The Poor

Poverty was well known in Victorian Britain. The workhouse system was a response of the authorities to the dreadful state of their cities. Since 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act required anyone without a roof over their head to get a ticket from a police station, entitling them to a bed for a night in one of the workhouses. Strict regulations for the administration of workhouses existed and were supervised by national Board of Guardians. In each workhouse a Master and a Matron were in charge, assisted by a chaplain, schoolmaster and -mistress and a nurse. Amongst numerous duties of the Master were:
– to admit paupers into the workhouse
– make sure that new arrivals were searched, cleansed, clothed with a uniform and classified
– provide work and food
– register death and birth at the workhouse

Workhouses had only one entrance guarded by a porter. A casual ward for tramps and vagrants and the relieving room were close. A ward was designed to discourage tramps, potential trouble makers. It usually was a large room with some straw bedding and a bucket in the middle for sanitation. Before leaving the vagrants were expected to work for a couple of hours. Work might have contained: breaking stones for men and picking oakum for women. Especially prostitutes suffering from syphilis or weak-minded women with bastard children looked for refuge.


Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (1843 – 1927) is a painter who is best known for depicting the suffering of the poor. Most notably „Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward“ 1874 and „The Widower“ 1876.

Sir Samuel Luke Fildes „The Widower“, oil on canvas, 1876, Art Gallery of New South Wales