The Victorian Workhouse

Nov 23, 2017, 03:12 PM

This history trail audio is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. To find more trails and further information, go to

When it was first opened in 1838 on what was then the outskirts of town, the Cambridge Workhouse was called ‘The Cambridge Union Workhouse’.

It was originally built in response to strict new rules set out in a transformative Act of Parliament changing welfare, called the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This ordered that the care of the poor should be taken over from your local parish, and instead be overseen by Boards of Guardians who ran workhouses for an entire town or city or region.

Thus Cambridge Union Workhouse was built to take in people who were unable to afford their rent, and put a roof over their heads. They were called ‘Inmates’ like people in prison. It was horrible for families because they were split up, not just parents from their children, but also men and women were in separate buildings, and usually siblings were split up too, into the girl and boy houses – and you can see in the plans they had separate school rooms, canteens, play areas and dormitories for sleeping. Parents were only able to meet up once a week at most, just for a short time on Sunday after Church, unless the child was under three. Imagine living in the same institution but not able to see or talk to members of your own family?

And workhouses were very much a place for children - in 1839 almost half the workhouse inmates in the country were under the age of 16. Children could be flogged ( beaten with a stick) for minor offences. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist describes workhouse life for a child in London. Here in Cambridge, children had to work from the age of seven, with just three hours a day for school. Children were set chores that hurt your hands, such as digging up potatoes, and breaking up stones to make gravel, for hours at a time, day after day. On one occasion a Cambridge inmate was caught stealing a potato from the Workhouse allotment, and he was given 7 days hard labour as a punishment. All the adults had to work ten hours a day with few breaks. Women were set to do cleaning and laundry and cooking, often working for other institutions, so that they earned money for the Workhouse which they couldn’t keep. Men’s work was back- breaking too, grinding wheat and corn, breaking up rocks into stones, unpicking old ropes which tore up fingers and made them bleed.

The workhouse was usually overcrowded and it was deliberately made to be an unappealing place to live. This was to try to discourage people from ending up there, because the costs of providing housing was paid for by local taxes. In some cases people were known as tramps, because if they couldn’t prove they were born locally, they were told they could only stay for a night at a time, then tramp on. They would be given a bed in a tramp cell and some dinner in exchange for specific work chores, but couldn’t come back again for several more nights, so they would walk from workhouse to workhouse every day moving from town to town across the country, which earned them the name of “tramps”. In Cambridge, there was a row of tramp cells uncovered in a recent archaeological excavation showing that they were along the front garden of the Workhouse right next to Mill Road.

It was considered very shameful to end up in a workhouse one woman remembers the threat:

We stayed with my Grandmother until November when my granny got us a ticket for the workhouse. My mother said ‘No, I won’t take my children to the workhouse – you’ll need that before I will’.

The trouble was ...