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Workhouses - a Guest Post

by Alison Huntingford

A significant part of my historical novel ‘A Ha’penny Will Do’ takes place in Newington Workhouse in the early 1900s and I just wanted to share some information about the conditions in these places at the time. My novel is based on true family history and I was really shocked to discover that my own Grandad (Joe Duffield) had been in a workhouse

This inspired me to make him into one of the main characters in my story.

Joe is only 4 years old when he is taken into the workhouse with the rest of his family. He recalls:

“We were all taken into a receiving ward, where a doctor checked us over, then we were all stripped, bathed and had our hair cut very short. Our own clothes were taken away and we were given a workhouse uniform to wear. The material was stiff and uncomfortable and rubbed my skin in places.”

Residents were expected to wear this uniform and were treated little better than prisoners.

Families were divided, with children being sent to different sections depending on their age, and rarely seeing their parents or siblings. Joe was separated from his mother and baby brother, but also from his older brothers Fred and Ern. Children were sent to the workhouse schools, which were “overwhelmingly strict, minor offences being punished every Friday morning in the gymnasium.” Diseases such as ringworm and opthalmia were rife

The idea was that if poor people were made too comfortable, they would just stay there, happy to live off the state. This was strongly discouraged by the routine, which was harsh and unforgiving.

“The daily routine consisted of rising at 6am, followed by exercise, prayers, breakfast, history, maths, reading and writing, more prayers and bed. There were breaks for dinner and supper, but little time for play.”

Though entering the workhouse was voluntary, there was often little option for those not able to earn money, due to illness or infirmity. There were no benefits to help the poor. Getting in required quite a lot of effort, however. Men were expected to take responsibilities for their families and if they didn’t the authorities would often pursue them to do so. Abandoned wives struggled to get their needs taken seriously.

As one of my other characters, Joe’s mother Kate, says:

Today, I’ve begged and pleaded with the authorities here. I’ve been invaded by their personal questions and insulted by their remarks. The relieving officer – what a name for a man who does little to relieve anyone’s misery – a stern, unfeeling man who seems to despise us all – well, he subjected me to an interrogation which seemed go on for hours. Meanwhile the children are crying and protesting at their new surroundings.”

The paperwork required to get people out again was similarly complicated and lengthy, thus discouraging inmates from completing it.

We can only be thankful that we have so many benefits and opportunities these days, and that at least in the Western world, we do not have endure such hardships.


I have a degree in Humanities with Literature and have always enjoyed reading, especially the great writers of the 19th Century, such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. A great deal of my working life has been spent teaching English and maths to young people in the workplace. Frequently I have found myself trying to pass on my love of the classics to people who were born in the 21st Century. It's been a hard task but if I have imparted even the tiniest bit of enthusiasm, then I feel I have achieved something.

I have done many different jobs in my working life, from nursing to shelf filling and everything in-between! Having lived long enough now, I realise that life very rarely goes to plan.

Recently, I have started up the South Hams Authors Network in South Devon, to support and encourage other local authors like myself. I believe that if we all can connect in a friendly and open way then we can help each other to achieve great things. We have given library readings, radio and press interviews and attended events.


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