Thursday, 1 March 2012

Messages from a workhouse

I visited lately a former workhouse outside Gressenhall in Norfolk, now a museum of rural life and Victorian and later periods. The Victorian systems of supporting poor were different in different parts of Europe but in England the children and adults who could not provide for themselves were placed in workhouses. The system was only abolished with the foundation of the NHS after the Second World War and the last pieces of legistlation were changed in the late 1960s. The discussion around the unemployed and disabled has recently taken a turn towards a more sinister direction and the word ‘workhouse’ has been uttered by the critiques of the schemes where a young job seeker has to take a ‘work experience’ placement stacking supermarket or pound shop shelves or flipping hamburgers for major national and international firms. Thus, it was interesting to see how a real workhouse looked like.

The location was in the middle of the deepest Norfolk without any proper modern public transport connections. A large red-bricked building stood in a relative isolation. A workhouse was a product of the 1834 New Poor Law that replaced the Old Poor Law of 1601. The latter had been a network of ad hoc solutions created and governed locally at the parish level whereas the centralized system of workhouses embodied the idea of the poor as somehow morally lacking and responsible for their lot from which they could lift themselves if they wanted. The New Poor Law stated that for able-bodied persons or their families –
in fact for everybody else than the very sick and those in certain other exceptional, well-defined circumstances – all help and upkeep was declared unlawful outside well-regulated workhouses, places where they were put to work towards their subsistence.

Workhouses were set up already before the New Poor Law, most often by the parishes. However, with the new law they became compulsory and replaced the Christian-spirited duty of taking care of the vulnerable in the local community. The Poor Law Commission created Poor Law Unions in order to pool parishes together and create larger units at the local level to support workhouses. Our local workhouse was in Barrow-Upon-Soar but its buildings have mainly disappeared. Only one part of the complex is still standing and it has been transformed into a private residence. The workhouse itself served a long time as a hospital, which it has common with many other establishments, for example in Bradford in Yorkshire, where the old people allegedly did not want to go to the hospital because of this part connection.

The large building in Norfolk looks like any institution built during the Victorian period. It looks like a factory or a prison. However, workhouses were entered voluntarily when the circumstances of an individual became too difficult. The usual workhousers included the unemployed, disowned unmarried mothers, orphans, old and sick and mentally ill. Thus, the building and its location confined the poor and morally suspicious to be interned outside the main community. Foucault did call the English workhouse the English form of the ‘Great Internment’ when he discussed the subject briefly in the History of Madness; he probably kept it short since the workhouse was not primarily a mental hospital. His argument that power does not depend not on material relations or authority but primarily on discursive networks seems to fit the workhouse. The workhouses were an answer to a social problem, centrally run, widely criticized but even exploited by some poor for their own benefit. As a phenomenon it reflected the moral values and the organisational needs and pursuit of the majority in its time. Our example at Gressenhall as a building at least spatially delivered the centralized message and showed the poor their marginalized place.

History of English workhouses, see The Workhouse web site.
Workhouse and Foucault, see the Foucault blog.

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