Health Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901
Health care in 1901Hygiene and DiseaseOld Age and the Workhouse*  
Old Age and the Workhouse

Into the workhouse?
There was no state old-age pension in 1901. Those who could no longer work and had no other income often faced a stark choice between destitution and the workhouse.

The 1901 Census Report recorded 262,175 retired people, of whom only 25,567 were pensioners (i.e. receiving work-related pensions) with a further 93,381 living on their own means. On the night of the census, 208,650 people were resident in the workhouses of England and Wales - 120,285 men and 88,365 women. Most of these were aged 85 and over. According to the Census Report, about a quarter of retired men and half of retired women over 45 actually lived in workhouses or asylums. Overall, 9% of men and 16% of women over the age of 65 were receiving outdoor poor relief payments while 5% of men and 2% of women obtained indoor relief in an institution.

Pensions and the Poor Law
The rising costs of poor relief alarmed some commentators. The Times complained that the Poor Law was turning into 'a kind of general old age pension scheme' and argued that this was partly due to the Local Government Board's 'urging Guardians [who administered the Poor Law] to make things as comfortable as possible for the aged and infirm'. Conditions were improving in at least some institutions. In Holborn workhouse in central London, where allowances of tea, tobacco and sugar had been granted, beds were separated by curtains, inmates were allowed to have their own lockers and an extra day room had been introduced. Elderly married couples were no longer split up between male and female wards. The Times, however, disapproved of such changes, claiming that it unfairly benefited the very poor, to the detriment of 'the poorer but self-respecting classes who insist on preserving their own independence'.

A workhouse death - link to an enlarged version

In October 1901, the National Conference of Officers of Friendly Societies had called for a government scheme of old-age pensions for the aged and the thrifty. Small means-tested old-age pensions would be introduced in 1909 for the 'respectable' elderly poor - the first cash benefit financed directly by central government.