The British government established workhouses in 1834 as a cheaper alternative to “outdoor relief,” or the practice of giving food or money to the poor. Instead, they would be offered “indoor relief,” a chance to work for their keep. Workhouses were meant to be intimidating places, a deterrent to becoming so poor that one had to ask for help there. Northwich Workhouse was one such institution that has since been converted to a museum. While the workers’ dormitory has been demolished, visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like for those destitute enough to work there.
Men, women and children were separated on arrival, partly as a means of maintaining order, but also to prevent what was often referred to as ‘pauper breeding’. Families who had arrived together were only permitted to see each other for a few hours a week, while husbands and wives ate, slept, worked and exercised independently of each other in separate parts of the building.
Clothing and possessions were removed, washed and then placed in storage. Inmates were given a brief health check by a medical officer, issued with a workhouse uniform – and made to take a bath. For many, this was a terrifying prospect. In 1891, a newspaper reporter who had visited the workhouse wrote: “The state as to filth and vermin in which some old neglected people arrive, on their entering the house is indescribable. To have not washed the body for years and years is a common state of things with them...”