Death Preferred To The Workhouse

The Workhouse was a feature of the Victorian landscape. Its looming bulk rose, spectre-like, over the 19th century streets of many towns and cities.

To a lot of paupers, the local workhouse offered a respite from hardship and starvation.


However, there were those amongst the deserving poor who tried desperately to gain admittance into a Workhouse but who, for various reasons, found themselves turned away, sometimes with tragic consequences – as the following two cases reported in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 24th January 1864 testify to:-


“An inquiry was held on Thursday evening, by Mr Walthew, deputy coroner, at the Green-gate tavern, City-road, respecting the death of a man named William Allen, aged sixty-five years.

It appeared from the evidence that, on Tuesday morning, the deceased applied to the relieving officer of St. Luke’s Workhouse, and said that he was destitute and ill, and had no friends.

He asked for a medical order, and relief.


The order was given, and he consented to enter the house, but while inquiries were instituted at the addresses which he gave he had to walk about the streets.

At six in the evening, it was discovered that he had no place of abode, and that he slept at night in the refuges or wherever else he could.

He was then taken into the house. He died the following morning.

Dr. Harris said that death resulted from bronchitis and disease of the heart.

He was destitute, but he did not die from starvation.

He told witness that he used to work for a dust contractor for 4s. 6d. a week. He never got more than 7s.

A juror said it was disgraceful to have kept deceased, who was dying from bronchitis, walking about the streets, instead of being admitted at once.

The verdict pronounced was “Death from bronchitis and disease of the heart.”

A group gather outside the Workhouse.
Lining Up For Admission To The Workhouse


“On Thursday, Mr. Payne, the coroner for London and Southwark, held an inquest in the board-room of St. George-the-Martyr, Southwark, on the body of Hugh Irving, aged forty.

Mary Warne said that she resided at Mr. Wall’s lodging-house, in Mint-street.

About six months ago the deceased came to lodge at the house, and, with the exception of two nights, he had remained in the house and slept in a room with others. He used to go out in the morning and return about twelve o’clock.

He complained on Friday morning of having a bad cold, and said that he was going to the workhouse for relief.


On Saturday he said that he had applied for relief at the workhouse, but they would give him none.

He said on Sunday morning that he had only 2d., and he asked her if Mr. Wall would trust him for the remainder of the charge for his bed. She said she knew he would. He then said that he knew he should have something in the morning. He died soon afterwards. She found a packet of letters upon his person.


The coroner requested Mr. Cooke, the summoning officer, to make inquiries as to whether the names of applicants were taken down when they were refused relief. Mr. Townsend, the relieving officer, said that every applicant’s name was entered on the books, and he was certain, knowing the man as hanging about the Mint, that he had never made application for relief.


The coroner said that there were letters found upon him recommending him to persons for relief – one was signed “General Brownlow and the other “General Sucking.”

These letters having been found on him, he wished to know if he had examined them.

Mr. Townsend said that a man who had such letters in his possession would rarely ever show them.

He was certain no one applied on the day in question to him for relief.


John White, a lodger at Mr. Wall’s, said that he had known the deceased for five months.

He told his wife in his presence that he had been refused relief at the workhouse. He did not know how he got a living, or where he came from, but he said he had come from Boston.


Mr. Cooper, assistant to Mr. Townsend, confirmed the previous evidence, and was satisfied that the deceased had not made application for relief, or his name would have been on the list.

The jury returned a verdict, of “Death from want, accelerated by previous illness.”


But, not all those who claimed that the Workhouse authorities had ignored their plight turned out to be telling the truth, as was reported by Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 15th May, 1864:-

“On Tuesday, Mr. Tubbs, overseer of St. Marylebone, accompanied by Mr. O. E. Douglas, the master of the workhouse of that parish, attended at Clerkenwell police-court to make some explanation of, and give a denial to, the statement made by the woman applying for relief to the magistrate on Saturday last, as reported in our late editions of that day.


