Punishing the poor



Poverty came close to being a crime in 16th and 17th  century England. Once the needy sought help from the monasteries but during the reign of Henry VIII most of these had been dissolved. City dwellers feared the influx of penniless beggars from the countryside who were considered idle, lawless and a threat to the public order of the towns. Given their lack of work and inability to support themselves, it was thought discontent might breed among the poor resulting in social unrest or even revolution.

The wealthy and worried determined to hide th epoor behind closed doors. And so Houses of Correction or Bridewells were born, so called because the first was at Bridewell Palace in London.

Bridewell poors

At first the aim of the Bridewell was to house the destitute in clean, bright surroundings

Bridewell Palace was one of a number of palaces built by Henry VIII. Its dimensions were huge, with three substantial courtyards and scores of rooms. While foreign dignitaries occasionally stayed there, for most of the year it was left unused. Henry’s son Edward VI decided to put some Christian theory into practice, so, in 1550, he gave  over Bridewell for relief of the poor.

Paying their way

The philantropic gesture had its dark side, however. Those at Bridewell were made to work for the rewards of refuge, food and drink. Jobs included working the treadmills, beating hemp, making nails and even cleaning the sewers. Not only was the aim to improve a lot of the poor, it was to be self-financing too. Bridewell received its first induction in 1556.

bridewell palace

Bridewell Palace

Sir Francis Bacon, the eminent lawyer and philosopher, argued that to detain the poor in Bridewell was against the spirit of the Magna Carta, Britain’s 13th century statement of civil rights. His objections were not heeded.

Most justices across Britain became keen to have their own houses of correction in which to dispatch the troublesome poor. By 1576 they were legally obliged to provide a Bridewell, as it became known, so the poor could be ‘as straitly kept in diet as in work’.

women's house of correction

From 1609 the local justices faced a fine if they had not built one. At first those within a Bridewell benefited in terms of diet, cleanliness and finance – they received a small wage. But it wasn’t long before flogging was introduced to keep order among the inmates who, after all, had committed no crime. In the wake of the whip came stocks, and in some cases a ducking-stool. The labour became increasingly hard.

The poor become prisoners

justice in Quarter Sessions, who had complete control of the Bridewells, soon seized on the opportunity to relieve the overcrowding in prisons and sent lesser offenders to the houses of correction. A criminal presence meant a prison regimehad to be brought to bear. The defining lines between relief of the poor and the caging of criminals became hopelessly blurred and so persecuted Catholics or Puritans were detained with Spanish prisoners of war – alongside orphants and the destitute.

Treadmill at Brixton prison

Treadmill at Brixton prison

In 1682 the Governor of Wakefield House of Correction complained that 30 felons had been sent to him. In 1690 the number had risen to 67. When prisoners escaped from a prison of House of Correction, the governors faced a fine. So they were spurred on to make their institutions as secure and prison-like as they could afford.

The Bridewells were privately run. Eager enterpreneurs soon realised that their profits would be slight as the unskilled forced labour of the inmates yielded little cash. By the 19th century financial backing for Bridewells was scarce and the future of Bridewells and similar institutions was in doubt.

The Painting is Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874.

The Painting is Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874.

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3 Responses to Punishing the poor

  1. Martin Bedford says:

    Very good article. I suppose the view that somehow the poor “are to blame” for their situation is still very much an issue. I think Owen Jones sums it up nicely in his book “Chavs”. We haven’t yet returned to the age of the workhouse but the mean spirited idea that perpetuated them still lives on. I fear that we live in an oligarchy; however, we need to defend the welfare state that our forebears worked so hard to establish. There is such a thing as society and when the poor suffer the whole of our society is diminished.

  2. John Lewis says:

    Bah! What was the alternative? These were mostly rural peasants, and as has been said before, rural poverty was picturesque but even more grinding than urban poverty – which is, after all, why they moved to cities in the first place. Most of these peasants were no doubt brutal, and used to rough treatment, and a few would have been dangerous as well. After all, the rural countryside used to be violent, as well as the cities – much more violent than modern English cities.

  3. michael dunne says:

    The satire “A Modest Proposal” by Johnathan Swift arises from the endless squalour and poverty to be seen in Dublin city in Eighteenth Century. Slavery was non existent in Ireland at that time because the snug farmers and land owners usually of the landed gentry found it less expensive to employ casual labour (spalpeen fanach’s)than pay for the cost of all year round slaves. Consequently the cities particularly Dublin were swamped with the redundant labourers and often their entire families during the slack seasons of Summer and Winter. The Penal Laws (Anti Popery Laws) were in full swing further aggravating the plight of the poor. Dublin became so submerged in poverty that eventually laws were passed compelling each county to look after its own poor. This really never came into effect. The poor Law Act with poor houses only came into being a century later. Robbery and murder was rampant. Children were sometimes abandoned and left begging around the cities. Debates started up on the poor and the needy poor mendicants and schemers. Swifts proposal was that all young children could be farmed / culled and served up as a culinary delight! By the twentieth Century Dublin was still the second largest city of the British Isles and had slums worse than Calcutta. Our hard earned Independence free trade and the protection of the European Union can be thanked for the vastly improved life quality we enjoy today.

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