Select Page

The Sick in Workhouses;
Who They Are
And How They Should be Treated

August 1861 — National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Dublin Ireland


If a person who has never visited a Workhouse be asked to sympathize with the sufferings of the sick patients therein, it will commonly happen that his reply will betray his impression that the pour souls in question neither need nor deserve any special indulgence. “Such places as the wards you describe” (thus runs the frequent response), “would indeed be wretched for us if we were ill, but you must remember these paupers are accustomed to nothing better. God help them! They would not care for other comforts were they even to be bestowed.”

To this popular delusion it seems desirable to afford some answer before proceeding to urge what I will venture to call “Justice for the sick in Workhouses.” We ought to be able to form some idea of the social and moral status of paupers in the first place, and then endeavor to measure the limits within which antecedent circumstances of wealth or poverty may be supposed to modify the wants of the diseased and dying.

There are numerous philanthropists who seem to consider all paupers as martyrs, victims of some unrighteous human law, or of some inscrutable visitation of a mysterious Providence. On the other hand, an equally numerous body of political economists appear to view all persons unable to support themselves as delinquents, necessarily idle and vicious reprobates, who have fallen into trouble as the natural consequence of their own faults and misdeeds. It is no easy matter to decide on which side may lie the truth between these opposite opinions. The causes of pauperism are assuredly as multi-form as the thousand ills which flesh is heir to. There is a truth, and a profound one, in the doctrine of the economist, that misery is commonly the result of the infraction of the Divine laws, sanitary, social, or moral. As a general rule, it is true that the Creator has so arranged the world, that prosperity follows virtue, that health is the result of temperance, wealth of industry, and honour of honesty. The presumption is natural and even pious that we shall “never see the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.” But there is another truth deeper still than that of the economist — the truth, that disease and disaster serve in the Divine Education of man the purposes of trial to the best and dearest of God’s children. Not only have we no right to conclude that those on whom the “tower” falls are “sinners above all men,” but there is even further a presumption that it is the purest gold which passes through the keenest fire.

Only upon some “cross” of pain or woe
God’s son may lie,
Each soul redeemed from self and sin must know
It’s Calvary.”

The first is the secular, the second the spiritual, view of misfortune. The present is no occasion for debating the subjects of profound interest which here suggest themselves. I believe it will be conceded by all practical students of social problems that the secular view holds good as a general rule, and the other only in an exception (though a numerously exceptional) way. Of one hundred men starting with equal advantages in life, if we assume twenty to become rich and twenty to die in poverty, we shall find among the former the most steady and honest, and among the latter the most idle, dissolute, and disreputable. If these things were not so, men might be almost tempted to question the existence of a just Power overruling all things. And again, if there were no exceptions, if all good people acquired a thousand a year, and all ad people died in the Workhouse, virtue would be reduced to a sum in the rule of three, and the basest of all apophthegms, “Honest is the best policy,” would be substituted for the brave motto of all noble souls, “Fais ce que dois, advienne que pourra!”

Practical experience of the actual inmates of our Workhouses has to me corroborated these views. Perhaps it will assist us to form a clearer idea on this subject if we reduce the causes of pauperism to five heads, to one or other of which I believe it may always be traced.

(1)     Vice. It is needless to point out how dissipation, idleness, and dishonesty, lead to ruin by most obvious and easy paths: “Facil decensus Averni.”

(2)     Incapacity. There is a large and most unhappy class of human beings of whom too little account is made in the usual estimates of mankind. These are the incapables, the men and women, who, though far above the mental rank of idiots, yet never succeed in grappling with the problems of worldly thrift and prosperity. Too gentle, too irresolute, or too unpractical, they cannot push their way through the jostling crowds of contending interest in our civilized life. These persons, if born in the wealthier class, may manage perhaps to save some wrecks of inherited property; or, with the help of friends, they are again and again set afloat when they have run aground. We are all acquainted with these “unlucky” gentlemen, and we do not habitually pass very harsh judgments on them. Surely we are bound to extend our indulgence to the hapless incapable, who, being called on to support himself and his family, has inevitably broken down in the (to him) hopeless undertaking.

