Workhouse History

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Ripon workhouse

The history of the workhouse at Ripon goes beyond the construction and running of the buildings. Rather, its history is intrinsically tied to that of Britain’s many associations with poverty and its subsequent relief.

The “relief” of poverty has a long history in Britain, from the medieval period and beyond. From dealings with vagrants and beggars, to the formation of the welfare state, there is a chartered path we can navigate – not just of laws and legislation – but of changing attitudes towards the poor, in order to tell the story of Ripon’s relationship with poor-relief.

Ideas surrounding the relief of the poor have existed in Britain for centuries. From Christian alms giving, to the provision of monastic hospitals throughout the middle ages, there have been attempts to alleviate the suffering of the poor in an otherwise strictly hierarchical world. During much of the medieval period there were several “hospitals” in Ripon, including the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene. Founded in the 12th century, it was primarily a leper hospital, though it was a place where you could get food and clothes, and receive alms from the sisters and priest there. It later became an almshouse in the 16th century.

During the later medieval and early modern periods there was an increase in poverty driven legislation, such as the “Vagabonds and Beggars Act” of 1494-5, which aimed to deal with the “problem” of the poor, by labelling them as vagabonds and beggars. This legislation, however, was not for aiding the poor, so much as it was for punishing them.    

By 1597, however, the “Act for the Relief of the Poor” was passed. Now known as the first complete code of poor relief in England, it in turn led to the formation of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. This law formed the basis of poor relief in England and Wales for the next two centuries.

Part of the laws’ purpose was to codify types of poor into the following categories:

The Impotent Poor – Such as people who could not work. These were to be cared for in almshouses or in a poorhouse, a few of which existed in Ripon during this time.

The Able-bodied Poor – Those who were physically able to work were set to work in a “house of industry”, with the necessary materials provided.

The Idle Poor – The idle poor (including vagrants) were to be sent to a “house of correction” or, sometimes, to prison. As will be seen throughout the following centuries, it is through those deemed the “idle” poor that most of the stigma and generalisation around the poor were created.

The Pauper Children – For those children of Pauper parents, or orphans, were to become apprentices, so that they may learn a trade.

Workhouses existed in one form or another, alongside the hospitals, during the 17th century, but a change in the way that they were governed came in the early decades of the 18th century.

Known as the “Act for Amending the Laws Relating to the Settlement, Employment, and Relief of the Poor” (or Knatchbull Act), the primary focus of the “Workhouse Test Act”  was to make the workhouses of England and Wales a final resort to those desperate enough to enter them. In this way they almost became a deterrent, their regimes harsh enough that the relief they offered was only accepted by those with no other choice.

By 1782 another Poor Relief Act, commonly referred to as “Gilbert’s Act”, hoped to further centralise control of the workhouses by ensuring that the administration and rules by which many workhouses were governed were standardised. To drive this home, it was also deemed necessary that all parishes should create a ‘common workhouse’ for those poor people who were not able bodied.  In Ripon and its immediate surroundings there ended up being several such poor houses, as will be seen below.

There has been a workhouse in Ripon – on its current site – since 1776-7, at the former Allhallows Hall, but there were other institutions dating to the 17th century in Ripon too. Those that are known were a poorhouse in nearby Sharow, and one in the Archbishop’s Manor house.   

18th century Parliamentary journals/documents are littered with permissions for the erection of workhouses across England. One such report dated to 1777 lists the workhouse in Ripon as able to hold 30 inmates. An early ordnance map of 1853 – a few years before the new building was constructed – moreover, shows the original layout of the 18th century workhouse.

By the 1790s there also appears to have been a “dispensary”, described in an 1801 account of Ripon, which was for the “relief of poor disordered persons”. According to an annual report of 1793, 1,884 people had been admitted to this place, with over 1,600 of them being cured.[1] Ripon’s long history of charitable giving was still in effect at this time.

Ripon, however, was not to be the only “poorhouse” in the area, for there were others in the nearby villages of Kirkby Malzeard, Skelton-Cum-Newby, and Bridge Hewick.

[1] The history of Ripon, 1801.

By the 19th century the culmination of previous parliamentary acts such as Gilbert’s Act, which advocated for more centralised control of the workhouses, an investigation into the running of these institutions, via royal commission, was ordered to analyse the Poor Law as it existed in England and Wales – so that any recommendations for improvements could be made.[1]

The commission was to be a large-scale investigation, covering over 3,000 parishes (out of 15,000) in England and Wales. They sent questionnaires, inspections, and various other methods, to complete the task –  focusing on the workhouses themselves.

The general consensus was that the entire system ought to be brought under central control in London, reformed in such a way that “unnecessary demands” on resources were avoided where possible. It was equally clear that the less money spent on relief, the better. In one section of the report, which was published in 1834, it was detailed how in 1832 over 7 million pounds had been spent on poor relief, with only a small portion of that (some £354,000) being spent on paying workers who resided in the workhouses.

