Wantage Poor Law Union & Workhouse 1835-1900

On Thursday 13th March the History Society listened in quiet reverence whilst Hazel Brown explained what it was like to be poor in the 19th Century and what conditions were like in the workhouse. She also brought with her samples of expected daily rations for the inmates. Gruel, bread, cheese, lard and bacon.

If you could manage with handouts from the Parish you were considered Poor but if you were so desperate that you had to go into the workhouse you were considered a Pauper. Whilst you were well cared for in the workhouse with a uniform, food, a bed and regular, but boring, work the stigma associated with the workhouse was not one that even the poorest of the Parish aspired to. As the population increased in the mid 19th Century the burden on the Private Property owners to pay rates to pay for the poor became more demanding and change was necessary. The Country was divided into Unions and each Union had a workhouse. The Parish had elected Guardians and the poor had to report to the Receiving Officers to make a case for them to be considered for Handouts or for Work in the workhouse. Some journeyed for ten miles in each direction and even then not all were accepted for poor relief. It was far better to stay out of the workhouse if at all possible but the sick and elderly found it increasingly difficult to manage. Everything in the workhouse was regulated but tedious. It was not intended to be comfortable and the work was boring. Typically the work involved making sacks, breaking flints for road mending and separating the strands of rope to make caulking for boat builders. The day started at 5am with breakfast at 6am. Work was from 7am till 12noon with an hour for lunch and then finishing at 6pm. Supper was between 6-7pm and to bed at 8pm. No talking was allowed during meal times. Some of the men and boys cultivated the gardens for vegetables and pigs were kept. The women and girls did housework and assisted with nursing. A visiting Medical Officer cared for the sick and a Chaplin visited twice a week. A hospital catered for the very sick and there was a school for the children. Sanitation was a constant problem with no running water and the constant stagnant smell was most unpleasant. Drinking water was best taken from the roof storage tanks that collected rainwater as the water from the well was often contaminated.

Hazel ended her talk with the story of a 71 year old women who committed suicide rather than go back into the workhouse.