picking oakum

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union Workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

CHARLES DICKENS – “A Christmas Carol”

In the 14th and 15th centuries provision for the poor was provided by monasteries, guilds and private charity. By the early 16th century and the Reformation, when Henry 8th was abolishing the monasteries, large numbers of poor were forced to roam the country looking for food and alms, becoming objects of fear and derision.

 queuing at workhouse

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark,
The beggars are coming to town."

In 1601 Poor Laws were passed, making each parish responsible for its own poor, ‘providing work for those who could work, relief for those who could not and punishment for those who would not.’ This lead to the establishment of parish workhouses. They were run as cheaply as possible with little or no comforts, poor food and harsh and often violent treatment of the unfortunate inmates. Labour was compulsory, ranging from boot making, breaking stones and picking oakum to farm work and tailoring. At the workhouse in Brentford for example children were obliged to spin course woollen yarn and make straw hats while the older inmates cleared sewage.

In Twickenham, in what is now First Cross Road a workhouse was constructed from ‘certain almshouses which had been left by charitable persons for poor people’. It soon earned a grim reputation for cruelty and corruption. In 1807 the Workhouse Master, William Cook, complained to local magistrates that he had been dismissed for refusing to accept a dead sheep which had ‘met with an accident’, a dead pig that had likewise met an abrupt end and two sacks of flour that were both 40Ibs short in weight. Master Cook was reinstated and the following year he was able to tell the magistrates, who were now keeping a watchful eye on the place, that the Twickenham workhouse inmates were enjoying a plentiful and varied diet including baked meat on Sunday, boiled beef on Tuesday and boiled mutton on Thursday. Other treats included suet pudding, milk porridge, bread and cheese and two pints of beer a day. Mr Cook did find other things to complain about though. He said the building was in a bad state of repair, the roof was leaking and the rooms were too small. “There was no proper room for the reception of the sick, and the living and the dead were from necessity obliged to be in the same room together.”

 Workhouse children

In 1834 a new Poor Law grouped parishes together into ‘Unions’ under the control of Boards of Guardians. This resulted in a marked improvement of conditions. The Twickenham workhouse become part of the Brentford ‘Union’ along with Acton, Chiswick, Ealing, Greenford, Hanwell, Heston, Isleworth, Perivale, West Twyford, and Old and New Brentford. In 1837 a new local Union workhouse was built in Isleworth on what is now the site of the West Middlesex University Hospital replacing the old and decaying workhouse in Twickenham.


Because the new Brentford Union workhouse was located close to fashionable residential areas like Syon Park and Isleworth the building was designed with some style including Elizabethan gables, mullioned windows and Tudor chimneys. In the 1880’s the site was expanded to include a workhouse school, Percy House, for 280 workhouse children. Later an Infirmary was added to the site.

Attitudes towards the poor were rapidly changing. By the end of the 1st World War the poor and unemployed could find relief from the government, trade unions and independent assistance organisations. Under the Local Government Act of 1929 Brentford Board of Guardians was abolished. All its responsibilities including the infirmary, known since 1920 as West Middlesex Hospital, were transferred to the Middlesex County Council.

Women in workhouse

In 1948 West Middlesex Hospital, one of the largest groups of hospital buildings in the country, became part of the National Health Service. Percy House, the former workhouse school, was retained by Middlesex County Council as an old people’s home. It was finally demolished in 1981.

Although the workhouses had all but disappeared by the 1930’s the harsh conditions found there, the forced labour, the inadequate diet and the thought that they too might end up there as paupers continued to haunt elderly people into the 1950’s.

Christmas day in the workhouse

‘IN THE WORKHOUSE- CHRISTMAS DAY’ by George R Sims 1847-1922 was one of the most famous and most parodied dramatic monologues of Victorian times. It criticises the unforgiving conditions found in many workhouses and the insensitive attitude of their guardians.

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse, and the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly, and the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces in a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table, for this is the hour they dine.
And the guardians and their ladies, although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers to watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending, putting on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet, they’ve paid for with the rates.

The poem tells of one Christmas Day when a group of parish guardians come to a workhouse to watch their charges eat their Christmas dinner. During the meal one of the ‘paupers’ accuses the dignitaries of murdering his wife by denying her food. Although they had been willing to admit her into the workhouse they would not feed her…

‘I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for a woman who’d loved me
Through fifty years of my life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief?
That “the House” was open to us,
But they wouldn’t give “out relief”.’

While the desperate man roamed the wintry streets looking for a crust to feed his wife the poor woman died alone and starving in a filthy garret…

‘Yes, there in a land of plenty
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered,
For a loaf of parish bread.
At yonder gate, last Christmas
I craved for a human life.
You, who would feast us paupers,
What of my murdered wife?’

As for Scrooge, thanks to the guidance of the Spirits of Christmas, he soon realised the error of his ways and “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town or borough, in the good old world….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Alastair Sim in “A Christmas Carol”

— from Martyn Day