This is the second of two lessons exploring descriptions of the punishment of the poor in the MH12 collection. The first lesson explores punishments given to children while the second lesson examines pauper attitudes to punishments for the general population.
It was created as part of the Teaching the Voices of the Victorian Poor Teacher Scholar Programme.
You can download both parts in a single zip file here:
Download Punishment in the Workhouse lesson sequence
Students can complete the following table:
|What punishment(s) does the pauper receive in the workhouse?
|What does the evidence suggest about workhouse authorities?
|What does the nature of the evidence reveal about pauper agency?
|What do the accompanying notes and annotations (circumtext) reveal about the attitudes of those responsible for poor relief?
For each piece of evidence, look at the accompanying notes and annotations from the Poor Law Commission (circumtext) ink about what they reveal about the attitudes of those responsible for poor relief?
Use this knowledge to explain how far you would agree with the statement:
“Workhouses were intended as places of punishment.”
The accompanying notes and annotations (circumtext) are unique and interesting additions to the evidence, as these notes show how the Poor Law Commission responded to each letter, petition, witness statement etc. This means that even though we don’t necessarily have copies of all of the full replies, we are given a clear insight into how they viewed each pauper’s complaint. Some letters/ petitions/ statements are passed to more than 1 individual, as if there is a consultation or discussion required. Some are given the “usual reply”/ “reply accordingly” and some are raised separately with the Guardians.
From this collection of evidence, the accompanying notes and annotations (circumtext) reveal (mostly) that those responsible for poor relief wanted to prevent paupers from challenging the legitimacy and authority of the poor law itself. The responses of the PLC show us that “while pauper agency was significant, it should not be overstated, given the disparity in power between inmates and workhouse officials” – S. Williams, ‘Paupers Behaving Badly: Punishment in the Victorian Workhouse, Journal of British Studies 59 (October 2020), pp. 764-792.
Document 1 – Letter. Anonymous letter from the “Respectful Friends of Humanety inhabatance of the Parish of Bethnal Green”. Describes and alleged beating of James Bates, one of the pauper inmates, by Mr Tarent, the Superintendent of Labour.
- What punishments does the pauper receive? James Bates was punched in the eye by the superintendent. He was then put in a prison cell with only a little water.
- What does the evidence suggest about workhouse staff? Use violence against paupers.
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the paupers? This is a letter sent on behalf of multiple paupers – shows you that they understand what is right and wrong with punishments and want to challenge wrongdoings. They are probably aware of the rules as rules were often displayed in the workhouse. They are prepared to write to the Guardians to challenge their treatment. However, they are writing anonymously, possibly because they fear further punishments (this links to Evidence 5, where a pauper claims he is punished further for issuing a complaint against workhouse staff).
Document 2 – Letter. George H. Hancock complains that he is being informally punished (this would not feature in the punishment book) by being “deprived of the liberty of going out on Sunday after the Church Service, which I had previously enjoyed, for no other reason, than having stayed out for a day to see your Board” (in other word he had complained earlier directly to the Poor Law Board.)
- What punishments does the pauper receive? He is not allowed to go out after Church on a Sunday. This is an informal punishment which is unlikely to be recorded in the punishment book but it is not an uncommon punishment at this time – that’s because after 1840 (when many physical punishments were chastised), the removal of privileges was commonplace instead.
- What does the evidence suggest about workhouse staff? The workhouse staff are covering up poor conditions etc at the time of inspections. The staff are issuing informal punishments.
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the paupers? The pauper has knowledge and awareness about what is and isn’t allowed to happen in the workhouse. Letter – the pauper is prepared to raise their case to the Union.
Document 3 – Letter. Advocate letter from James Peacock on an alleged assault on an inmate by William Hill, relieving officer. The writer refers to a witness (an inmate) who would need to be treated with care as she has said “she is a fraid of ill usage” from Hill if it was discovered she provided evidence against him.
- What punishments does the pauper receive? A pauper in the workhouse was dragged down the stairs on his bed sheet, where his head hit the floor. The pauper was then dragged to the yard and cold water was thrown onto him.
- What does the evidence suggest about workhouse staff? Carry out informal punishments that are not recorded in punishment books.
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the paupers? Letter – the pauper is prepared to raise their case to the Union. Representing other paupers. Some witnesses are afraid of giving evidence, however.
Document 4 – Petition. From the male inmates of the Bethnal Green workhouse stating that they are being punished for a labour task which is beyond them to undertake.
- What punishments does the pauper receive? Not clear – but they are being punished for not breaking the correct amount of stones. In the last part of the letter, there is the suggestion that their diet is being restricted and also that they are denied writing materials. “Alteration of diet was the most common punishment and, since workhouse food was neither plentiful nor appealing, additional restrictions on meals would have been unwelcome to disorderly and refractory inmates” – S. Williams, ‘Paupers Behaving Badly: Punishment in the Victorian Workhouse, Journal of British Studies 59 (October 2020), pp. 764-792.
- What does the evidence suggest about workhouse staff? The staff are prepared to punish paupers for not meeting a work ‘quota’. The master of the workhouse believes he is entitled to this.
