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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Victorian workhouse : bastille or pauper palace? Sanders, Areta


The image of the Victorian workhouse is one of a "bastille": a building designed to be a deterrent without consideration of style, beauty or comfort. But is this a true picture? This thesis does not attempt to destroy the image or myth, but to examine it in an analytical way to discover what factors determined the design and construction of a union workhouse, and to what extent ideology shaped the architecture and embodied the social purpose of the Commissioners. Examination of the buildings as architecture within their social contexts is where this thesis departs from previous research. Work has been limited, to date, on the subject of workhouses. Norman Longmate has written a general history of the workhouse, Anne Digby has made a local study of the Poor Law and its attendant workhouses in Norfolk, Margaret Crowther has examined them as a social institution and traced the process of change from 1834 to 1929, and most recently Anna Dickins has written a Ph.D. thesis on the architects and the union workhouse. Among the sources investigated for this paper were the Report from H.M. Commissioners on the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws, and their subsequent Annual Reports. Contemporary opinion has been sought from magazine articles and books, together with the opinions and experiences of the architects involved. Boards of Guardians' Minute Books, plans and specifications have also been studied and visits to a number of workhouses which have not been too drastically altered, have added to the printed word, insight, and a "feel" for the building. Comparisons have also been made with other institutions and housing, using where possible, the opinions of contemporary architects and builders, in order that the workhouse may be criticized in the context of Victorian architecture. In order to discover how the 1834 workhouse related to earlier institutions, contemporary surveys and pamphlets concerned with pre-1834 workhouses have been studied. No neat and concise conclusion emerges from this study. Although the Poor Law Commissioners fervently believed in Jeremy Bentham's principle of "less eligibility" and wished to incorporate it into the design of these new workhouses, this was only one of many elements that influenced their design. The Boards of Guardians who were ultimately responsible for financing workhouse building were moved not only by ideology but by, among other things, considerations of civic pride, economy and local tradition. Ideology, and the desire to erect an impressive public institution incorporating the technological advances that occurred throughout the century, which in turn lent prestige to the Boards of Guardians, was reconciled by the sharp contrast between interior and exterior. The elaborate facade belied the utilitarian interior, which was planned to satisfy the "principles of separation and classification" laid down by the Commissioners, and reflected an attitude toward building for the poor which was evident in other contemporary buildings. We find that workhouse design had much in common with other contemporary institutions, housing for the poor, and surprisingly enough, a link with country house architecture. Pressure from local magnates to build aesthetically pleasing structures in the vicinity of their houses also influenced the architecture, and was encouraged by architects who were concerned to enhance their own reputation, rather than being associated with a "prison-like" building. Union workhouses were not completely new and innovative, they reflected a similar ideology and therefore similar principles of planning, to workhouses established before 1834 and both aroused critical comment. Consequently, there was both continuity and change at work in these institutions. We find, therefore, that the design of union workhouses resulted from an amalgam of diverse influences, both ideological and practical, and it is simplistic to assume that they were built purely as the "bastilles" of popular legend. Instead, they represent one more example of Victorian architecture - complex and full of conflict and incongruity.

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