Alannah Tomkins – At Home in the Workhouse? The View from Working-Class Autobiographies, 1780-1920

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History

Event Date:
14 and 15 September 2010

11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)

 

Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950


Spaces and Institutional Structures

Workhouses

Alannah Tomkins (Keele) : At Home in the Workhouse?
The View from Working-Class Autobiographies, 1780-1920

The workhouse after the 1834 poor law became the archetype of an oppressive, repellent institution and was in part designed to be an antithesis to domestic life. Communal experience included not just sleeping and eating arrangements but also provision for the most intimate of activities or possessions, including bathing and clothing. The pall cast by the statutory intentions of 1834 stretched forward to colour perceptions of the workhouse in the twentieth century, and backward to encompass the institution’s predecessors under the ‘old’ poor law. Perceptions of workhouse living from working-class autobiographies have tended to be fleeting, used to provide anecdotal confirmation of the distasteful, frightening or abusive aspects of institutional welfare. A review of the working-class autobiographies written by workhouse residents, however, composed or published before, during and after 1834, reveals a wider range of sentiments towards workhouse living; some families reconstituted their home within the workhouse while others forged an alternative collectivity from among the staff and inmates. This paper will consider the presence of the workhouse as a home, or as an alternative to home, for both employees and paupers under the old and new poor laws. It will use autobiographies and parallel sources to problematise uniformly negative or resolutely institutional views of English workhouses.

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