(3)     Calamity. Under this I would class, in the first place natural evils, such as famine, epidemics, floods, long frosts, etc. The effects of these on the poor has its remedy in the sympathy such disasters instantly call out. Actual pauperism, after the calamity has passed away, is, however, often a durable result from the breaking up of homes, and also from the engendered habit of looking to charity for support. Secondly, there are the great calamities which arise from the changes of trade. It is a fearful result of our manufacturing system that each new fashion in dress or furniture, each new invention in machinery, inevitably occasions a fluctuation to which multitudes of artizans are unable to adapt themselves at all or at best with sufficient rapidity to escape an interval of dire distress. These men are educated for special trades, and special minute departments of special trades, — to sew one part of a shoe to another, or make the head of a pin, — in a way which might have sufficed when trades scarcely varied in a century. Now that each trade undergoes a change, perhaps a revolution, every few years, the incapacity of these poor men to adapt themselves to the shifting labours alone open to them, is a source of wide-spread misery. This very year the distress of the ribbon-weavers has excited our sympathy, but already the sewing machines are opening a far wider prospect of destitution, since of the multitude of trades of which the needle is the implement, we shall henceforth need precisely two workers where twenty have hitherto found employment.  To accustom ourselves to expect that every turn of the ever-rolling wheel of progress is to throw off thousands of our artizans to be left behind us in the dust, is a miserable state of things. The problem for our philanthropists is notmerely how to tide over this or that period of distress, but how to obviate the recurrence of such disasters by so educating our workmen as that (like those of Birmingham) they may habitually follow intelligently each new impulse of trade, and find employment in a new course so soon as an old one is found to be closing.

(4)     The peculiar position of women. Much has been said of late on the claims of women to more lucrative employment, and against the perpetuation of the cruel fallacy that, because society assumes that they ought to be supported by their male relatives, we may conclude that they invariably are so. A course of Workhouse visiting tends to fortify all arguments of this kind. If we compare the male and female wards of the same Workhouse we shall usually find among the latter a preponderance of cases of reduced respectability and blameless destitution. There are two or three women who have “seen better days” for one man in the same predicament. And why? Not, assuredly, because women are less thrifty than men, less industrious, or less careful of their resources. Quite the reverse. As an experienced friend once remarked to me, such an event as a woman becoming bankrupt through their own fault had never come to his knowledge. Yet women are driven by hundreds from comfortable homes to spend their last days in the Workhouse, because the men who are assumed to provide for them, have failed to do so, and because no means are open to them to provide for themselves.

(5)     Disease. It is obvious that when a lingering disease attacks any one accustomed to support himself by his own labour, his life runs against his savings (if he has any), and if he survive them he must come to the Workhouse, save in the exceptional cases wherein friends are found at once ale and willing to support and attend him. It must be admitted that a vast number of diseases are the result of vice, of the intemperance and dissipation of the sufferer, or of his parents, and as such the stern economist may be disposed to regard him with little indulgence. On the other hand, however, I venture to assert, from my own little share of experience, that the virtues of the poor are also a prolific source of disease among them. The number of men in the Workhouses are past counting who have persisted in working at unhealthy trades for their families till they break down with painters’ disease, rheumatism or paralysis. Of the latter awful affliction, indeed, it is little imagined what an amount of wretchedness is hidden in our Workhouses, whither the miserable half-dead creatures are nearly always driven to spend long years of dismal restlessness, excluded from every other hospital by the hopelessness of their calamity. Nay, among women the excess of labour, with often insufficient food, is a cause of paralysis even in early youth, and it ought to be a solemn care to all their employers, lest overtasking their powers they bring on them this affliction worse than death. I once found a young girl of eighteen in Bristol Workhouse, smitten with paralysis, half her body dead and powerless, “My poor child,” I said, “how did it happen to you to be struck so young?” “Oh, ma’am,” she answered with a burst of agony, “I was servant in a house where there were twelve lodging together, and I did all the work. One day last week I had this fit, and my mistress sent me here at once, and I shall never get well, never. Oh, I did work while I could! I was always willing to work if God would let me.”

Bearing in mind these five sources of pauperism, it seems that neither the philanthropists’ “martyrs,” nor the economists’ “delinquents” can be accepted as true pictures. We must enter the Workhouse prepared to find therein the most opposite types of humanity, the extremes of vicious debasement and of virtuous endurance; souls steeped in pollution, and souls which only wait for death to rise from the pauper’s sick bed to the angel’s throne. There is only one thing common to all, and that is sadness! Childhood without its bloom, manhood without its hopes, and age without its honour. Saddest of all, however, is sickness without love and care. The question returns on us. Take the heterogenous population of those sick wards, victims of vice, of incapacity, of calamity, of man’s injustice or God’s visitation. Ought we to strive to give them good nurses, good beds, good food, all appliances of relief, or are we to conclude that these things, though desirable for us, would be superfluous to them?

