Going to School in the Workhouse

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Childhood through time, Local Histories, Victorians

Download: Lesson pack

How was school for pauper children different, and what was the same?

This lesson explores source material in the form of letters written by Paupers which were sent to the Poor Law Commission in London, generally complaining about the treatment and conditions the pauper children were enduring. The pupils will analyse up to 3 individual letters (see below) to gain an understanding of some of the things which happened to children during this time.

This lesson focuses on Schools and is part of a series of lessons which include a focus on Southwell Workhouse followed by two other lessons focussing on clothing and food. You can choose to do individual lessons , or all of them, depending on your context and objectives.



You could use a description of a workhouse school, for example the 1868 report by Mr Bowyer, a poor law Board Inspector:

It generally opens on a yard enclosed by a high wall, with a circular swing in its centre for exercise during play hours. …The windows are small and square, and if they should look out upon an adult ward they are darkened by whitewashing the panes. During the dark days in winter the instruction of the children is much hindered by want of light, while their spirits and probably their health must be affected by the closeness occasioned by the low ceiling. I must, however, add that the windows are always opened whenever the weather is such to allow it, so these children do not suffer so much in health from these defects as would otherwise be the case. The floors are generally of brick or stone, but wooden flooring has supplanted the colder material in many instances. In the older schoolrooms the desk and benches are placed against the walls; in the newer ones or in the old ones that have been refurnished parallel desks have been introduced. The school apparatus is generally sufficient, though that part of it which consists in maps cannot unfortunately be renewed so often as would be necessary to keep pace with the changes effected by the events in political geography. The books most in use are the reading series of the Irish Commissioners, but they are beginning to be superseded by more recent works.

(Courtesy of www.workhouse.org)

Explore the photographs provided of Southwell Workhouse schoolroom.

  • What can you see that is in your classroom?
  • Are there items you do not recognise? E.g. desks and benches, blackboard, slates for writing on. If possible, have actual objects or replicas available for the children to explore and try out.
  • What is missing from the photograph that you have in your classroom? There is a small room beyond the main schoolroom so items such as books may have been kept in here. The door to the left gives access to the female yard – so younger children may still have seen their mother.

Initial Introduction of the letters for all 3 letters

Using a scan/photograph of each original letter on your whiteboard ask the children to pick out any words they recognise.

  • What do they think the letter is about?
  • Who might have written it?
  • Why?
  • How does this photograph match the description above?
  • Is it different in any way?

Then ask the children to examine a transcript of the letter.

Using Bridget Kelpin’s letter– focussing on experiences of school.

Children to read the letter in pairs underlining anything they are unsure about. Then read it through as a class sentence by sentence and discuss any words/terms or phrases they are unfamiliar with as we go through it.

Then read it through again all the way through to enable the children to make more sense of it as a whole.

  • What does it tell us about the children’s experience of school? Underline any sentences or phrases (in a different colour) that tell us about their day.

Children then to devise a timetable showing what the children do through the day using the letter as a source of information. A writing frame based on the chart below could be provided for Lower ability children.

For higher ability children they could devise a chart to compare these children’s experiences with what they would be doing on a typical school day.

The children could then compare this to the timetable from St Marylebone, London (www.workhouse.org) .

  • Why were the timetables for boys and girls different?

Are there any questions you would like to ask Bridget?

Go on to read Elizabeth Jackson’s witness statement

Read through together and identify any words/phrases they are unsure of.

  • How does this relate to what we learned from Bridget’s letter? Does it support anything said in Bridget’s letter?
    • Using a small space as a punishment
  • Do we learn anything new?
    • Laundry used as the ‘black hole’ in this workhouse, Presence of black beetles
  • What kind of things are you punished for? What kinds of things do you think these children were punished for?

Follow-up activity – read catalogue entry for the draft letter from the Poor Law commission to Mr Manwaring

Again, read through in pairs to identify anything you do not understand. Read through as a class discussing it as you go through then read all the way through together.

Stick this item onto a larger piece of paper and children to identify zones of inference – first zone – what does this document tell us? Second zone what does this document infer? Third zone – what else would you like to find out?

Article 114 of the Consolidated General Order required all children in Workhouses to be given a basic education. What would your children consider to be essential for a child to know/be able to do? Then? Now? This could be a discussion or a written activity.

Read Chapter 6 of Street Child by Berlie Doherty – what are the similarities and differences between what the letters tell us, what the photograph shows and the descriptions of the Workhouse schoolroom in this chapter?


Most workhouses had their own schoolroom and it was expected that the children would receive a basic education. Opinions varied and changed during the Victorian era so the education of pauper children might be different in various parts of the country. Under the 1834 Poor Law Act, Unions were expected to provide at least 3 hours a day of instruction. Some workhouse focussed only on reading but later most workhouses felt a basic education that included being able to write, it would help to ensure the children were able to get suitable employment and therefore not end up back in the workhouse.


Pauper, workhouse, Poor Law Commission, Inspector, Guardian, witness statement, conduct, dine, stores, struck/strike/cane/caned, improperly, recreation, parsing, religious instruction, dictation, laundry, punishment, infer, inference, aged, earn, entrust,

Related to report below:
whitewashing, panes, ward, hindered, spirits, defects, supplanted, refurnished, apparatus, sufficient, superseded

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Childhood through time, Local Histories, Victorians

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

Children’s Clothing in the Workhouse

What do the letters tell us about pauper children's clothing in the workhouse?

Food Glorious Food

What was food like for a child in the Victorian workhouse?