Graduation Date


Document Type

Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Humanities and Cultural Studies

Department or Program Chair

Chase Clow, PhD

First Reader

Patricia Dougherty, OP, PhD


How to correct poverty in a society is extremely complex. In the nineteenth century, the British struggled to house, feed and care for the unemployed and destitute men, women and children created by the Industrial Revolution. Many in the upper classes considered poverty a moral failure, yet they had little impetus to end it. Poverty, as defined by an inability to provide for one’s needs due to a variety of factors, was seen as necessary, for without it there would be no motivation for the lower classes to work and provide a luxurious life for the wealthy.

Although some in government argued that the basic needs of the poor (such as, nutrition, housing, and medical care) could be provided through outdoor relief, others contended that the poor should labor for any assistance they received through a form of indoor aid called the workhouse system. This paper examines the mission of the workhouse and 1) the implementation of work as punishment, 2) the institution of harsh rules in the workhouse, 3) the restrictions to personal freedoms, and 4) the overall treatment of workhouse inmates. The environment in the workhouse was so demeaning, cruel, and dangerous that it often defeated the mission of the workhouse system to sustain the populace it was built to support.

Evidence of the failure to fulfill its mission is found in an analysis of primary sources such as workhouse guardians' reports, letters from inmates, statements from medical examiners as well as other first-hand written accounts from occupants of the workhouse. In addition, a review of scholarly articles, literature, satirical cartoons, paintings and newspaper accounts from the time confirm that conditions in the workhouse did not match those expected from its mission statement.