Poverty and the Poor

Wentworth street

Inner city Victorian poverty in Gustave Doré’s Wentworth Street.

Charles Dickens’ second book, Oliver Twist (1838) contained the classic Victorian themes of grinding poverty, menacing characters, injustice and punishment.  These were all live issues at the time Dickens was writing the novel, especially with the introduction of the1834 New Poor Law – an Act which, for many liberal Victorians, appeared to criminalise the poor.  Dickens was a vigorous critic of the New Poor Law and he relentlessly lampooned the harsh utilitarian ethics behind it – the belief that the workhouse would act as a deterrent so fewer people would claim poor relief and thereby the poor rate would reach its ‘correct’ level.

Over London by Rail Gustave Dore

Over London by Rail, by Gustave Doré, shows the cramped living conditions in Victorian London slums, similar to those in Portsea at the time.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens employs sarcasm to ridicule the utilitarian men on the Poor law boards as they were ‘very sage, deep, philosophical men’ who had determined that the old poor law system failed to encourage the work ethic.  In its place ‘they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it’.  Inmates would receive ‘periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays’.


The picture above is St Marylebone workhouse in London.

Charles Dickens revisited the workhouse debate in the 1850s, making several investigations into the conditions of the poor for his journal Household Words.  What he witnessed confirmed to him the inadequacy of the workhouse system which at worse was perpetuating misery, poverty, starvation and ultimately death.  In ‘a Walk in the Workhouse’, he described the scenes in a Marylebone workhouse:

In a room opening from a squalid yard, where a number of listless women were lounging to and fro, trying to get warm in the ineffectual sunshine of the tardy May morning – in the “Itch Ward,” not to compromise the truth – a woman such as HOGARTH has often drawn, was hurriedly getting on her gown before a dusty fire. She was the nurse, or wardswoman, of that insalubrious department – herself a pauper – flabby, raw-boned, untidy…But, on being spoken about the patients whom she had in charge…sobbing most bitterly, wringing her hands…Oh, “the dropped child” was dead! Oh, the child that was found in the street, and she had brought up ever since, had died an hour ago, and see where the little creature lay, beneath this cloth! The dear, the pretty dear!…

Dickens likened another section of the workhouse to a prison, commenting that the meagre rations for inmates had created a primitive and bestial youth who had little to offer civilised society:

In one place, the Newgate of the Workhouse, a company of boys and youths were locked up in a yard alone; their day-room being a kind of kennel where the casual poor used formerly to be littered down at night. Divers of them had been there some time. “Are they never going away?” was the natural inquiry. “Most of them are crippled, in some form or another,” said the Wardsman, “and not fit for anything.”

They slunk about, like dispirited wolves or hyenas; and make a pounce at their food when it was served out, much as those animals do.

Poverty in Dickensian Portsmouth


Tightly packed houses in ‘Devils Acre’ Portsea. The harbour is just of of sight to the left of the picture and Milldam barracks are in the top-right.

In Victorian society, the fear of poverty and destitution was an ever present threat for most working people.  In Portsmouth, as in many other towns, those in need were a large element of the community.  In Portsea alone, during the worst of the depression in 1818, some 955 men, women and children were in the Parish workhouse. Later, in 1834, it was calculated that in Old Portsmouth one person in eighteen was classed as a pauper by either receiving an allowance (out relief), or living in the workhouse. Similarly, in 1863, one in fourteen of the town’s population was classed a pauper.

Although private charities or public donations temporarily relieved some of the town’s needy, most relied on the Parish system of relief through the Poor Laws. From 1834, the controversial Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced which was meant to enforce stricter rules for obtaining relief under an elected Board of Guardians.

