Legislation passed in 1722 entitled parishes to provide poor relief in specially built workhouses. By the 1770s there were around 2,000 such workhouses in the country housing nearly 100,000 people. 90 separate workhouses operated in London alone, housing around 15,000 inmates. Poor people were lodged in single sex ‘wards’ where the able-bodied were set to menial tasks: spinning thread or sewing clothes, for example, and inmates were ordered to follow strict rules of behaviour and to conform to daily routines. Jeremy Bentham described how workhouses were essentially prison-like structures, designed principally ‘to grind rogues honest’.
But life in the workhouse varied enormously from parish to parish. Some workhouses were clean and comfortable havens for the poor. Many provided education, rudimentary health care and clean clothing. Others echoed to the sound of children playing, many of whom were placed in local businesses as apprentices, and most workhouses allowed visitors to come and go as they pleased. Other parishes – particularly in small rural communities – refused to build parish workhouses altogether owing to their substantial running costs. In many parishes ‘outdoor’ relief remained the chief means of assistance, administered to the poor on an individual basis.
Other workhouses, however, were dark and foreboding places. Many were hopelessly overcrowded. Some London workhouses accommodated well over 700 people. Inmates receiving relief were made to wear special uniforms or badges that signified their demeaning status. Many people contracted diseases and died within their walls, and were later buried in unmarked mass pauper graves. In the 1750s social investigator Jonas Hanway discovered that the death rate amongst workhouse children in London was over 90%. Thus the opening of a new workhouse in some areas was occasionally the cause of serious rioting, and many of the poor preferred to starve rather than enter their gloomy confines.