Mapping London’s Workhouses


London Workhouses
Mapping London Workhouses, an interactive map. Click on the image to access the full interactive map series.


For my project, I decided to map London workhouses. I’ve always loved maps, and I think the consideration of the spatial arrangement of workhouses is valuable because of the insights we can gain, especially since it is not something considered very often. As someone very interested in mapping, I was also excited to have the chance to work with ArcGIS, in addition to engaging in more traditional historical research, such as gathering information from old documents. I was excited to research and create a map that could help us understand London workhouses at the time more deeply.

To this end, I decided to dig into the characteristics of the workhouses and their parishes. In my data I included the capacity of the workhouse, the parish population in 1801, the population density based on the 1801 census, area of the parish, and the amount collected under the Poor Assessment. My finished product will look at the spatial orientation of the workhouses, in addition to one or two of these characteristics represented on each map. As of now, I am not too far from my final product. However, I still want to include notes on each of the workhouses detailing where and how I found the information about that particular workhouse, as well as any other information or links to further reading, which is not yet finished. In addition, I plan to publish my map as an ArcGIS story map, as it is now, though in a more finalized form.

When I began this project, my first order of business was to locate the workhouses. Before that, I actually decided to find the workhouses’ parish churches. I realized the importance of at least confirming the coordinates I had for the churches when one parish church was about eight miles off. While this doesn’t matter much at the national scale, the entire area I am looking at is less than four square miles. At that scale, eight miles is huge.

I soon realized that I was taking too long locating the churches, and needed to work on the more important task of finding the workhouses themselves. To start, I narrowed the focus of my project to just the workhouses in the City of London and Westminster. Then, for the remaining churches I needed to find, I quickly found their current location, made sure that they hadn’t moved in the last couple of hundred years, and then used those coordinates, without comparing it to an old map. While perhaps not ideal, this allowed me to move onto the real challenge, that of finding the workhouses.

A page from the 1776 Report
A page from the 1776 Report

I quickly ran into trouble. The 1776 parliamentary returns about parish poor relief, although full of good information about expenses of poor relief and number of paupers served by the parish, gave no spatial clues. Some entries included descriptions of the workhouse buildings, but these rarely went beyond detailing the brick used to build it and the building dimensions. Furthermore, no maps I could find labeled the workhouses I was looking for. I knew that many workhouses were beside the churchyard or parish burial ground, but there were very few parishes where even these were labeled on the map. I needed a new source.

The title page of the 1732 account
The title page of the 1732 account

My next source was perhaps my most useful. Published in 1732, its full title is “An Account of Several Work-Houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor; Setting forth the Rules by which they are Governed, their great Usefulness to the Publick, and in Particular To the Parishes where they are Erected. As also of several Charity Schools For Promoting Work, and Labour.” Despite this mouthful of a title, the account was extremely useful. It did not cover every workhouse I was looking at, but those it did were often discussed in detail. Street names were almost always given, and sometimes another descriptor as well, such as “joining to their Church-yard” or “near Christ’s Hospital” (6, 23).

A detail from the 1775 London map
A detail from the 1775 London map

After finding this information, I would then turn to the historical maps to determine where these streets were at the time. Two of my most valuable maps at this stage were 1775 and 1795 maps of London. Once I was able to find the street on the old map, I had to translate that to a current map to get the coordinates (thank you, Google Maps!). In some cases, the streets’ names have not even changed, making it straightforward. In other cases, the street name has changed, or the streets are completely different. This was much more challenging, and involved some well-researched guess work.

A section of the 1795 map of London
A section of the 1795 map of London

After exhausting the 1732 account, I still had some workhouses in unknown locations. I next turned to the 1820 map, which had an index that included workhouses. I followed the same pattern, checking the location on the old maps before using a recent map to get coordinates. There is, of course, uncertainty in this data. Some of the information I used is almost a hundred years apart. However, due to the limited sources on workhouses, especially their location, I’ve assumed that the workhouses have stayed in the same place when there is no evidence to the contrary. There were also some workhouses that I was unable to find. In those cases, I assumed that the workhouse would be attached to the churchyard, and simply gave the workhouse the same coordinates as the church itself.

The last big piece of my map was the base layer. ArcGIS provides many base maps, but it seemed most appropriate to have an eighteenth century London map as the base of my map. However, there are a couple challenges here. First, the map is not a static one. As an interactive online map, it needed to withstand zooming and be accurate both with the historical map and without. In addition, not all historical maps are particularly accurate. It wouldn’t be possible to just overlay an old map of London and expect everything to line up. Instead, we needed to georeference the old map. Carleton’s GIS Specialist, Wei-Hsin Fu, was invaluable to me in this. She found an already georeferenced map, and from there, she taught me how to georeference the map, guiding me through the early stages. In order to georeference a map, you need to match up points on the old map with where they are today. To ensure accuracy, it’s best to use places that have not moved, and so I used a lot of churches as reference points, since many of them have been in the same place since the sixteenth century, if not earlier. Wei-Hsin cleaned the georeferencing up after my work, creating the final map layer, which looks incredible. The streets line up better than I could have done, and the workhouses are in the right spot both on the current base map and the historical map. Without her, the map would not look as good as it does, and I am so grateful for her help both in teaching me the skills of georeferencing, and in her work on the final layer.

A visualization of georeferencing. Image source: University of Wisconsin Whitewater Pangea
A visualization of georeferencing. Image source: University of Wisconsin Whitewater Pangea

Once I had both my data and the map layer, I began to play around on the map. I experimented with what characteristics to display, and how to represent them. After considerable time spent comparing one characteristic to another, I finally decided to create a series of maps. By creating a series of maps, I hope to provide an opportunity to look at the maps collectively as well as individually, in order to find more insights. In addition, I have found that the process of researching and creating these maps has been an important learning experience for me, and while the maps as a product are the goal, the skills I learned along the way were as much an important part of the project as the maps themselves.

It may not seem immediately obvious how this relates to our class beyond the superficial level of English workhouses. What about history from below or creating a greater understanding of the lived experience of the poor of London? However, I believe this does give us a better understanding of how London paupers lived, especially depending on what parish they lived in. A pauper living in St Katherine Coleman (population 732) might end up in a workhouse with a capacity of 30. A pauper in St Martin-in-the-Fields (population 25,752) would have a completely different experience in a workhouse that could accommodate up to 700 inmates. Digital tools, and in this case GIS, allow for another way to explore history, revealing relationships between location, lived experience, as well as the nature of London parishes and workhouses at this time.


View the map here!


Special thanks to Wei-Hsin Fu for all her help and guidance on GIS and georeferencing. This project would not be as it is without her help.

Many thanks to Austin Mason and Susannah Ottaway for their invaluable insight and support throughout this project and the course.


Important Sources:

“An Account of Several Workhouses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor…” London, 1732.

Harvard Geospatial Library, 1783 London map (base map).

House of Commons, Parliament, Great Britain. “Report from the committee appointed to make enquires relating to the employment, relief, and maintenance, of the poor…” London, 1776.

House of Commons, Parliament, Great Britain. “Abstracts of the returns made by the overseers of the poor, in pursuance of an act passed in the sixteenth year of His Present Majesty’s reign…” London, 1777.

MAPCO London Maps, especially 1775, 1795, and 1820.

Population and Area data from “Locating London’s Past” website.