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see poor lawpoor law,
in English history, legislation relating to public assistance for the poor. Early measures to relieve pauperism were usually designed to suppress vagrancy and begging.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a special shelter for the poor in England during the 17th through 19th centuries.

Living conditions in the workhouses differed little from those in prisons. Initially workhouses were under the jurisdiction of the local parishes; however, with the growth of pauperism during the industrial revolution, the workhouse system was centralized (by an act passed in 1834). All those who appealed for public assistance were forced to enter workhouses. The threat of being placed in a workhouse compelled many poor people to agree to any sort of working condition in factories, and this enabled entrepreneurs to lower wages. The common people, who called workhouses “bastilles for the poor,” often hindered the establishment of new workhouses and destroyed those already in existence. The Chartists included a demand for the elimination of workhouses in their 1842 petition. In connection with the development of social insurance and pensions in the 20th century, the workhouse system became outdated, and the workhouses were converted into homes for invalids and the aged.


Engels, F. Polozhenie rabochego klassa ν Anglii. K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 2.
Morton, A. L., and G. Tate. Istoriia angliiskogo rabochego dvizheniia (1770–1920). Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. An institution for confining individuals sentenced to terms usually less than one year.
2. (Brit.) A poorhouse.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. (formerly in England) an institution maintained at public expense where able-bodied paupers did unpaid work in return for food and accommodation
2. (in the US) a prison for petty offenders serving short sentences at manual labour
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Anyone interested should contact Mark Hignett, museum director, on 01691 680241 or John Hainsworth, workhouse trustee, on 01691 860549.
She said there is only one small plaque to Merrick in a Leicester community college built on the old workhouse.
The Carmarthen Union workhouse was built in 1837 for 140 inmates.
Her husband, a 27-yearold dock labourer, told authorities he was unable to cope and handed six of their seven children over to the Walton Workhouse. The youngest, aged just eight months, was allowed to stay with Williams in gaol until she had been weaned, before going to the workhouse.
Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse is full of displays and tales of the history and industry of West Cheshire.
Visitors to open days through the summer have been met by a Workhouse Master and a Matron in Costume.
2 To this day, historians refer to the workhouse as "the most dreaded and feared institution ever established in Ireland." One social reformer summed up a typical workhouse as "a home for imbeciles, a lying-in hospital for dissolute women, a winter resort for the casual labourer or summer beggar, a lodging house for tramps and vagrants ..." During the Great Famine, workhouse burial grounds overflowed with paupers who had died in cramped, poorly ventilated dormitories.
Benedictine monks looked after the poor at the Priory in Sandwell Valley, and the trail also goes to the West Bromwich Union Workhouse site.
Chorlton Union Workhouse at Nell Lane, Withington, was opened in 1855 to cope with the demands of the swiftly increasing population of south Manchester.
By 1877 a new workhouse for 726 was ready on a 15-acre site between New Cemetery Road (now St Barnabas Road) and Ayresome Green Lane.
The St Asaph Union workhouse was once home to the area's poorest residents before later becoming HM Stanley Hospital, named after explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who had lived in the workhouse.