It seems to me that there is a fallacy in the notion that the wants of the rich and poor differ very essentially in disease, however much they unquestionable do so in health. I believe that the great leveler, Death, approaches all pretty much alike. In the twilight which precedes that solemn night, all the varied hues of this life fade away one by one. Intellect, artistic taste, worldly ambitions, are all obliterated, and at the same time the sole great realities of existence, the relation of man to God, and his hopes of a life beyond the grave, come out clear and strong alike in rich and poor, wise and ignorant. Human nature in disease and decay has nearly the same wants and craves the same alleviations.  The ploughman in a fever thirsts for cooling drinks no less than the gentleman. The poor needlewoman writing in cancer needs a soft bed as grievously as any lady in the land. The belief in any essential difference would vanish from the mind of any one who tried the experiment of giving a few luxuries to Workhouse patients. I once saw a pauper eating some fine hot-house grapes which a lady had given her. It will be a long time before I forget the expression of that pale, worn face, with its shaven head and hollow cheeks, the sense it revealed of inexpressible relief and wondering pleasure at the all-unknown flavor of the rich fruit. When she had finished her bunch of grapes she sank back in bed, looking after the lady as she left the ward. She could not raise her voice to speak a word of thanks, but assuredly none was needed beyond that look.

But though paupers may require comforts and be grateful for luxuries, and we may be ready to bestow them under them we may yet be told that such charity will be highly mischievous. There may be those who think that the sick in Workhouses should be kept in as low a condition as humanity can endure, lest we “encourage pauperism,” and leave the poor with no motive to “provide against a rainy day.” To this I answer that, however such principles of economy may apply to the able-bodied and aged paupers (and, I believe, that is little enough, for the best of Workhouses will always be prisons), they apply not at all to the case of the sick. The two hundred and seventy splendid free hospitals of England are never supposed to effect any harm in this way, but, on the contrary, vastly to promote the sanitary and social interests of the community. Yet to these free hospitals every poor man naturally looks as his asylum in case of illness, with the hope of obtaining therein comforts his home could never supply. How should the prospective possible contingency of his illness being a cancer instead of a fever, and of his being driven to the Workhouse instead of the hospital, be imagined to influence him in contracting more provident habits? Surely it is sheer and useless cruelty, on these grounds, to render his condition in the Workhouse worse than it would be had he succeeded in obtaining admission into the hospital.

There is, however, another objection more cogent. What right have we to take by enforced rates from the poor ratepayer anything with which the pauper might dispense, and with which he himself would be obliged to dispense if ill at home? Hospitals, supported by voluntary charity, may be ever so magnificent if the subscribers please, but sick wards, supported by enforced rates, have no claim to compete with them. Only in one way, I believe, can this difficulty be reconciled. Out of the rates should be supplied the necessaries of the sick pauper; from voluntary charity should come his comforts. The principle of voluntaryism is the one thing needful. There are plenty of hearts ready to sympathize, plenty of purses ready to open to supply such comforts to paupers, and without injury to the community or injustice to the ratepayer, to alleviate an almost incredible mass of human suffering. Why, then, may it be asked, have they not long ago bene admitted to do their blessed work? Alas! the jealousy of Workhouse officials, the indifference of Guardians, the dread of introducing a small irregularity rather than that of permitting immense suffering, are causes sufficient. Also, such charities for the sick would fall naturally into the hands of ladies, and here a special prejudice and obstacle awaits us. When women pretend to write books about astronomy or metaphysics, they are occasionally told that they are “travelling out of their sphere;” that, as the Chinese say, “the glory of man is knowledge, but the glory of woman is to renounce knowledge,” and that their dominions are exclusively the sore-closet, the nursery, and the sick room. “when pain and anguish wring the brow” is the only tie when our presence is altogether desirable. But if, fired by these representations of our “mission,” we attempt to exercise it precisely where it is most needed on earth, we are met at the door by the whole masculine dignity of the Workhouse, and generally refused admittance! “Ladies are so injudicious!” Perfectly true, my lords of creation! We plead guilty, and recommend ourselves to mercy. We do give credit to many ridiculous stories, and pity many imaginary grievances, and sometimes we go the length of bestowing unmerited tea, and even indigestible lozenges and Puseyite tracts, upon our protégés. Too true; alas! too true! But, perhaps, if men were perfectly judicious, if the gentlemen to whom the guardianship of the poor is exclusively entrusted never made blunders from lack of wisdom, or lack of feeling, perhaps the state of our Workhouses would not be precisely what it is at this moment.

The truth is, that voluntary charity, under proper limitations, is a thing not only needed to supply the physical wants of the sick pauper, but desirable in itself for the highest moral reasons. There is a horrible radical incongruity in the idea of involuntary charity, and its effects may be seen reacting through every detail of poor-law management. Just and right as it is that the law should in this one instance overstep the province of what the old moralists denominated the “duties of debt,” and enforce the performance of the “duty of merit” of supporting the destitute, yet the very existence of such a law is a reproach to human nature, for if we “loved our neighbour as ourselves” no such destitution could exist. Each man and woman who is thrown on the rates for bread and shelter is dimly conscious, not of gratitude to the unknown and perhaps unwilling ratepayer who supplies them, but of painful and degrading dependence on a community whose individual members have failed to afford succor. To restore the rightful feeling of man to man, the Workhouse pauper urgently needs to come in contact with personal kindness and voluntary benevolence.

