Gender in the Workhouse

How were women’s experiences in the workhouse unique from men’s? Did the policymakers view women’s social welfare needs differently than those of men?

We can attempt to better understand the demographics of the workhouse and the ways in which the workhouse master and committee understood the inmates by looking at this list of inmates:

This image is here thanks to the permission of the Essex Record Office.

For a transcription of the document, click here.

Interpreting this List

Womanhood alone did not categorize someone as deserving of social welfare, but instead gender shaped most aspects of experiencing the workhouse. This document shows us women who work are spinning, while some of the men are making socks or shoes or glass, more skilled positions.

I believe that we see a detailed account of the demographic make-up of a workhouse. The master often called the women’s occupation “helps” which refers to domestic work and categorizes the work as less important and interesting to people concerned with expenses and revenues.

The soldier’s wives are being understood in relation to their husbands’ identities, another telling component of the document. Widows are also labelled as such in this official list of names.

These individuals on the list do not appear to be of much importance to the bureaucracy of the workhouse committee, but I think it is important for us to interrogate why the workhouse master might care whether an inmate is a widow or married to a soldier. Perhaps these identities aid the workhouse master in visualizing the make-up of his institution and affect his policies towards the inmates, keeping in mind conceptions of deserving and undeserving poor.

Inmates’ age and physical and mental health are noted, so why are there people who are healthy and able to work in the workhouse? What do these documents not tell us about what life was like?

Gendered Life-Cycle and the Workhouse: Context and Consequences for Women

Boys were taught to learn a trade, but the apprenticeship was the key opportunity they had to learn a skill. The apprenticeships that were available to most girls were preparation to be housewives, which demonstrates the prescribed employment paths of girls and boys in this historical context. Women were discriminated against by the guilds, so those trades were mostly unavailable to them (Shoemaker, pg. 194-197).

Domestic servants slipped in and out of employment until they were able to find a husband.  These servants also moved in and out of the workhouse corresponding to when they could not find work.  Domestic servants were not a homogenous group, servants’ wages varied greatly depending on who their employers were. One last note on domestic servants is that there were many instances of sexual relationships between domestic servants and married masters, and while there were power imbalances to these relationships, some were caused by coercion and others were more voluntary (Meldrum, 49-53).

Mothers and their children also go in and out of the workhouse based on their needs and ability to find other accommodations. Widows were especially likely to receive aid because they were viewed as “deserving poor,” but mothers of bastards were stigmatized even as they received relief. Hitchcock explains that there were far more women than men in cities and women experienced a great deal of job insecurity, so it is no wonder that women were such a large share of people who received welfare (Hitchcock, pg. 75-77).

While many boys and girls had some kind of apprenticeship, pauper children were less desired for employers to take on as apprentices, so workhouse girls’ high demand for a way out of the workhouse was not necessarily met with a bountiful supply of positions. As far as adults in need of relief, the workhouse would try to get people to get married so that they would not have to provide for bastard children. Widows were not seen as the architects of their own situations, so they were more able to viewed as deserving than adult men or single women (Williams, pg. 101-114).

A great example of a woman who goes in and out of the workhouse many times is Sarah Pilch, a woman whose life is narrated by the London Lives Database. Check out Sarah Pilch’s story here.