Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare
Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare

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Retiring lives? Old age, work and welfare

2.2 Older lives and the shadows of the workhouse: mediating ‘welfare’ through the threat and control of the ‘House’

For much of the nineteenth century, the experience of public welfare by older working-class people was mediated through the local administrations of the 1834 New Poor Law Act (a separate Act was introduced in Scotland in 1845) and the deterrent of the workhouse that provided its spine. The Act enshrined a particular set of social relations underpinned by the dominant liberal political ideology of laissez-faire. Predicated on a philosophy of non-state intervention, this ideology advocated minimal state intervention as the best guarantor of individual and social well-being. Work – defined as paid employment – occupied a privileged status within the social relations constructed by the ideology informing the Act. Elements of this remain in the present as the privileging of paid work continues to circumscribe social policies like welfare to work (Fergusson, 2004), and the over-arching two-tier principle that has informed public welfare policies in the post-war period. This principle – discussed further in Section 3.3 – effectively privileges the benefit entitlements of social groups with relatively continuous records of full-time, paid employment. In public welfare terms, this privileging of paid work in the nineteenth century mobilised through the principle of ‘less eligibility’. Stipulating welfare recipients should have a harsher standard of living than paid workers, this principle lay at the heart of the 1834 Act: constructing public state welfare as the option of last resort in a mixed economy of welfare comprising private charities and family support.

The majority of older paupers experienced the Poor Law through the administration of outdoor relief. Involving small payments to support life outside the confines of workhouse walls, outdoor relief was used by older people to augment a patchwork of other income and support sources (paid work, charity, family). This meant older people often struggled to support a bare subsistence; as well-known and widely reported studies of poverty conducted by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree at the end of the nineteenth century and early part of the 1900s indicated:

the aged, when past work are dependent on someone; either on their children or on the [Poor Law] guardians or on the charitable or on all three. They very often live very hard lives and one of the most striking features throughout is the extreme smallness of their means.

(Booth, 1894, quoted in Thane, 2000, pp. 175–6)

Around a quarter of older age paupers were subject to indoor relief. That is, they were workhouse ‘inmates’ and so inhabited regimes characterised by many of the features Goffman (1961) later described in his ground-breaking work on ‘total institutions’. Goffman coined this concept to capture the way large-scale institutions, like prisons and asylums, work to strip away the complex personal and social identities people carry with them when entering such institutions. Workhouses were literally that – places organised around reasserting and instilling the ethic and discipline of ‘productive’ work among their inhabitants. Their often imposing structures both symbolised and enforced the work ethic: the latter mediated through a regime in which all aspects of inmates' personal lives were scrutinised, managed and controlled. For instance, male and female inmates were segregated from each other. Such policies acted to strip away and regulate the space through which inmates could experience and express their individual autonomy – in terms of sexual and other forms of personal identity. Indeed, the control of workhouses could even extend into death, as Poor Law Authorities could supply the corpses of unclaimed paupers to surgical schools for dissection (Richardson, 1989, p. 248).

Well-founded fears of the workhouse became an embedded feature of working-class mythology. Often dominating local landscapes, they represented a constant reminder to working-class people of the threat to liberty and autonomy which a failure to adhere to the capitalist work-ethic promised. The physical and symbolic shadows cast by workhouses, therefore, extended well beyond the personal lives of inmates, as the experiences of many living outside their walls involved a constant struggle to avoid entering their harsh regimes. Oral history testimonies offer powerful insights into the lengths people would go to in order to avoid entering the ‘House’, and how they would struggle to prevent family members from entering these draconian environments (Hussey, 2001). Indeed, the resonance of these fears continue to shape the consciousness of those living in the present, long after the real threat of the workhouse has passed (Richardson, 1989).

The number of older people in workhouses always remained small. However, figures show a marked and steady escalation over the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1851, 3 per cent of the population in England and Wales aged 65 and over were in workhouses. By the turn of the twentieth century this had risen to 5 per cent of the population (Thane, 2000, p. 172). This feature can partially be explained in terms of the changing nature of employment over the period.

Processes of capitalist industrialisation and factory manufacture were expanding and becoming consolidated as employers increased their efforts to control the labour process and promote increased levels of productivity. The social and organisational context of paid work clearly has implications for the construction of worker identities, and what aspects of this become constituted as ‘normal’. This point has been powerfully mobilised by the ‘social model’ of disability, and the emphasis it gives to social as opposed to individual and/or biologically reductionist explanations of inequality mapped around differences of the body or the mind (Shildrick, 2004; Hughes, 1998). So, as the pace of work escalated during the nineteenth century, the boundaries between those constructed as ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ to work were redrawn. Increasingly constituting workforce bodies as units of effort and labour, particular forms of physicality became emphasised. Bodies of social groups constructed as ‘lacking’ the productive effort required by new and intense rhythms of work – older people, people defined as disabled – were thereby constructed as ‘other’ through processes of labour market discrimination and marginalisation (Hancock and Tyler, 2000; Laws, 1997). In the absence of widespread pension and retirement policies, workhouses therefore constituted the most obvious available ‘welfare’ solution to accommodating bodies constructed as being ‘past’ work, or ‘worn out’ by work.

In tandem with the increasing pace of work, other processes were changing the demography of workhouse populations in the early part of the twentieth century. This point is illustrated by Extract 2.

Activity 2

Read through Extract 2. As you do so, note how the workhouse population at Maldon in 1930 differs from that in 1870. Imagine yourself inhabiting the workhouse in both periods. What is the main difference between these two periods? How is this explained?

Extract 2 The changing demography of workhouse populations

At Maldon, relief lists show older people coming to dominate the workhouse in both absolute and percentage terms. In 1870, Maldon contained a highly diverse range of inmates: a six-month period ending in March of that year shows that the workhouse admitted 306 people, 81 (around 27 per cent) of whom were 60 and above. By the same six-month period in 1930 the sum of older people at Maldon represented 143 from a total of 257, a growth in percentage terms of 29 per cent … [N]umbers of children admitted … [fell] from 94 to 13 … Popular and government distaste had slowly grown for mixed institutions, in which old and young, the sick and the healthy, the honourable and the feckless, the moral and the immoral could mingle. Answers to the varied social, physical and spiritual needs of this combined population were increasingly sought in separate institutions … Single mothers were to reside in maternity homes and, after the Children's Act of 1908, orphaned or abandoned children were to be boarded out in children's homes or with foster parents.

(Hussey, 2001, p. 200)


Perhaps the first thing to note is that as an older person in the Maldon workhouse of 1930, you would be living in an environment where older people comprised the majority population. That is, you would inhabit a space that had become increasingly constituted through age relations with the workhouse becoming constructed as the space and place of older people. Your experience of older age would, therefore, have been informed by processes of spatialisation. In addition, and more by default then design, interrelated processes of specialisation would have shaped your experience. Thus, sections of the workhouses' former population were no longer present as aspects of their personal identity being a child, being defined as disabled were emphasised; resulting in their relocation to specialist institutions like orphanages and asylums for people defined as having mental or physical impairments (Hughes, 1998). Involving a series of ‘dividing up’ practices, these processes of spatialisation and specialisation were articulated through a number of state-level reforms that would have both directly and indirectly shaped your experience as an older workhouse inhabitant in 1930 (Laws, 1997; Foucault, 1973, 1977, 1979).


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