The specter of the Victorian Poorhouse haunts both history and literature. The surviving image, although not entirely accurate, is a grim reminder that not everyone flourished during an era whose very touchstones were progress and prosperity. No single historically-accurate image of the poorhouse remains, however, as each poorhouse has its own history. Each facility differed dramatically from others depending on location and time period. The prevailing literary image of the poorhouse as a place of gross inhumanity, enforced deprivation, and unspeakable insensitivity, like many stereotypes, has some basis in fact, but certainly not all Victorian poorhouses fit that description. The fictional image actually exemplifies the nineteenth-century workhouse more than the poorhouse, and the two terms became synonymous. The images merged because the two entities themselves merged, and the surviving image is that of the workhouse.
The ambiguous image of the poorhouse, or “The House” as it was frequently called (or the more ironic “The House of Industry”), reflects the ambiguous position of the poor, especially in the first half of the 19th century. At the time, much of the prosperous English populace viewed the poor as social and moral outcasts. These popular sentiments were supported by Malthusian philosophy, which dictated that money spent on the poor was money permanently removed from the wage pool, and Pauline doctrine, which stressed that the problem of poverty was omnipresent. More enlightened Victorians, however, tried to alleviate conditions for the poor through education and moral guidance. The one principle virtually everyone agreed upon was the need for reform.
As early as 1795, the English implemented new remedies for poverty. A minimum guaranteed income plan was adopted. Workers receiving low wages received supplemental income through parish funds, the stipend calculated by family size as well as wages. Public grumbling soon arose, however, about poor families and unmarried women having children just to increase their income. Fears of rising numbers of paupers materialized as increased industrialization and the enclosure acts forced many people to seek relief. The staggering cost of maintaining the poor soon became critical. Overburdened parishes called on Parliament for help, and Parliament responded by appointing a commission headed by Edwin Chadwick to investigate the situation. The Commission’s findings resulted in the New Poor Law of 1834, legislation which created the now-infamous image of the poorhouse.
After conducting its investigation, the Poor Law Commission created several policies, including that of the workhouse system. The new legislation was very unpopular.