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Workhouse Definition

What was a workhouse? The word “workhouse” is a catch-all term encompassing a broad range of institutions that housed and/or provided work materials for the poor of England from the early modern period into the early twentieth century. The Virtual Workhouse Digital Archive highlights the form of these institutions that developed under the Old Poor Law in the “long” eighteenth century, a period bracketed by two major pieces of legislation: the 1662 Settlement Acts and the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, or “the New Poor Law”. In this period, four features came to define the workhouse: 1) They were specialized buildings specifically designed – or redesigned - to house those who were dependent upon the local poor rates for subsistence; 2) Inmates were expected to abide by a set of rules that included a dietary and a daily schedule; 3) Oversight of the inmates was provided by a master and/or mistress (sometimes called a steward) usually co-resident inside the workhouse; 4) Access to the workhouse and permission to leave the workhouse was usually controlled by the master and/or a local committee set up to oversee the workhouse’s functioning.