Mr. Tubbs said that in a large portion of the press there had appeared a statement to the effect that a woman with two children had applied at the court for assistance, and in the course of the observations made the applicant stated that she had been to Marylebone workhouse, and slept there two nights with her children, and that the parish authorities had refused to assist her to pass to her native place.

She stated that she was a widow, her husband having been killed at St. Colomb, in Cornwall, and she had come to London, having been told she could obtain work.

She found she could not do so, and applied for assistance.

The magistrate who heard the application said he could not assist her beyond some temporary relief. She further said she could not walk back, as neither herself nor children had any shoes.


The real facts of the case were, that the woman had been in the house five instead of two nights, and had been very much pressed by the master not to leave the house, on account of the tender ages of the children, but she persisted in going, and refused to be sent home.

He wished to make this statement to show that the workhouse authorities had not been guilty of the cruel treatment alleged by the female, and also to prevent the public from sending in subscriptions, which no doubt they would, for the benefit of the applicant.

Mr. Barker said that the application was made to his colleague, Mr. D’Eyncourt.


He (the magistrate) had received a large number of letters, and those he had opened contained either stamps or money, and he was informed that several gentlemen had attended the court that morning anxious to give money to the woman.

He had received a letter from a gentleman, describing himself as a resident freeholder at St. Colomb for thirty years, and stating that no such person as that described by the female was known at the place she mentioned.


Mr. Tubbs said, that in addition to what he had stated he had to inform the magistrate that, instead of the woman and her children being without shoes, the workhouse authorities had supplied new ones when she would insist upon leaving the house.

Mr. Barker observed that there was not the slightest blame attached to the workhouse authorities, in fact, it had been the reverse.

He began to think now that there was some imposition in the case, which he at first thought genuine.

The money would not be handed over to the female.


Turner, one of the officers of the court, said the woman was seen in the New-road on the previous evening, begging for alms.”


As the previous two cases illustrate, there were some who tried desperately to find shelter within the walls of the Workhouses, whilst others tried to take advantage of the charity on offer and of the good nature of many Victorian citizens.

But others saw the Workhouse as a place to be avoided at all costs, and there were some who would rather die than cross the threshold of their local workhouse, as is illustrated by a truly tragic case that was reported in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, on Sunday 22nd September, 1872:-

“On Tuesday evening Dr. Lankester held an inquest at the College Arms, Camden-town, respecting the death of Miss Fanny Edinborough.

The deceased, an elderly lady, had formerly been in affluent circumstances, but owing to a variety of causes over which she had no control she was compelled to accept outdoor relief from the parish of St. Pancras.


Mary Ann Lamming said the deceased was her sister, and they lived together at 8, Henry-street, Hampstead-road.

The deceased received half-a-crown per week and a loaf from the parish, out of which she paid her share of the rent, 1s. per week.

Occasionally she acted as a midwife, but for three weeks before her death, she had nothing to live upon but the parish allowance.

On Thursday she complained of faintness, and before a medical man arrived life was extinct.

Witness, in answer to a question, said 2s. a-week was not sufficient for one person to live upon for a week. She was a pew-opener and occasionally earned a trifle, which she shared with her sister.


They did not often have meat, but lived principally upon bread and tea.

She was certain that the deceased did not have enough food.


She evinced the greatest horror of the workhouse, and on one occasion she said she preferred starvation to the workhouse.

A juryman said it was a disgrace to England that people should be allowed to die of slow starvation on 2s. per week.


Dr. Walter Smith said he found but little food in the stomach, and the cause of death arose from congestion of the lungs, accelerated by the want of food.


The Coroner said this was a distressing case.

Of course people could not be expected to live upon a dole of 2s. per week, but still if people had enough to eat they would never go into the workhouse. He was sorry to say that there were certain cases, of which this was one, where people would rather starve outside a workhouse in preference to having plenty within.


The jury returned a verdict of Death from congestion of the lungs, accelerated by the want of the necessaries of life.”


Death Of An Unknown Woman

Selling The Dead Paupers