Oliver Twist sang longingly of "hot sausage and mustard" in the movie Oliver Twist, based on Charles Dickens' book. Oliver and friends lived in a workhouse in England where their chief foodstuff was -- not gruel, though there was plenty of that -- but bread. Big, cold, impersonal stone barracks, English workhouses sprang to mind recently, when I discovered three of my ancestors had lived in them.
The 1851 census showed Daniel Hicks in the Romford Union Workhouse in Essex, England. He was a "popper" (pauper), married, only 40 years old, a seaman, born in Barking, Essex, England. A family story indicated my ancestral Daniel Hicks was indeed a seaman, experiencing a severe accident while at sea. So the entry made sense.
In 1871 Daniel Hicks was in the same workhouse. By then he was blind and listed as "late soldier." In both the 1881 and 1891 censuses, his wife, Hannah Hicks, was listed as an inmate of the Romford Union Workhouse, first as a charwoman and later as an upholsterer.
Another ancestor, Thomas Bevince, died in 1867 in the union workhouse at Kingsclere, Hampshire, England. In the 1851 census, he was 65, widowed, a pauper, a shepherd and blind, and in the Kingsclere workhouse. Thanks to censuses, it appeared that Hannah Hicks may have been in a union workhouse for more than 30 years; her husband Daniel may have been in the same workhouse at least 20 years; and Thomas Bevince was in the Kingsclere workhouse for at least 17 years.
That's a lot of time to spend as an inmate. How did these ancestors get to be inmates of the union workhouses? What were their lives like in the institutions? How could I find out more? And how many people lived in workhouses in the British Isles? What kinds of genealogical information could I get from workhouse records? Or would information be mainly historical?
As it turns out, living in workhouses was fairly common. Poor people, paupers and the sick who had no one to care for them, lived there. As did orphaned and abandoned children. Unwed girls who were pregnant sheltered there. Imbeciles, idiots and the insane were all housed in workhouses.
Families could enter the workhouse together, but they may not have been able to see each other thereafter and were not usually enumerated together. So the whole institution census must be searched. Usually workhouses were divided into four completely separate parts: one for men, one for women, one for girls and one for boys. Any kind of communication between family members was discouraged. For example, when one man was ready to take his family out of the poorhouse, he was told he couldn't take his wife. She had been buried three weeks earlier, and he had not been told.
Workhouses were not prisons; people could check themselves in and out, according to a terrific website, The Workhouse, at http://www.workhouses.org.uk/. This site includes pictures of most English workhouses, provides a virtual tour, lists daily menus, includes inmate lists from time to time, shows able-bodied inmates chopping wood, picking oakum and in a stone yard.
It took the combination of censuses and parish registers to discover I had ancestors in union workhouses. Both gave the names of the institutions where my ancestors lived and died. From there, I was able to find pictures and specific information on each workhouse • when they were built, how many inmates they held at capacity, the state of the building today, etc.
The first site to cover workhouses was created in 1998 and can be found at http://www.judandk.force9.co.uk/workhouse.html#Individual. It provides useful links to other workhouse sites as well as a bibliography of printed sources. Another valuable site is the Rossbert site at http://www.institutions.org.uk/workhouses/.
Workhouses were called unions because several towns would join together to build the forbidding structures, as well as to finance them. Then people from all the participating towns could use the workhouse. So if the name of the workhouse is unknown, search towns surrounding the ancestral home.
The easiest way to find information on a specific workhouse is to use an Internet search engine. Enter the name of the town where you found your ancestor as an inmate then add + "union workhouse." It is amazing the amount of historical information that comes up. Two additional sites can help you find the workhouse you seek. They are http://www.fourbears.worldonline.co.uk/Database.html and Poorhouses & Poverty.
Frustratingly, it's harder to get the genealogical information. Only a few union workhouse sites listed inmates for any time period, although a volunteer site at http://www.angelfire.com/ct2/beharu/strays_project.htm reveals inmates for nearly fifty English and twenty Welch poorhouses. You can also buy 1861 workhouse records for between 1 and 2 pounds each at The Parish Chest. Click on Original Indexes, then scroll down to Booklets - Paupers in Workhouses.
If you find a relative in a workhouse, search all inmates, looking for family members. Remember that because men, women, boys and girls lived in separate sections of the workhouse, families may not be enumerated together.
Though I don't have the numbers, it looked to me like tens of thousands of Irish, Welsh, Scotch and English citizens lived in workhouses, at one time or another. At least three of them were my own ancestors.
LaRae Free Kerr, M. ED., can be reached at email@example.com.