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the paupers? The paupers are aware that there are rules in the workhouse that must be adhered to – and they are prepared to challenge that. Some are illiterate (X next to name).
Document 5 – Letter. Thomas Swingler makes a complaint about being punished for a labour task it is beyond him (physically) to undertake. As a result the meat in his diet has been stopped (as per the central instructions on pauper punishment). He also claims that in trying to complain about his treatment he was further punished.
- What punishments does the pauper receive? Being refused meat and placed on a restricted diet. Also placed in the tramp ward for one night and taken clothes. Letters have been kept from him. The pauper also suggests that there have been other punishments, which he would like to tell the Board about in person.
- What does the evidence suggest about workhouse staff? Workhouse staff did not want the paupers to complain – the letter implies that he was further punished for raising a complaint.
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the paupers? Thomas Swingler is seemingly not put off from complaining! He is angry at the ‘system’ rather than one individual.
All these letters seek to show us that injustices were often confronted by paupers! –
“Individually and collectively, inmates protested when they or their friends and peers experienced medical neglect, when diet or clothing was inadequate, when people were disciplined unjustly and where relief decisions were taken or not by staff and workhouse masters and mistresses” – S. King, ‘Thinking and Rethinking the New Poor Law’, Local Population Studies 99, no 1 (2017), pp. 5-19, at 16
“The workhouse punishment books [and letters] reveal simmering underlying tensions, with different motives, perceptions, and expectations between and within each groups in the hierarchy of authority: inmates, workhouse staff (master, matron, chaplain, schoolmaster and schoolmistress, medical officer, taskmaster, and any domestic staff), Board of Guardians, Poor Law inspectors, magistrates and the Poor Law Commission (later the Poor Law Board)” – S. Williams, ‘Paupers Behaving Badly: Punishment in the Victorian Workhouse, Journal of British Studies 59 (October 2020), pp. 764-792.
Using your knowledge gained by this session – do you think the responses to each would be broadly sympathetic or not.
Homework or in-class exam practice:
Choose a document from the lesson.
Assess the value of the source for revealing attitudes towards punishments in the workhouse. Explain your answer, using the source, the information given about its origin and your own knowledge about the historical context.
The workhouse: an intended place of punishment
From the very beginning, the Poor Law Commission (PLC) was conscious that there would be a need for the systematic disciplining of paupers within the workhouse and that the local workhouse authorities must have the right to inflict punishment upon inmates who broke those rules designed for good governance. In the first of their annual reports, the Commissioners set out a host of rules under the general title of ‘Discipline and Diet’, the breaking of any of which would signify the pauper as ‘disorderly’. Such rules included making a noise when silence was ordered, using obscene or profane language or insulting a fellow inmate. The classification of disorderly might result in the pauper being ‘placed in apartments provided for such offenders, or shall otherwise be distinguished in dress, and placed upon such diet as the board of guardians shall prescribe’. Any pauper who then repeated, within a week, an act that would have deemed them as disorderly, or who committed two disorderly acts, or who insulted the master or matron, or who was drunk or acted indecently, would be classed as ‘refractory’. The refractory pauper could expect a greater period of confinement and greater alteration to their diets than that of the disorderly pauper. However, the confinement was limited to twenty-four hours or such time when the individual could be taken before a magistrate to be dealt with under the criminal justice system should their transgression warrant.
Punishment in the name of order was a feature of nineteenth-century institutions, and the workhouse was no exception. In the first decades of the New Poor Law, it is clear that weak central controls and a fragile administrative reach at the local level led to instances of egregious, not to say brutal, treatment of some paupers. Codification (and watering down) of the centrally directed punishment framework from the 1840s stifled the systematic physical chastisement and concentrated on the removal of privileges as a means of confronting disorder, but it was still a punishment framework.
Selective punishment also has important implications for the way that the inmate poor understood and experienced workhouse life and how those at risk of workhouse admission viewed the institution… The fact is, however, that injustices were often confronted by paupers, inspectors and newspaper commentators.
Taken from P. Carter, J. James and S. King, ‘Punishing Paupers? Control, discipline and mental health in the Southwell workhouse (1836-71), Rural History (2019), 30, pp. 161-180
To put the lesson into context, students should have an awareness of what the 1834 Amendment said about workhouse punishments for inmates.
Look at the background analysis on p 15. an extract from Carter, James and King, “Punishing Paupers” What does this tell us about:
- The punishments inmates were likely to receive in the workhouse?
- What paupers might do if they disagree with the punishments they have been given?
Turning now to the each source, students should answer each of the following questions:
- What punishments do paupers receive in the workhouse?
- What does the evidence suggest about the local workhouse authorities?
- What does the nature of the evidence reveal about the agency of the paupers?
A table is provided to record this information. This could be completed in paired/group work or as a carousel activity.
To extend their work, students could look at the accompanying notes/ comments/ annotations from the Poor Law Commission (CIRCUMTEXT) and discuss what this reveals about the attitudes of those responsible for poor relief.
Using this knowledge, students could then write a practice exam answer using the following question:
Choose a document you have studied today.
Assess the value of the source for revealing attitudes towards punishments in the workhouse.
Explain your answer, using the source, the information given about its origin and your own knowledge about the historical context.
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