Life in the early 1800s was miserable for those born into poverty. ‘Benefits’ were scant, haphazardly organised by local parishes, and the cost resented by taxpayers.
The Poor Laws of 1834 centralised the existing workhouse system both to cut costs and discourage perceived laziness. They resulted in the infamous workhouses of the early Victorian period: bleak places of forced labour and starvation rations, and a frequent subject for popular music and literature – notably Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1812–1870), first published fully in 1838.
The example of ‘workhouse art’ here is a ‘broadside ballad’: a narrative song, often setting new words on a topical subject, printed cheaply on a single sheet of large-format paper (a ‘broadside’ or ‘broadsheet’) and sold by street sellers.
Broadside ballads were typically sung to a familiar folk tune or popular melody, dispensing with the need to supply music. The music borrowed here is The Mistletoe Bough, a dramatic song published in 1830 about a bride who dies on her wedding night by accidentally locking herself in a chest.
The Workhouse Boy was clearly popular, being published in the 1840s in many different editions around the country, from London to Birmingham and Preston.
The transposition of the letters V and W in the gruesome words imitates a cockney accent, a common comic trope of the period. Dickens himself used it frequently: in The Pickwick Papers of 1836–37, for example, the character Sam Weller pronounces ‘well’ and ‘very’ as ‘vell’ and ‘wery’.