One of the harshest elements of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was the practise of splitting up families as a deliberate policy. Keeping husbands and wives apart prevented them from "breeding" — a term used by the middle classes who thought that the poor produced more and more children in order to claim greater amounts of money from the poor rates. Keeping children separated from their parents was supposed to turn the children into useful human beings — which, it was thought, their parents were not: otherwise they would not have entered the workhouse in the first place. Each category of inmate was assigned its own day room, dormitory and exercise yard. People in the same family might see each other during meals or in the chapel but they were not allowed to speak to each other.

This section of the report sets out the rationale for the policy of separation.

Even in the larger workhouses internal sub-divisions do not afford the means of classification, where the inmates dine in the same rooms, or meet or see each other in the ordinary business of the place. In the largest houses, containing from 800 to 1,000 inmates, where there is comparatively good order and superior management, it is almost impossible to prevent the formation and extension of vicious connexions. One part of a class of adults often so closely resembles a part of another class, as to make any distinction in treatment appear arbitrary and capricious to those who are placed in the inferior class, and to create discontents, which the existing authority is too feeble to suppress, and so much complexity as to render the object attainable only by great additional expense and remarkable skill. Much, however, has been accomplished in some of the existing houses, but much more may by effected, and at less expense by the measures that we proceed to suggest.

At least four classes are necessary:

  1. the aged and really impotent
  2. the children
  3. the able-bodied females
  4. the able-bodied males

Of whom we trust that the two latter will be the least numerous classes. It appears to us that both the requisite classification and the requisite superintendence may be better obtained in separate buildings than under a single roof. If effected in the latter mode, large buildings must be erected, since few of the existing buildings are of the requisite size of arrangement, and as very different qualities, both moral and intellectual, are required for the management of such dissimilar classes, each class must have its separate superintendent. Nothing would be saved, therefore, in superintendence, and much expense must be incurred in buildings.

Although such is the general tenor of the evidence, we cannot state that there may not be some districts where new workhouses would be found requisite, but we have no doubt that where this does occur, the erection of appropriate edifices, though apparently expensive, would ultimately be found economical. Under a system of district management the workhouses might be supplied under one contract at wholesale prices. Mr. Mott [the Poor Law Commissioner in Lancashire] states that if 500 persons cost £10 per head, or £5,000; 1,000 persons would cost only £9 per head, or £9,000. He also states that there would be no more difficulty in managing five or six combined workhouses than five or six separate wards or rooms in one house. Considerable economy would also be practicable in combined workhouses, by varying the nature of the supplies. In the smaller workhouses the children receive nearly the same diet as the adults; if they were separated they might receive a diet both cheaper and more wholesome.

To effect these purposes we recommend that the Central Board by empowered to cause any number of parishes that they may think convenient to be incorporated for the purpose of workhouse management, and for providing new workhouses where necessary...


Report from His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws (1834), pp. 306-14.

Victorian History Poor Law

Last modified 16 November 2002