Parish workhouses played an important role in eighteenth-century poor relief. From the point of view of parish officials and ratepayers, they were attractive because they offered the possibility of reforming the poor through labour, and providing relief economically. Following the passage of the Workhouse Test Act (1723), parishes were empowered to refuse relief to those who turned down the offer of the house. The views of the poor were more ambivalent: on the one hand, the workhouse provided a comprehensive source of subsistence and health care, in sharp contrast to the small doles provided to out-pensioners, but on the other hand the poor frequently resented the regimented and institutionalised conditions, and the obligation placed upon them to work at often menial and degrading tasks. Settled paupers who saw themselves as respectable members of the community also resented being thrown in with the more varied population of workhouses. Registers of Admissions provide useful evidence of how workhouses were used by both parish officials and the poor, documenting who was admitted to the workhouse and why, as well as how long they stayed and why they were discharged or left voluntarily.
The workhouse of St Botolph Aldgate, located on Gravel Lane off Houndsditch (near Bishopsgate) in the City part of the parish, was built in 1736 with a capacity of 300. It played a significant role in the parish's poor relief strategy, housing 45 per cent of the permanently relieved poor, and 1 per cent of the total parish population, in 1803.1
Like most workhouses, that belonging to St Botolph Aldgate catered mostly for women overburdened with children and the aged and sick. Many stayed for long periods. The high mortality rate, often of inmates who had only recently arrived, suggests that many were seriously ill when they entered, and used the house as a kind of casualty ward, or hospital of last resort. Women frequently entered the workhouse in order to give birth (mostly to illegitimate children), and/or were accompanied by their children. The work inmates performed varied; some tended to the sick and others worked outside the house at Mr Overton's farm in Mile End. Although the workhouse clearly provided important health care, as well as accommodation and subsistence, for the poor, it represented a mixed blessing, denying them a degree of control over their own lives. As a result, many clearly hated it, and ran away or refused to do the work provided.
The register of inmates belonging to St Botolph Aldgate is organised as a table, and is best viewed through the original document image rather than the transcription. Some tables are spread over two pages. Each line represents an individual pauper. In some registers the commitments are organised chronologically and in others alphabetically, with a separate page for each letter of the alphabet. Men and women are sometimes listed separately. The columns in the St Botolph register normally provide the following information (not all columns are present in every register, and columns are sometimes combined).
- Number of the commitment (not always filled in, but originally designed to tie up with Settlement Examinations (EP)).
- Name (of inmate).
- Age (sometimes divided into days, months and years for younger children).
- By Whom Admitted. Most commitments were made by an overseer of the poor, churchwarden, or the [workhouse] committee, or they are indicated as having been passed under the settlement laws from another parish to St Botolph Aldgate as their parish of settlement. Sometimes it is indicated that the pauper had been examined (presumably by the parish officers, who had determined that St Botolph was the parish of settlement), or had entered by choice.
- How Belongs or How Gained a Settlement. How Belongs further indicates why the pauper was committed and where the financial responsibility for the commitment lay. Typical entries include poor rates, casual, servitude, king's tax, birth (born in the workhouse), parents. How Gained a Settlement explains why the parish was responsible for the pauper, with entries indicating by living with a householder in the parish, by keeping a house in the parish, or by yearly servitude with a resident of the parish.
- When Admitted, with the day and the month. The year is indicated at the top of the column.
- DD, R, or D, reflecting whether the pauper was DD: discharged, R: removed, or D: died.
- When Discharged and How Disposed of. Sometimes inmates were discharged to Bridewell for punishment; to Bedlam Hospital if they were deemed to be insane; to another hospital for medical care; to parents or an apprenticeship; or to work at pauper farms which contracted with the parish to provide board and work for paupers, including those run by Mr Overton, Mr Deacon, and Sarah Stowell. Some are indicated as having died in the workhouse. This is sometimes indicated in a separate column. The length of stay was often for several months or even years.
- Atkinson, Arthur G. B. St Botolph Aldgate: The Story of a City Parish. 1898.
- Cross, Pam. The Operation of the Workhouse in the Parish of St Botolph Aldgate, c. 1734-1834. BA dissertation, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, 1990.
- Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004, ch.6.
- Murphy, Elaine. The Metropolitan Pauper Farms 1722-1834. London Journal, 27:1 (2002), pp. 1-18.
For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1744, 1759-60, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/1, LL ref: GLBARW11100, Tagging Level: C
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1750-64, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/2, LL ref: GLBARW11101, Tagging Level: C
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1785-97, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/3, LL ref: GLBARW11102, Tagging Level: C
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1793-1811, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/4, LL ref: GLBARW11103, Tagging Level: C
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1794-1811, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/5, LL ref: GLBARW11104, Tagging Level: C
- St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Admissions to Workhouse, 1797-1816, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 2678/6, LL ref: GLBARW11105, Tagging Level: D
1 Parliamentary Papers: House of Commons, XIII, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to Act 43 Geo 3, relative to the expense and maintenance of the poor in England (1803-04). For an excellent analysis of this data see David Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1860 (Farnham, Surrey, 2010), ch. 1. ⇑