Inside Poplar Workhouse

Life inside the Workhouses of Victorian London was deliberately made harsh; the theory being that, if the conditions inside were as unwelcoming as possible, then people would avoid them at all costs, and would, therefore, be encouraged to seek regular employment as opposed to being dependent on the state to provide for them.

However, the sad truth was that Workhouses were a last resort for the most poverty-stricken members of society, and those inmates who ended up within the walls of these grim institutions lacked the means of finding regular employment and, therefore, they had little choice but depend on the Workhouses.

On Saturday,  September 8th, 1877, The Berkshire Chronicle published the following article, written by a correspondent who had gone “undercover” in Poplar Workhouse to see, first hand, what conditions were like for the inmates who resided within its imposing walls.

One of the points made in the article was that the menial tasks that the honest paupers were forced to perform, in order to “earn”  their food and lodging, were often harsher and more onerous than similar tasks that prisoners in prisons were forced to perform.

The article read:-


“Poplar Workhouse, in the far East of London, is conducted in a very different manner from any similar institution within the limits of the metropolis.

It is intended as a sort of test house or reformatory, and within its walls are located paupers from almost every parish in London.

A view of Poplar Workhouse.
Poplar Workhouse


A short sketch of the establishment after a week’s experience may not be uninteresting to the public, while it may call the attention of the Poor Law Commissioners to some needful reforms, and be the means of ameliorating the condition of the pauper exiles at Poplar.

At a quarter to six every morning the “getting up” bell summons the inmates to the duties of the day.

Breakfast (gruel and dry bread) is finished at seven o’clock, and work commences immediately afterwards.

On entering the oakum room, each inmate takes from off the scales six-pound bundle of old rope, more or less impregnated with tar, his day’s work being to pick that into oakum.

Prisoners in Cold Bath Fields not sentenced to hard labour have only two pounds of oakum to pick, while those sentenced to hard labour have only four pounds. Surely there is something wrong when the honest pauper has three times more labour assigned to him than the guilty thief. And, still worse, if the pauper’s task is not completed the labour master has it in his power to add an additional two hours’ work and a bread and water diet.


Some reform in this modern system of slavery might be effected if a member of the Poor Law Board would undertake the six-pound task in a quiet way at his own residence. I guarantee that, instead of accomplishing the task in one day, his fingers would be kept busier for three days than they had ever been for a similar period in his lifetime.


For myself, I might as well have tried to pick six pounds of hard wood into sawdust, and the consequence was that I was locked up twice in one week for two hours extra each night.

The first night, I had the companionship of some half a dozen similar unfortunates.

I got some “peculiar information” from the “partner of  my toil.”

One of them read a petition, which, he said, he was going to forward to the magistrate of the district, the purport of it being that, unless there were some curtailment of the labour, the magistrates need not be surprised to have a number of cases from Poplar Workhouse, many of the inmates preferring prison life.


Another, a young man from St. Giles’s, said if he could only get some “spicey togs” (good clothes) it would be an “easy job” for him “to do well” about the West-end.

One of his “well-to-do” plans was to go in company with a well-dressed “pal” (comrade) and perambulate the squares, watching carriages whilst in waiting at gentlemen’s residences.

Having previously provided a sealed envelope, with a fictitious name and address, one of them would step forward to a carriage, into which they had seen some parcel deposited by a servant, and, handing up the sham letter to the coachman, inquire if he knew the house – the other, in the interval, thrusting his head in at the window, and picking whatever his hands could lay hold upon.

No doubt, some mysterious robberies of jewellery may be accounted for in this manner.

The plan, as many know to their cost is practicable.

This is a specimen of the schooling – the “training of the young idea” – which prevails in Poplar Pauper Reformatory.


Notwithstanding the “hard labour” task, the younger inmates seem to enjoy themselves pretty well for a couple of hours every evening.

Some divert their time at dominoes and draughts; some engage in a “sing-song “or concert; and some display their skill in wrestling and dancing.

Those who are lucky enough have outdoor friends, and are supplied with a few postage stamps, fare tolerably well as to diet.

A meat dinner may be had for a penny, half-pound of bread or a pound of suet pudding for a halfpenny, and also a pint of tea for a halfpenny.

The main object of this barter is to obtain tobacco, showing what sacrifices smokers will make for the sake of a pipe of the “favourite weed.”


At eight o’clock, the inmates retire to their dormitories, where singing and noisy conversation is carried on till a late hour.

In these school board days, surely some scheme might be devised for affording to the youthful pauper class educational training for an hour or every night. In fact, compulsory lessons would be a more severe punishment to such class than even the six-pound oakum task, while it would certainly have a more beneficial and reforming tendency.

There is something radically wrong in a system which compels young and able-bodied men to betake themselves to bed, winter and summer, at eight in the evening.


Perhaps the most glaring feature in the management of Poplar Workhouse is the almost total disregard of the sanctity of the Sabbath.

True, there is a short Church of England service in the chapel from nine till ten in the morning, but afterwards, the remainder of the day is devoted to fun and frolic.

One would fancy, from the utter exclusion of books – not even a single Bible is seen in the young men’s ward – that the guardians and officials were anti-Sabbatarians members of the Sunday Recreation League.


No restriction whatever is placed upon the conduct of the inmates. At one table a number may be seen playing dominoes, while another is occupied with draught-boards; and a few amuse themselves at the game of “shove-halfpenny.”

In a corner of the room was a one-legged man, with two dancing figures – one representing a long, lean Yankee, who threw his legs about in a grotesque fashion; the other a tailor, who, with characteristic smartness, danced a hornpipe – the operator whistling suitable tunes.

I ascertained that at times this man gained a livelihood by this means in the streets, and was now rehearsing.

Another, parodying a hymn, was loudly singing “There’s oakum over there, over there,” and received plaudits from his fellow-paupers.

One played a tin whistle, and dancing and singing prevailed throughout the afternoon, occasionally interrupted by a wrestling match and other scenes outvying the most notorious localities in Whitechapel or St Giles’s.

Such is a brief but imperfect sketch of “pauper life in East London.”


It remains for the proper authorities to inaugurate a new and better system of discipline.

This pauper reformatory requires reforming and remodelling. There should a reduction in the excessive labour task; instructive and entertaining books ought to be introduced; and Sabbath desecration put an end to.

A wise and beneficial system prevails in prison – a good reader is selected from amongst the prisoners, whose duty it is to read aloud during working hours; and those in solitary confinement are each provided once a week with a book from the prison library; and all the prisoners attend chapel once every weekday and twice on Sundays.

Surely the unfortunate paupers in Poplar Workhouse ought not to be deprived of privileges enjoyed by criminals in Coldbath Fields.”