Among all the Workhouse sick patients, there is one class whose claims to our consideration are so great that they may be urged rather as a matter of justice than of charity. The time for reading these papers is so brief that I must confine myself fin my few remaining moments to these special sufferers, — premising that when their claims are fulfilled, I should confident anticipate that the relief obtained first for them, would be extended to all cases having similar though secondary sufferings.

The class to which I allude are the incurables, the patients suffering from cancer, dropsy, and consumption, who are excluded from all other hospitals (save one small one in England and one in Ireland), and yet whose case is immeasurably more piteous than that of any other victims of disease. These three types of mortal malady alone destroy 80,000 persons in England every year, and if we add to them paralysis, acute rheumatism, and some fearful cutaneous disorders, we shall have a multitude of sufferers, out of whom, at the lowest calculation, some 40,000 are of a class poor enough to be inevitably thrown on public support under such a visitation. We deny these miserable beings the permission to die in our hospitals that we may make room for hopeful cases. Surely it is a great injustice to exclude them from the voluntary charity of the hospitals, and then to forbid voluntary charity to follow them to the Workhouse! A plan to obviate this injustice, and to alleviate the sufferings of these poor souls, was last year suggested by Miss Elliot of Bristol, and a paper on the subject was read at the Glasgow meeting of this society. I trust it will interest any of those who then heard of it to learn that the scheme has met with much success. After an appeal in its favour made in the Times and Daily News and some forty other journals, a circular was sent by the Workhouse Visiting Society to every Board of Guardians in England, embodying the substance of every Board of Guardians in England, embodying the substance of the above-mentioned paper, and offering the services of the society in carrying out the plan. During the past half year the suggestion has constantly gained ground, and seems gradually (if I may so express it) enfiltrating the not very friable soil of the Guardian mind! In several Unions the proposal met with approbation, and in one in Ireland, and was partially adopted

A number of Workhouses have also been opened to visitors generally, without such establishment of wards. To assist such visitors a central fund has been opened to afford grants in aid to local funds: £237 have been already received, and £57 granted, of which £10 was sent to Carrickmacross, the Union in Ireland which I may say took our play by spontaneous combustion, — no circulars having been sent to that country. Let us hope that Miss Elliot’s simple and admirable idea may have still further and wider scope, and that thousands of poor helpless sufferers may be comforted thereby. We hope to obtain, at last, for all the 40,000 incurables of England by this unpretending plan, an amount of ease which £1,200,000 per annum would only suffice to procure by the erection of adequate special hospitals for their use. We hope to bring to them good beds, and easy chairs, and soft cushions, and prints and flowers to lighten their dreary rooms, and books to beguile their weary hours, and cooling drinks and fruits to quench their ceaseless thirst. We hope to bring them kindly listeners to their stories and gentle counsellors to help them to faith and patience. And then we hope to touch even the monster evil of the rude, untrained pauper nurses, and provide our incurables with women, paid by our funds, and duly instructed and trained. We hope all this, and to place the whole condition of the sick in Workhouse wards, — furniture, food, nurses, doctors and all, — on a new and better footing; but who will hep us as in such an undertaking? I answer, every lady present who will offer herself as a visitor at her own Union, and every gentleman who will exert his influence at the board of Guardians to obtain permission for us to carry out these plans. I do not doubt but many ladies wish to help us, but are afraid of repulse. Let me implore such not to be discouraged. We have stood many a repulse, and still survive! Also I am sure many gentlemen (indeed, I believe all gentlemen) would wish to introduce more mercy into the Workhouses, but they find it almost impossible to do anything. The democratic constitution of the Boards of Guardians too often leaves the preponderating majority of votes on the side of short-sighted and hard-hearted stolidity. Yet I must believe that even in a board-room the influence of kindness and justice will prevail at length fi their advocates will but have firmness and patience in setting them forth. Ça ira! Miss Elliot’s plan will succeed, and we shall not hear Béranger’s Chœur de Bourgeois exclaiming, —

“Une idée a frappé chez nous
Fermons notre porte aus verrous!”
Nor Punch’s Andover Guardians, deaf to all entreaty,—
We’ll join in one harmonious grunt,
We wun’t, we wun’t, we wun’t, we wun’t!” 



Source: Cobbe, Frances Power, “The Sick in Workhouses; Who They Are, and How They Should be Treated,” (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1861).