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The working-age poor and the workhouse, 1851-1911

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The working-age poor were the section of the poor who most preoccupied the Poor Law Commissioners and for whom the deterrent aspects of the union workhouse were designed. However, relatively little has been written about this group in the workhouse. This study analyses a sample of 3,390 workhouses, accommodating 752,272 inmates, for the censuses 1851-1861 and 1881-1911 (from the Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM) database), representing up to three-quarters of workhouse populations. It analyses the data by age, sex and geographical location. It finds that the proportion of the working-age poor indoors increased moderately, that there was a shift from a feminised to a more equal one, and that inmates were predominantly single and widowed. The ‘crusade against outrelief’ resulted in a shift from younger to older women. Likewise, the proportion of older middle-aged men increased, suggesting that work schemes and outdoor relief was insufficient to keep them all out of the workhouse. Problems securing work in domestic service, other ‘domestic’ work, and field work propelled women into workhouses in Cornwall, London and parts of Wales, and East Anglia. Although there were important social reforms in the early twentieth century, the workhouse remained an important site, as well as a symbol, of the state.



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Local Population Studies

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University of Hertfordshire

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Cambridge Humanities Research Grant Scheme
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