Parish workhouses had their origins in the poor laws of 1598-1601, which charged parishes with setting their able-bodied poor to work. The law was entirely unspecific about how parishes should establish make-work schemes, but the idea that the poor might be set to work at a profit proved beguiling to seventeenth-century thinkers. The 1690s witnessed the founding of Corporations of the Poor, collections of parishes (often in towns) that wanted to collaborate on both the provision of poor relief and the creation of workhouses. These institutions were designed to accommodate the poor as well as set them to work. Bristol led the way in 1696 and was soon followed by other towns determined to try a work experiment.
The prospect of setting the poor to work at a profit quickly evaporated when in became clear that workhouse populations were not ideally suited to economic productivity, and that workhouse accommodation was much more expensive than allowing people to receive welfare in their own homes. Nonetheless, other parishes outside formal Corporations wanted to set up their own workhouses. An Act of 1723 allowed individual parish vestries to build, rent, or buy a parish house that could either be run directly by parish officers or where the management of the house could be contracted out. Importantly any parish using such a house could use it to ‘test’ the validity of relief claims, by insisting that any poor requiring relief must enter the house.
The decade 1723-33 saw many parish workhouses open, but they were not all places where the poor were set to work. Some parishes tried to compel the resident poor to work, but many did not. Similarly parishes were not consistent in requiring the poor to enter the workhouse, and most places operated a two-fold system, whereby some people were taken into the house and others were given cash or material benefits in their homes. Workhouses in many places evolved into the sites of residential care for the very young or the elderly.
These parish workhouses were quite unlike the Union workhouses founded under the 1834 ‘New’ poor law and satirised by Dickens. They were typically small in scale, accommodating perhaps 25 people in unsegregated spaces: men and women were not necessarily separated, and children were rarely parted from their mothers. These workhouses were not prisons but were open institutions, and while some places could be punitive they could also offer elements of unequivocal care (such as specialised foods for the dying). On the rare occasions when pre-1834 workhouses are mentioned in working-class autobiographies, they are just as likely to be given a positive review as a negative one.