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Whitechapel Workhouse

Whitechapel Workhouse

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The workhouses in Whitechapel were established as accommodations for the poor in the area in the 1800s. But what was it like in a Whitechapel workhouse? How many people lived in them? What forced people to live in the workhouses? Let's find out!

Victorian Workhouses

Workhouses have been around since the 14th century. However, in Victorian Britain, the rising rates of unemployment after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) and the reduction of agricultural workers due to new agrarian technology meant that the established poor relief system could not cope with the influx of people requiring assistance. Therefore, the Whig government, led by Charles Grey, issued the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

Whitechapel Workhouse Charles Grey StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Prime Minister Charles Grey. Grey is best known for passing the 1832 Reform Act, which improved the democratic process in Britain and led to the abolition of slavery. He later resigned a few months after passing the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act

This Act was established in 1834 through Parliament and completely overhauled the previous poor laws. Around 600 locally elected "guardians" were each required to their own workhouse. Relief was taken away from the able-bodied, with the only support provided in the workhouses. This officially established a workhouse system for administering poor relief in Britain.

At the time, Victorian attitudes to the poor were varied. Some believed that poverty was a result of laziness, immorality, or an undeserving character. Others believed that the impoverished were victims of unfortunate circumstances rather than any character defects or deliberate actions.

Unfortunately, for workhouses, the former attitude mostly prevailed. As a result, workhouses were made to be unpleasant places to live and work. Strict rules and punishments were enforced to make life as miserable as possible for the occupants. The idea was that the horrible conditions would make workhouse life undesirable and therefore 'inspire' poor people out of poverty to get jobs, earn money, and ultimately not need poor relief from the government.

Whitechapel workhouse Whitechapel slum StudySmarterFig. 2 - This drawing shows life in a Whitechapel slum. If people could afford the accommodation, they could live in slums like these, which were crowded and depraved. If you couldn't afford the rent in a slum, then your only options were homelessness or the workhouse

Admittedly, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act did provide some benefits to the poor. They were clothed, fed, and housed in the workhouses and "paid their way" by working for free at the workhouse. However, the conditions were notoriously inadequate and proved to be unpleasant places to be.

Whitechapel Workhouse Facts

In the 19th century, Whitechapel was one of the poorest areas of London, with around 175,000 people living there at the time.

The area was overcrowded, with poor housing and sanitation in an area which had been dominated by the Industrial Revolution (c1760-c.1840). Workhouses were established as a last resort for workers and had some significant features:

  • Labour was enforced as a form of 'payment' to stay in the workhouses. They were maintained by those inside of them.
  • Families were split up upon entering the workhouses.
  • The workhouses were overcrowded.
  • Uniforms were required.
  • Food was poor quality and in small amounts.
  • The workhouses were unhygienic, leading to the spread of disease.

Life in the workhouses was not pleasant, and those who lived there used the workhouses as a last resort when homelessness was the only other option.

Whitechapel Workhouse 1888

Whitechapel's high poverty rate meant that some women resorted to prostitution as a form of income or to supplement a very low income from another job. Estimates state that around 1,000 prostitutes operated in Whitechapel in 1888. Prostitution was seen as a "Great Social Evil" in Victorian Britain.

The Whitechapel Workhouse became notorious in 1888 when one of Jack the Ripper's first victims was admitted to the infirmary's mortuary. The victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was a casual prostitute after she struggled to find income following her divorce and had 5 children.

She was known for alcoholism and spent her earnings on alcohol, resulting in her inability to pay for a bed for the night on 31 August 1888. This night, her throat was cut by the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. This killer would go on to murder another 4 women in the Whitechapel area in 1888, but his identity was never found.

Life in Whitechapel Workhouse

Life in the workhouses in Whitechapel was hard and gruelling. The owners of the workhouses made the conditions as bad as possible, as they did not want the workhouses to be occupied by lazy people looking for free accommodation and food.

Conditions were harsh, as many had to claim support from the workhouses due to the high levels of poverty within London, especially Whitechapel. The Whitechapel Workhouses contained large rooms filled with beds, with no privacy between workers. Beds were close and dirty, and families were separated from each other. There was also the work floor, which was often iron production in Whitechapel workhouses, where the able-bodied were put to work.

Why were families separated in workhouses?

At the time, Victorian attitudes to the poor were that they were of immoral character and were compared to behaving like animals. As such, children who had poor parents requiring the workhouse were separated so that they could be educated away from the "immoral" influences of their parents and other adult occupants of the workhouse.

It is interesting to note that children were one of the few groups to receive pity for their impoverished position. They were viewed as victims of circumstance under the corrupting example set by their parents. Workhouse children received an education and were brought up with Victorian values in mind.

Whitechapel Workhouse Cleveland Street workhouse StudySmarterFig. 2 - A Workhouse on Cleveland Street, London

Infirmaries were also included within workhouses. The elderly, terminally ill, and mentally ill were often housed in the infirmary part of a workhouse, alongside people who required other medical care that could afford to go to hospital. The horrible conditions of the workhouses had the desired effect of deterring many able-bodied, but poor, workers from being admitted. As such, workhouses became overrun with people requiring medical assistance.

In 1867, the Metropolitan Poor Act was passed. This made it a legal requirement to have separate locations for infirmaries, sometimes called asylums, with a new workhouse for healthy poor people in Whitechapel being built at South Grove. The original Whitechapel Union Workhouse was located on Charles Street.