[1] For a full facsimile & transcription of the later findings, visit

Though the proposed changes to the poor-law system were to prove unpopular with several groups, the commission went ahead, and the New Poor Law Act was passed in 1834.[1]

Change in theory:

Key changes to the poor-law included:

  • Separate workhouses/spaces for differing types of paupers – including the old, children, and able-bodied.
  • Parishes were to group into unions to provide workhouses. It is from this time that we see an increase in workhouse building & renovation throughout the country. (Ripon was strictly against this interference & avoided the creation of a union for some years; not capitulating for nearly 20 years in 1852).
  • Effectively banning outdoor relief, a practice that had been in existence for centuries & had previously allowed people to receive relief in their own homes. Now, they were to be forced to enter a workhouse should they need any relief.
  • As advocated by Chadwick and others – the creation of a “central authority” to implement the policies, as well as to prevent violations that had occurred under the old regime.

The stereotype we have of the dingy and harsh Dickensian workhouse in large part comes from these reforms: one of the key reasons standards were often harsh came down to reducing the cost of running a workhouse. We must consider that they needed, on some level, to be harsher than the living conditions of the poorest of workers/labourers, so that only the most desperate would consider entering.[2] These stereotypes were only reinforced, as will be seen, by the numerous scandals and literature that sprung up in this period of change.

Change in practice: Yorkshire workhouses.

The changes proposed created a strict regime that was – in theory – closely monitored and uniform. However, in practice, especially in further removed areas (i.e.: the further you went away from the capital), some changes were not so simple & some old practices did not disappear completely.[3]

  • The idea of ostracising inmates, of making the workhouse separate from everyday life and therefore other and alienated, depended in large part on the buildings themselves. When there was a spurt of workhouse construction, many were built on the margins, where there would be little contact with the rest of the world. However, in the case of Ripon Union Workhouse, the inmates were not isolated or removed from the rest of the town in the same way.  Instead, the workhouse was ‘integrated into the townscape and [was] close to other civic buildings’. Part of the reason for this is because the later building was constructed on the site of the original workhouse – so while it was inevitable, it undoubtedly had an effect on the relationship between workhouse and town.[4]
  • The idea of segregating paupers by different classes was also sometimes more difficult in practice. One key aspect was segregation by gender, and it was within these sections of a workhouse that anything beyond that could be difficult depending on size.
  • The same was also true when it came to “specialised facilities”: this was often dependent, especially in more rural areas, on the size and population of any given workhouse. 
  • Perhaps the most crucial change was the banning of outdoor relief. The commissioners were adamant that this needed to stop, but evidence suggests that in Ripon, and in other areas in Yorkshire, the practice was maintained in some form throughout this period.

Though Ripon retained some of its independence for some time, and the design of its buildings was reminiscent of its earlier history as a poor institution in the years after the commission, designs for generalised workhouses were drawn up, to be a model for future constructions across the country.

[1] M. Poovey, making a social body: british cultural formation, 1830-1865 (1995).

[2] Newman, to punish or protect, 123.

[3] See also: K. Bumstead, the Georgian town, ripon civic society (ed), Ripon: some aspects of its history, 47-59; F. Driver, Power and pauperism: the workhouse system, 1834-1884; Ripon Workhouse Guardian Minutes (BG/R1: RGM) (1852-56), North Yorkshire Archive Service; M. Younge, Echoes from Ripon’s past: over 100 illustrated articles on the history of Ripon, Ripon Local Studies Research Centre.

[4] Newman, to punish or protect, 126.

By the first decades of the 20th century, with the growth of socialist movements & the devastating impact of the first world war, it was inevitable that the poor-law system could not survive in its current state.

In 1929 the workhouses were formally abolished as part of the local government act.[1]

As early as 1913 the term “workhouse” was steadily falling out of use, with many reverting to the term “poor law institution” in newspapers or official documents. One must note, however, that they were still running in much the same way; the change of name was about the only noticeable change made at this point.

To add to the stresses already placed on the failing workhouse system, the impact of WW1 only increased unemployment and strained poor-relief across the whole of Britain.


A new infrastructure of national and public services was deemed necessary, though carefully provided outside of the pre-existing poor-law, in part to avoid the stigma attached to pauperism.

The ideas worked, and in 1942 the Beveridge Report was created. It proposed a system of “National Insurance”, based on three key points:

  • Family allowances.
  • A national health service.
  • Full employment.

The Beveridge report was named after William Beveridge, a social economist who regarded social philanthropy as insufficient when it came to poor relief and social need.

1948: the national assistance act.

It was the national assistance act which finally abolished the poor law that had been in existence since 1834. The act was passed in the labour government of Clement Atlee and established a social safety net.

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