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Educating Workhouse Children by Dr Lesley Hulonce

In 1877 schools inspector, J. L. Clutterbuck, painted this rather weary and monotonous picture of workhouse education:

The annals of workhouse schools, as a rule, are uneventful. Teachers come and go, and boards of guardians introduce, from time to time, certain changes of detail or administration; but the same general features are observable from Year to year.[i]

This description of a workhouse school might also be extended to the life of a workhouse child; dreary, monotonous and probably lacking stimulus. However, for all its reputation as a site of discipline, disgrace and horror, the Victorian workhouse seen as a place of reclamation and future redemption of children by the poor law guardians who were responsible for their care.[2]

Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897, Manchester Archives

Education was considered as the primary means to raise children out of their impoverished circumstances and as one of the most important ways of ‘eradicating the germs of pauperism from the rising generation’.[3]  Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Tufnell had felt that improvements in the care of pauper children following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was one of the ‘most pleasing and popular’ results of the new legislation.  Subsequently workhouse children, especially in the decades prior to the 1870s, may have received a better education than children living at home in very poor families.[4] Workhouse education was also used to counteract ingrained immoral tendencies which were commonly associated with dependent poverty. In 1861, the exhaustive Newcastle Commission inquiry into popular education spoke about ‘educating children out of their vicious propensities’.[5] Consequently combined strategies of moral and intellectual education, and religious and vocational training of workhouse children were introduced to instil respectability, responsibility and independence. The quality of workhouse education could vary considerably as could the abilities of workhouse children. Joseph Bell was an inmate in Bedford workhouse and answered his teachers’ queries with ease, unlike the other boys in his class who he thought looked ‘simple and perplexed’ at what Bell thought were very easy questions.

The poor law central authorities issued ongoing recommendations, regulations and guidelines for the education of pauper children. In Swansea Workhouse the children’s lessons, instruction and study took place in three batches a day, 6.30 to 8.00 am, 10.30 am to 1.00 pm and 2.00 to 5.00 pm, an ostensible total of seven hours daily even though only a minimum of three hours was expected.[6] It was not mentioned whether girls followed this timetable, but it is likely that gender specific training was undertaken. Although both girls and boys were taught writing in copybooks and on slates, learning arithmetical tables and reading the Bible, the boys were also employed in gardening, while the girls were taught ‘sewing, knitting and housework’.[7]  Recreation and play time was allocated for between 1.00 and 2.00 pm, 5.00 to 6.00 pm and 6.30 to 7.30 pm. In addition, there were two hours between 8.30 and 10.30 in the mornings set aside for ‘walking, playing, and gardening’, and time for recreation.

Much depended on the quality of teachers in workhouse schools and they were generally paid less than elementary school teachers. In I852, first-class masters in elementary schools earned £133 a year while the equivalent workhouse master was paid £65.[8] Figures taken from a Poor Law Return show the average salary paid to workhouse school mistresses in 1849 was £16 a year, while in East Anglia, they could be paid up to £20 a year.[9]  From 1846 unions could claim monetary grants for education from the central authorities. The amount depended upon the skill level of the teacher and the numbers of children being taught.[10]

An 1841 report advised that care should be taken in the selection of school masters ‘lest we introduce a tyrannical despot rather than a father’.[11] Schools inspector Jelinger Symons did not believe that ‘cruelty or severity of discipline’ was common in workhouse schools, although he did feel they existed in some unions, and corporal punishment, while not as widespread as often thought, was a common means of discipline.[12]  Although the poor law central authorities expected consistent standards and methods of education in workhouse schools, in reality poor law unions often acted autonomously in their implementation of guidelines. The treatment, care and education of workhouse children in the nineteenth century largely depended on the quality and character of workhouse staff. Of even more significance were the levels of interest and involvement demonstrated by poor law guardians towards the children for whom they were responsible.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is a historian and lecturer in health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She researches children, women, disabilities, and prostitution in nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain. She blogs at Workhouse Tales  and tweets @LesleyHulonce

[1] Local Government Board, Sixth Annual Report, 1877, c. 1865, 79.

[2] Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers, The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 261.

[3] James Phillips Kay, Poor Law Commission, Fourth Annual Report, 1837-38, 140

[4] Anne Digby and Peter Searby, Children, School and Society in Nineteenth-Century England (London: The Macmillan Press, 1981), 5; David Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Methuen, 1981), 100; Reports to Poor Law Board on Education of Pauper Children by Poor Law Inspectors, 1862, c. 510, 99.

[5] Report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of popular education in England, vols. 1-6, 1861, paper no. 2794-I, 377.

[6] Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales, 1847, ‘Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Boys’

School in the Workhouse belonging to the Swansea Union’, 380.

[7] Report of Aneurin Owen, The National Archives, MH12/16439, 6 December 1847.

[8] Ray Pallister, ‘Workhouse Education in County Durham: 1834-1870’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 16:3 (1968), 279-91, 290.

[9] Crowther, The Workhouse System, 127; Return of Officers employed in Unions under the Poor Law Board in England and Wales, 1846-48, paper no. 306, 1849; Digby, Pauper Palaces, 187.

[10] Pallister, Workhouse Education’, 280-1; Frank Crompton, Workhouse Children, Infant and Child Paupers under the Worcestershire Poor Law, 1780-1871 (Stroud: Sutton, 1997)., 107.

[11] Report on the training of pauper children, 1841, 345-7.

[12] Committee of Council on Education, 233.1847-9; Jacob Middleton, ‘The Experience of Corporal Punishment in Schools, 1890-1940’, History of Education, 37:2 (2008), 253-75, 254.