14 and 15 September 2010
11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)
Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950
Spaces and Institutional Structures
Alysa Levene (Oxford Brookes) : Family life and London workhouses in the later eighteenth century
Workhouses are not usually thought of as a place for family life, or a ‘home from home’. This paper will show that while London’s Old Poor Law workhouses were not necessarily seen as desirable places to go, they did preserve some elements of family life. In particular, when admissions and discharge registers are read alongside records on the nursing of young children, it becomes evident that parent-child bonds were generally preserved over a mandate to send infants out to wet-nurses. Children were increasingly housed either with a parent or in child-specific wards as metropolitan workhouses expanded in capacity and space. Parents negotiated their own use of the house to leave children temporarily, enter with some but not all of their offspring, or enter as a whole family. As ever, it remains near-impossible to judge the exact degree or terms of pauper agency in the use of the workhouse, but careful record linkage demonstrates that some families did permit their temporary disintegration and reconstitution multiple times, presumably to overcome temporary periods of particular hardship. While the workhouse remains as a leitmotif of social control, therefore, it is possible to insert a significant degree of family life back into the picture. In particular, parent-child bonds were respected (whether from sentiment or for practical reasons), and children were increasingly treated in ways which befitted their age. This can be linked to wider ideas about the nature of poverty and the composition of the pauper population in London; ideas about child welfare and nurture, and the increasing specialisation in the larger London houses.