This is a revised, expanded and illustrated version of an article that first appeared as "Philanthropy and the Workhouse" in The Dickens Magazine Series 8, Issue 2 (September 2017): 7-8. Many thanks to editor Philip Allingham and publishing editor George Gorniak for allowing it to be reprinted here.

Blue plaque on the young Dickens's family home in Marylebone.

Few people in Victorian England could have been ignorant of the conditions inside workhouses. The older generation had grown up with them: Peter Wood tells us that the "first official return of 1776 listed around 2,000 workhouses" (54). Subsequent generations were still growing up with them: the young Charles Dickens's family, for example, lived just yards away from the Cleveland Street Workhouse in Marylebone in 1815-17; when they returned to the same address for the years 1829-31, their eldest son was a fledgling reporter, and unlikely to miss anything that was going on around him. Conditions inside the workhouses were, in fact, worsening, and widely known to be worsening. This was just at the time when attitudes towards the poor, on the part of officialdom, were hardening, not least because of the recent violent protests by workers in the industrial and agricultural sectors (by the Luddites, and in the rural workers' "Swing" riots). To their credit, the parish trustee committees which ran the workhouses resisted the implementation of tougher measures: the notorious Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was described in the Poplar Trustees' minutes as "a Measure opposed to the genuine principles of Christianity inasmuch as it regards Poverty as a Crime, whereas the divine founder of our Holy Religion . . . was himself Poor." To them, it was "a measure vicious in principle having only Political Economy for its Basis" (qtd. in Hobhouse). However, Poplar's "objections were ineffective and the Poplar Board of Guardians held their first meeting in December 1836" (Hobhouse). Other workhouses too were transferred to the hands of Poor Law Unions, whose remit was to make them as unappealing as possible.

A workhouse dinner, signed by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)in 1840 (Wellcome Collection, reproduced on the Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence).

Among them was the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which became the Strand Union Workhouse — probably the very one that inspired Oliver Twist: Ruth Richardson has described some of the details about the workhouse in the novel as "strictly accurate for Cleveland Street" (241). Certainly, the change itself provided the background to the novel. In Chapter II, for instance, Oliver faces a daunting panel of portly gentlemen who impress his situation on him in the most heartless manner, and who cannot imagine why he might sob instead of expressing gratitude. Not every workhouse supervisor was such a monster as Dickens's Bumble, and there were still people who endeavoured to discharge their duties in a Christian manner. When walking through "the workhouse of the parish of St. So-and-So" in 1850, Dickens himself saw "many things to commend." Yet he also noted again the privations forced upon the institution now: under the new regime, he complained famously, "the dishonest felon is, in respect of cleanliness, order, diet, and accommodation, better provided for, and taken care of, than the honest pauper" ("A Walk in the Workhouse," 205).

Scripture Reading in a Night Refuge," by Gustave Doré, from Douglas Jerrold's London: A Pilgrimage, 1972

Fortunately, this sat badly with the spirit of the age. Encouraged by the rise of Evangelicalism, many Victorians were now thoroughly imbued with philanthropic ideals. Charitable visiting provided upper-class women with their only approved scope for action in the larger world, and such women soon followed in Dickens's footsteps. The first was Louisa Twining of the famous tea and banking company. "In the year 1853," she explains, "I was led, through interest in an aged, respectable old woman, to follow her into the workhouse, where she was compelled to spend her remaining days" (Recollections of Life and Work, 6). Coincidentally, this was none other than the Strand Union Workhouse itself. It had a large proportion of the sick and infirm, and Twining, like the All Saints' trustees over twenty years earlier, felt sure that few were there through any fault of their own. She was soon taking steps to improve their lives. After a fact-finding mission which took her to other workhouses all over the country, from Derby and Nottingham to Rugby and Clifton, she set up the Workhouse Visiting Society in 1858, expressly to promote "the moral and spiritual improvement of Workhouse inmates, of whom there are upwards of 100,000 in England and Wales" ("The Objects and Aims," 3).

