made of coarse cloth and the colour is grey, My jacket and waistcoat don't fit me at all; My shirt is too short, or I am too tall; My shoes are not pairs, though of course I have two, They are down at heel and my stockings are blue ... A sort of Scotch bonnet we wear on our heads."

Figure 4.--We have noted 19th century drawings showing children dressed in rags. These are sometimes puported to be workhouse children. Usually no details are availble on the illustrator or the children depicted. We are not sure how to interpret images like this and how accuate they were. We do not know to what extent the childrn were actually dressed like this rather than wearing uniforms. An English reader tells us that this is much more likely to be a ragged school.

Children's Clothes

As the work and living rules varied substantially from workhouse to workhouse, so did the clothing provided the children. The children in their separate dormitories and classes were dressed uniformily. Most workhouses provided the least expensive clothes possible for the children. There were large numbers of workhouses, especially in England, and there were no nation-wide standards for clothing. I believe that most of the children and adults were issued uniforms. These uniforms issued differed from work house to work house. I have little information on the clothing worn by children at the work houses during the 19th Century. I do, however, have some Edwardian photograhs taken about 1910. Images available for one English workhouse, Crumpsall, show boys of all ages wearing pinafores and simple dresses. There was no provision for the age of the boy, both infants and older boys--semingly up to about 12 years of age are dresses absolutely identically. Presumably the girls were dressed identically. There are two images available, one indoors and another outdoors. There are substantial differences in the two outfits. I'm not sure if the photographs were taken in different years or if the difference is seasonal or even a different outfit when the boys went outside. I think boys who were in the workhouse had to stay there and were not at liberty to leace, even after school. I also am not sure how the boys were occupied after school. There may have been more flexibility on Sunday, but even then at most workhouses I do not believe they were at liberty to leave the workhouse alone or with their parents.

Work House Roles

While HBC has been able to find relatively little information on work houses. Some information has been found posted concerning the staffs and inmates (as the poor soles in these institutions were called). While the information is criptic, it does provide a rough idea of who was instituionalized in these facilities.

Famous Work House Inmates

HBC has been able to find few references about work house inmates who went on to succeed in life. If I find any more I will post the details here.

H.M. Stanley: The famous journalist who had to go and help Livingstone find the way home apparently was a work house inmate. Stanley was born in North Wales to poverty and was placed in an orphanage and work house in his teens. I do not have any details about his experience in the work house. He managed to escape to Liverpool, jumped on a ship headed for New Orleans and served as a cabin boy. A New Orleans family befriended him, groomed and educated him. He eventually made his way to New York where got a job on the New York Herald which was one of the first of the newspapers to seek adventure in reporting. It was under their sponsorship that he traveled to Africa, and we know the end: "Mr. Livingstone, I presume." The exploration sponsorship was dropped by England (after all who was this upstart Welsh-American?). But Stanley persisted and ended up carrying out such extensive exploration which was carefully recorded that he was asked back to "Great Britain" to be given a Lordship. He married there and entered politics.


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Created: November 1, 1998
Last updated: 11:24 PM 6/3/2010