A hospital.

1867 Metropolitan Poor Act

This Act saw distinctions being made between poor relief and the medical functions of the Poor Laws. The Act established asylums built specifically to house the elderly and chronically ill and to treat illness. Consequently, workhouses became places for the otherwise fit but impoverished or unemployed population.

Whitechapel Union Workhouse

The Whitechapel Union Workhouse was built in 1842 on Charles Street and ran down the whole length of the street, comprising five stories. It served the parishes of St Mary Whitechapel, St Botolph Aldgate, and Christ Church Spitalfields. There were over 400 residents in one building in the 1881 census.1

The Union Workhouse became an infirmary in 1872, after the introduction of the Metropolitan Poor Act five years prior. It ran as an infirmity until it was demolished in the 1960s.

Whitechapel Workhouse Rules

There were strict rules relating to workhouse life and work which aimed to make life unpleasant for occupants. Below is a brief list of how occupants might break the workhouse rules.

Acts described as 'Disorderly':

  1. Making noise when silence is ordered.
  2. Obscene language (swearing).
  3. Insulting another worker.
  4. Threaten to assault another worker.
  5. Be uncleanly.
  6. Refuse to work.
  7. Fake sickness.
  8. Play games, such as cards.
  9. Enter unauthorised areas.
  10. Disobey any order from an officer.

Acts described as 'Refractory':

  1. Repeating any one of the listed acts above within a seven-day period.
  2. Insult the master, matron, officer, or guardians of the workhouse.
  3. Disobey the orders of the master or matron.
  4. Assault another person.
  5. Damage or soil property intentionally.
  6. Waste any provisions intentionally.
  7. Be drunk.
  8. Commit an act of indecency.
  9. Disturb an inmate during prayer.

These acts enlisted strong punishments. 'Disorderly Acts' saw an inmate's meals being replaced by just bread or potatoes and all other food being taken away for a forty-eight-hour period. 'Refractory Acts' saw the punishment of solitary confinement for a period of twenty-four hours. If a worker was dressing differently from others, they could be punished with either of the punishments, depending on the severity.2

Did you know? These punishments were deliberately extensive and harsh. The workhouse masters did not want any disobedience and wanted the workhouses to be places people would fear having to go into. They wanted it to be used as the last resort for people to come to, and so made it as difficult to live in as possible. This was due to the social stigma surrounding poverty at the time.

Whitechapel Workhouse Closure

In 1930, the Whitechapel workhouse was taken over by the London County Council and turned into a general hospital, St Peter's. Workhouses continued to operate after Victorian Britain into the 20th century, but increasingly housed the elderly and unwell rather than the able-bodied poor.

After the 1948 National Assistance Act was passed all workhouses were abolished by overturning the poor laws after the creation of the welfare state. The welfare state created a different method of providing relief to those in need throughout the country and created services like the NHS and the benefits system.

Whitechapel Workhouse - Key takeaways

  • The Victorian workhouse system was introduced due to the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834.
  • Whitechapel was one of the poorest areas of London due to the introduction of mass industry during the industrial revolution.
  • Workhouses had poor conditions, with the workers being forced to cover their stay for long hours of unpaid work.
  • There were stringent rules in place, with punishments being excessively harsh.
  • Infirmaries were included within the workhouses until further reform in 1867 with the Metropolitan Poor Act.


  1. '1881 census: Residents of Whitechapel Union Workhouse' in Peter Higginbotham, workhouses.org.uk, (2022).
  2. 'Workhouse Rules' in Marjie Bloy, victorianweb.org, (2002).

Frequently Asked Questions about Whitechapel Workhouse

Poor conditions, a large number of workers in a small place, disease, and strict rules.

One floor was the work floor, where the machinery was, and another was full of beds where the workers slept. They worked hard hours split apart from their families. It was a last resort for the poorest. 

Their bodies were either given to the families to organise a funeral, or burial would be arranged by the Guardians. This would be the cheapest burial, in an unmarked grave. 

'Disorderly Acts' saw an inmate's meals being replaced by just bread or potatoes and all other food being taken away for a forty-eight-hour period. 'Refractory Acts' saw the punishment of solitary confinement for a period of twenty-four hours.  

Hard. There was around 400 workers within the workhouse, who all lived in poor conditions under strict rules. There was only basic provisions, and they were separate from their families. 

Final Whitechapel Workhouse Quiz

Whitechapel Workhouse Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Which events led to the rising rate of unemployment in the 1800s in Victorian Britain?

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The Napoleonic Wars.

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Which prime minister passed the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act?

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Charles Grey.

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Victorian attitudes to the poor were generally sympathetic and understanding. T/F?

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Able-bodied people worked for ______ in workhouses.

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Why were families separated in workhouses?

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To keep children away from the "immoral" behaviour of the poor adults.

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Approximately how many prostitutes operated in the Whitechapel area in 1888?

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What was the common labour for Whitechapel workhouses?

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Iron production.

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The 1867 ______ separated infirmaries from workhouses.

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Metropolitan Poor Act.

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What were the two categories of infringement to the Whitechapel workhouse rules?

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What replaced the poor laws and workhouse system in the 20th century?

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The welfare state and the 1948 National Assistance Act.

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