14 and 15 September 2010
11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)
Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950
Spaces and Institutional Structures
Paupers and their experience of a Georgian workhouse: St Martin in the Fields, 1725-1824
This paper is based on some findings of a three-year ESRC project devoted to reconstructing the biographies of some fifty thousand paupers who inhabited the workhouse of St Martin in the Fields, at some point between 1725 and 1824. It begins by arguing that the experience of the institution first and foremost depended on the reasons for admission, on life cycle stage and pattern and length of stay. The institution was multi-functional, providing temporary lodgings, wards for the sick, schooling and nursing care. Many inhabitants stayed only a short time, and only entered once. Others lived in the institution for considerable periods of time, or used it frequently as a temporary refuge. The paper goes on to argue that the internal regime of the institution was by no means constant: segregation by sex for example increased in the nineteenth century, in-house schooling was provided for some periods but not others and many paupers were forced to work at a variety of tasks. Childcare policies clearly changed over time, with many young inmates being sent to country nurses from the 1750s. The disciplinary regime of this institution could be harsh: but this does not seem to have deterred many from applying for admission, nor did it prevent many inmates absconding or escaping.
The paper ends by making an overall assessment of the extent to which inmates might have avoided ‘institutionalization’ and negotiated some independence. The extent to which they could do this was obviously constrained by their length of stay and life-cycle stage, as well as the (changing) nature of the workhouse internal regime and the policies of the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor that ran it. Like all institutions there was an impressive list of rules and restrictions that governed behaviour, from compulsory religious worship and prescribed bedtimes, mealtimes and limitations on freedom of movement. Nonetheless, some qualitative information suggests that inmates were often far from being deferential and quiescent. Paupers defied rules relating to drunkenness on a regular basis, were sometimes abusive to parish officials and other inmates and were capable of deliberating running away and absconding. Paupers could also achieve status and position within the institution by occupying minor posts such as porter. By the 1820s, indeed, the institution was paying a very large number of inmates for a host of duties including nursing, laundry work, portering, washing and mending clothes and any industrial work they were employed on.