Britain Street in Portsea

Britain Street in Portsea

In Portsmouth, before the 1834 New Poor Law was introduced, there were two local poorhouses. Portsmouth’s Parish workhouse was in Warblington Street and that of Portsea was in London Road, Landport.  Published Parliamentary reports provide some insight into the period before 1834.  Each Parish in the country had to fill in a government questionnaire on their workhouse population. Portsea responded:

…Their former occupations are of mixed character – they are employed in picking oakum for His Majesty’s Dockyard.  The younger females are employed in carding, and spinning, and making stockings for the use of inmates; also plaiting of straw, and making hats and bonnets, for the girls and boys. The elder are employed in the internal economy of the house as Teachers, Nurses, cooks, washerwomen, seamstress etc…The sick, aged and impotent are accommodated in smaller apartments, and their diet is different; they are allowed, in most cases, tea, a better sort of beer; and, if ordered by the surgeon, wine or spirits…The inmates may be considered to embrace three classes; the destitute Infant Poor, who must out of necessity be inmates; the profligate, from disease and bad character; and the aged and impotent. The infant poor are looked after in the house by the mother or under a proper nurse.

And on out door relief

Weekly out relief for 991 of which 434 are widows. The whole number including all their families is 2214 persons.  Overseers who distribute out relief are familiar with the habits of the poor. Persons receiving permanently weekly aid have to appear before the committee of Churchwardens and Overseers every week. Relief given is less than most temporary employment – many have received wages sufficient to provide against want of work but from idle and improvident habits are necessitated to apply to the Parish…….beer-shops encourage improvident habits; the character of the Applicant is well considered on dispensing parochial aid.

Out relief was prohibited unless carefully vetted by the Guardians but generally the able-bodied person had to be destitute to receive relief. The Poor Law Board intended that the able-bodied should fare no better than the poorest labourer. As the provision of food, clothing and accommodation were adequate and often better than someone struggling on low pay the only deterrent lay in the loss of freedom, a monotonous routine, strict discipline and mundane or disagreeable which included tasks such as stone-breaking, oakum-picking, sack-making or corn-grinding.

Treatment inside the Workhouse

Portsea Union Workhouse

Portsea Union Workhouse in St Marys Road

For most of the time a regime of strict discipline was superintended by the Master and Mistress of the workhouse.  The Workhouse regime in Portsmouth required that:

  • the separation of inmates into different wards (sex/age/infirm/able)
  • children were schooled
  • work for the able-bodied
  • plain, frugal but ‘sufficient’ food
  • a ban on tobacco and spirits
  • separate wards for the sick
  • the enforcement of cleanliness, order and ventilation
  • the wearing of a workhouse uniform
  • inmates not allowed to leave the workhouse without permission

Even before 1834 the plight of the inmates depended on the regime running the workhouse. One visitor to the workhouse wrote to the Hampshire Chronicle in 1830:

…My unfortunate friend, with tears in his eyes, related to me the cruelty of the new overseer…who has introduced such an economical plan as to not only deprive the poor people of the little comforts they had ever before enjoyed, but even of the necessities of life. I found that this reforming gentleman had taken 20lbs of meat per day from the poor people’s usual allowance, which was barely sufficient for sustenance; not content with this pinching their bellies, he has taken from the old men their tobacco, the only luxury they enjoyed; from the old women and children the trifling quantity of sugar which has ever been considered by all other overseers as necessary, and by no means an extravagance…

About twenty people were employed in the Workhouse but important in the daily life of the inmate was the Task Master who controlled the routine and allocated work.  

Breaking the rules of the Workhouse

Breaking House rules usually brought swift punishment.  On one occasion four women including Mary Stacey and Elizabeth Walker returned late from Church leave. They had obviously been in a beerhouse as Elizabeth Walker was deemed intoxicated for which she was not allowed to leave the premises for four months. It seems Mary Stacey was a consistent offender. Stacey and another woman Mary Ryan broke leave rules again by staying out all night following afternoon leave granted on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s wedding.  Both were sentenced to pick 10 lbs of oakum per day for one month and have their meat allowance stopped. Mary Stacey did eventually leave the workhouse three months later to go into domestic service.

While the Poor law system fell into decline due to the emergence of trade unions, friendly societies and the Liberal welfare reforms during the early twentieth century, the Poor law was not officially abolished until 1948. The dark and foreboding Union workhouses that were built after 1834, struck fear into many of the poor and, with the help of Dickens, became a symbol of the harsh realities Victorian industrialisation.


Discover more…

Please return to the Portsmouth map to explore  further.  (If you are using a mobile device, return to the quick index page).  Or you may like to read the book, Dickens and the Victorian City, written by Dr Brad Beaven and Dr Patricia Pullham at the University of Portsmouth.