Have we underestimated the Victorian Poor?

Lesson at a glance

To what extent did the Victorian Poor accept their fate in the workhouse?

This resource is designed for a KS3 year 8-9 class with prior knowledge on the Victorian Workhouse. It could be used as a partner lesson for the already existing source lesson using the 1837 poster.

The lesson examines the Victorian Poor in their own words and seeks to address the common misconception that the Victorian Poor were helpless when in the workhouse and accepted the consequences of becoming a pauper and being institutionalised.

This resource is designed as a full lesson and has a section for lower-ability students, depending on whether you wish to differentiate.

This lesson would best be used as part of a scheme of work on the Victorians and life during the Industrial Revolution.



The starter activity is a ‘think, pair, share’ activity which is designed to engage the entire class in discussion using a variety of questions.

Look at the poster and think about the following: 

  • Who do you think is in control?
  • How much control do you think the inmates of the workhouse had over their living conditions?
  • Who do you think produced this poster – supporters or critics of the workhouse?
  • How accurate do you think this poster is?

Share with your partner. Be prepared to discuss!

Teachers could assign different groups of students a particular question or allow the whole class to answer the questions in their pairs.
The questions are designed to examine a contemporary source and use it as a starting point to think about what life would be like in the workhouse and the levels of control and autonomy workhouse inmates had. Students can think and discuss the work done by the inmates, the lifestyle that they had and the punishments given to them.
When asked ‘how accurate?’, students will be able to investigate the source’s provenance and how that would impact its reliability.

Main activity:

The teacher is to explain how the poor wrote letters and where the responses were saved – teacher explained activity (possible note-taking activity).

Students to be given four letters and will be asked to answer a series of hinge-style questions to encourage further discussion and evaluation of the sources. All of which will centre around the learning objectives of the lesson, which are discussed in slide 2 of the PowerPoint.

The questions are split up into HA and LA and will give autonomy to the teachers as to which set they use. Students are solely analysing the letters and can answer the questions either through discussions or written down. The questions will help the students gain more of an insight as the levels of acceptance workhouse inmates had as to their conditions in the workhouse. This will hopefully introduce questions regarding the language used by the poor and the extent of which the letters challenge the perception of the poor as seen in the 1837 poster.
For LA students, there are specific questions to support each individual letter which will provide more guidance and support as a scaffold for them. This will also encourage higher-order concepts but will signpost the questions further.

Students will answer the questions and then demonstrate their knowledge in the form of a PEEL paragraph, demonstrating necessary curriculum skills in the process. Students will be encouraged to use specific evidence from the letters to develop their answers even further.

Paragraph question: To what extent did the Victorian Poor accept their fate in the workhouse?

Document specific questions:

Letter 1: Admission: 

  1. What is the letter asking of the Poor Law Board? ​
  2. Why is he asking for relief? ​
  3. What is the role of Francis Bell? ​
  4. Who is he blaming for the bad treatment of the poor? ​
  5. Has this person accepted the treatment he has been given?​

Letter 2: Punishment

  1. Who is James Perk and why is he being punished?​
  2. Who is Stokes and what was the punishment he gave? ​
  3. What was the outcome of the letter? ​
  4. Who wrote this letter? Why do you think it would make a difference to the response? ​

Letter 3a & b: Working

  1. How old is the gentleman writing the letter and what sort of job’s is he being asked to do? ​
  2. What has the doctor said about the man’s health? Why do you think he has said this?​
  3. Has this man accepted the tasks and work being given to him? How do you know this? ​
  4. To what extent do these letters support the content of the poster?

Letter 4: Food and well-being

  1. Who is writing the letter? Do you think this would make a difference on the speed of the response? Explain your answer.
  2. What are they complaining about?
  3. What are the consequences of the poor diet?
  4. How might this issue be dealt with in today’s society?
  5. What does this suggest about the acceptance of living conditions in the workhouse by its inmates?


Students will be asked to re-evaluate the 1837 poster and will be asked how they would amend the poster.
This will allow students to think about the role placed on the poor themselves, would they change areas of the wording or would they add new pictures in – perhaps the poor writing to the Poor Law Board? This will add a new understanding to the Victorian Poor and will demonstrate the levels of self-worth and autonomy the Poor had over their fate within the workhouse.
This can be achieved as a whole-class activity or as an individual task. Students could be given copies of the poster to amend themselves or done on a whiteboard with teacher input and guidance.

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Related resources

Voices of the Victorian Poor

Resources from the Teacher Scholar Programme

Workhouse Voices

What did paupers say about the Poor Law?