Louisa Twining. Source: frontispiece, Recollections of Life and Work.

But "moral and spiritual improvement" was far from the only concern. Living conditions, even in the newer workhouses set up to answer increased need, could still be appalling. Such conditions are generally thought to have improved during and after the 1890s (see Fowler 51), but as late as 1898 Twining reported,

In new Country Workhouses the walls are commonly of stone — not plastered, but constantly whitewashed — and the floor not seldom of stone or brick also, and without carpets. Conceive a winter spent in such a prison; no shutters or curtains, of course, to the windows, or shelter to the beds....

She was talking here particularly of the sick, and of how, in these harsh surroundings, sufferers might "lie writhing in rheumatism," or "coughing away the last chances of life." Unfit as such places were for the indigent patient,

even the unfitness of the wards and their furniture is second to the question of medical aid and nursing . . . Low as the salaries usually given to Workhouse surgeons are, they are, with very rare exceptions, made to include the cost of all the drugs ordered to the patients. It would seem as if the mere mention of such a system were enough to condemn it. In many cases we believe it would swallow up the whole miserable salary of the surgeon, and go far beyond it, were he to give to the pauper sufferers the anodynes they so piteously require.... [Workhouses and Pauperism, 31]

Women's involvement here, as agitators for reform, visitors and nurses, was to have far-reaching results, not only for the poor but also for women themselves, both in society and the body politic. Inevitably, there were obstacles to overcome. One was the infuriating "red-tape" — an expression used by Twining herself (Recollections of Life and Work 8). Another was the suspicion that women would meddle in the running of the institutions. Indeed, that was exactly what they planned to do. Twining and her sympathisers, among them the philanthropist Frances Power Cobbe, and the author, critic and art historian Anna Jameson, felt that:

a great part of the evils which had grown up around the system were owing to the fact that it was carried out entirely by men — that the "female element" (as Mrs. Jameson expressed it) had been entirely ignored, and that the fate and control of the thousands of women and children who came under the Poor Law was in the hands of guardians, who could hardly be supposed to know all that was needful on this subject. [Twining, Recollections of Life and Work, 64]

What they wanted, therefore, was to introduce

The influence of women into all the departments of workhouse management — the household, the schools, the nursery, the infirmary; for how could men alone be fit judges of all that went on there, the one paid and overworked matron (aided by pauper women of the lowest class) being the sole representative of the other sex whose province is acknowledged by all the world to lie in these very spheres of action? [Twining, Recollections of Life and Work, 64-65]

The infiltration of women was greeted with some alarm, and took decades to become fully accepted. The first woman to be elected to one of the boards of guardians which oversaw the workhouse unions was Martha Merrington, in Kensington: that was in 1875, and the next would not be elected until the 1880s (Fowler 17); the number by 1897, in the whole of England and Wales, was 921 — which sounds impressive, but was only a small proportion of the 22,000 then serving in that capacity (see "The Legal Poor"). Still, their influence was gradually being felt, and becoming pervasive. Dickens had caught a glimpse of it early on, when visiting the workhouse at Wapping in 1860 as "The Uncommercial Traveller" in All the Year Round. Much as he deplored the former's wretched "Foul wards" for women suffering from venereal disease, he was greatly taken with the "very bright and nimble little Matron," who was clearly doing her best for the inmates in challenging circumstances (21).

By the greatest of ironies, one of those who helped to ameliorate workhouse conditions was the daughter-in-law of Nassau William Senior (1790-1864), the very person who had played a key role in the 1834 act, by stipulating that conditions inside the workhouse should be worse than those outside — that family-members should be separated, rations should be minimal, and so on — in order to discourage the poor from seeking refuge in them. Though not a member of the Visiting Society as such, Jeanie Nassau Senior began her own workhouse visits in the l860s. She even went so far as to arrange a reciprocal visit: in the summer of 1867, she invited thirty-eight women inmates home to tea with her. Capable, committed and sympathetic, she was appointed Government Poor Law Inspector in 1872, making her the first woman civil servant in the country.

