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Now even London's Victorian workhouses have gone online

PUBLISHED: 16:32 24 April 2009 | UPDATED: 14:18 05 October 2010

Women set to task (top) in the workhouse and (above) mealtime assembly

Women set to task (top) in the workhouse and (above) mealtime assembly

THE harsh realities of life in Victorian workhouses in London can now be studied online with records going back 170 years available on the internet for the first time. Data uncovered from old archive records telling a unique story of our welfare system at the turn of the 20th century have now gone online

By Dean Valler

THE harsh realities of life in Victorian workhouses in London can now be studied online with records going back 170 years available on the internet for the first time.

Data uncovered from old archive records telling a unique story of our welfare system at the turn of the 20th century have now gone online.

The records evoke images of a time when anyone who could not support themselves was forced into the type of workhouses brought to life in Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist.

The records from the Poor Law Unions show how impoverished men, women and even children went to live in institutions doing tedious jobs in exchange for minimal food and board paid for by the parish Board of Guardians.

IDLE POOR

Workhouse conditions in parishes such as Stepney, Mile End, Poplar and Bethnal Green were deliberately unpleasant to discourage the idle poor’ during an era of a harsh Victorian work ethics.

The records, including birth and death, admission and lunatic lists, are the first part of a collection of 77 million historical London records, covering four centuries from the 1500s to the 1900s, all being uploaded onto the Ancestry website.

“There’s every chance people’s grandparents could have worked and lived in them,” said the website’s Dan Jones.

“It’s easy to forget that some of these workhouses were in existence until the Second World War.”

But life in the workhouse for those living on the parish’ was made to be harsh.

“The principle was that you kept people alive,” Dan explains.

“To give them any more would make them idle. Conditions were made as unpleasant as possible so that only the impoverished and desperate would apply.”

DICKENSIAN

The Stepney Poor Union was formed on December 19, 1836, covering the vestries and parishes of Limehouse, Mile End Old Town, Ratcliff, Shadwell and Wapping, a population of 72,446.

One of the first workhouses was in Alderney Place, Mile End, opened between 1838 and 1857. The union also took ran the Wapping workhouse in Green Bank until it closed in 1863.

This was the workhouse featured in Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller.

The Limehouse workhouse was made into a children’s orphanage and included a school and an infirmary, until the site was converted in 1915 into a brewery.

Limehouse Workhouse also had a casual ward for vagrants.

The Stepney Union offices and casual wards was at Ratcliff, the Thames waterfront neighbourhood between Limehouse and Shadwell, until the building was turned into a children’s home in 1909.

The Bromley workhouse was in St Leonard Street, Bromley-by-Bow, opened in 1861 for 800 inmates.

DRUNKEN SCANDAL

This institution had its fair share of scandal, with the first Master discharged before he even took up his job after his drunken dismissal from a previous employer.

Extra precautions also had to be taken to stop misbehaving inmates climbing over the walls to escape!

The building was eventually pulled down and the site is now an old people’s home.

The London workhouse records cover 12 regions. Other records due to go up on the website include parish registers from 1538 onwards, school admissions and discharge from more than 800 London schools dating back to 1911 and non-conformist registers.

Another feature to be added is divorce, from the London Diocesan courts. These include scandalous love letters and witness accounts used to prove infidelity in divorce.

But anyone tracing their family tree back to a workhouse might just reach a dead end—literally.

The men and women living in the workhouse didn’t always have their deaths registered.

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