Illustration of the Workhouse, St James's Parish


From the 1720s the parishes of London, like those elsewhere in the country, began to create their own workhouses. In them the poor were offered food, warmth and shelter in return for carrying out simple domestic tasks. By the mid 19th century many workhouses were undoubtedly foreboding places, noted for their imposing architecture, their strict discipline and sometimes chronic overcrowding.

Much evidence for the 18th century, however, suggests that many workhouses had the air of a clinic, homeless shelter or community centre rather than that of a prison. Inmates were rarely forcibly confined within the workhouse and were simply required to gain permission when wishing to leave in order to avoid disrupting the daily rhythms of work and meal times. Some workhouses were used simply as casual night shelters by the poor, with many institutions also acting as maternity wards for pregnant women, day care centres for children of working parents, or rudimentary dispensaries for the sick and elderly. The light and airy atmosphere of this image from 1803 captures a sense of this welcoming community atmosphere.

Full title:
Workhouse, St James's Parish from The Microcosm of London
1904, London
originally 1808-10
Book / Illustration / Image
Rudolf Ackermann, W H Pyne, William Combe, A C Pugin [illustrator], Thomas Rowlandson [illustrator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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