"Mrs Pankhurst addressing a By-Election Crowd." Source: Pankhurst, facing p.74.

The connection between philanthropy in the workhouse and the advancement of women became even closer towards the end of the Victorian period. In 1894, the socialist Emmeline Pankhurst won her first public election to the Chorlton Board of Guardians. This was in the Openshaw district in the east part of Manchester, where unemployment was high. She soon realised that the guardians were more intent on keeping the rates down than on taking care of the poor, and set to work with a will to remedy problems in the workhouse diet, clothing and facilities. One signal success, recorded in her autobiography, was with the children:

The first time I went into the place I was horrified to see little girls seven and eight years old on their knees scrubbing the cold stones of the long corridors. These little girls were clad, summer and winter, in thin cotton frocks, low in the neck and short sleeved. At night they wore nothing at all, night dresses being considered too good for paupers. The fact that bronchitis was epidemic among them most of the time had not suggested to the guardians any change in the fashion of their clothes. There was a school for the children, but the teaching was of the poorest order. They were forlorn enough, these poor innocents, when I first met them. In five years' time we had changed the face of the earth for them. We had bought land in the country and had built a cottage system home for the children, and we had established for them a modern school with trained teachers. We had even secured for them a gymnasium and a swimming-bath. I may say that I was on the building committee of the board, the only woman member. [25]

While Pankhurst was able to introduce many improvements, her responsibilities also provided her with valuable administrative skills and gave her a strong presence in the community. The chapter heading here is "The Making of a Militant," and she saw these experiences as a crucial stage in her own journey, a journey that would take her to even greater prominence as a leading advocate for women's rights — including, and most notably, suffrage. In this way, philanthropy in the workhouse helped more than those unfortunate people who had fallen on hard times, and been forced to enter the workhouse's unwelcoming doors. It proved to be a key factor in women's social and political progress in Britain.

Related Material


Dickens, Charles. "A Walk in a Workhouse." Household Words. 25 May 1850: 204-06. Dickens Journals Online. Web. 3 June 2019.

____. "Wapping Workhouse." The Uncommercial Traveller. Ed. Daniel Taylor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 19-28.

Fowler, Simon. The Workhouse: The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014.

"The Legal Poor Of London." Times. 27 December 1897: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 June 2019.

"The Object and Aims of the Workhouse Visiting Society." Journal of the Workhouse Visiting Society. Issue 2 (Jan. 1859): 3-12. Google Books. Free eBook. Web. 3 June 2019.

Oldfield, Sybil. Jeanie, "An Army of One": Mrs Nassau Senior 1828-1877. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2008 [review].

Pankhurst, Emmeline. Mrs Pankhurst's Own Story. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1914. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 3 Jube 2019.

Poole, Andrea Geddes. Philanthropy and the Construction of Victorian Women's Citizenship: Lady Frederick Cavendish and Miss Emma Cons. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Hobhouse, Hermione, ed. "Poplar High Street: South side." Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. London, 1994: 77-90. British History Online. Web. 4 June 2019.

Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London: Routledge, 2002.

Richardson, Ruth. Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Twining, Louisa. Recollections of Life and Work. London: Edward Arnold, 1893. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Wellcome Library. Web. 3 June 2019.

_____. Recollections of Workhouse Visiting and Management during Twenty-five Years. London: Kegan Paul, 1880. Internet Archive. Contributed by Harvard University. Web. 3 June 2019.

_____. Workhouses and Pauperism: Women's Work in the Administration of the Poor Law. London: Methuen, 1898. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Wellcome Library. Web. 3 June 2019.

Wood, Peter. Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian Britain. Stroud: Sutton, 1991.

Created 3 June 2019