Local Universe // Workhouses in Whitechapel

The Foundling Museum got me thinking about the local area to the university and the kinds of places like the Foundling museum for children in the area. There were workhouses all around the area such as Bishopsgate, Aldgate, Spitalfields, Whitechapel and a lot of others all around London. I thought it would be interesting to look at the lives of the children and people in the workhouses and get a feel for the area in the 1700s and 1800s. I also need some ideas for the current studio brief and this would make quite a good one.


The workhouses were places where the poor could get some clothes, food and somewhere to sleep in exchange for work. The workhouses housed hundreds of men, women and children and the conditions were very poor.

The Poor Law was established in the 1800s to help the poor but changes to the law were made in 1834 which made it harder for the poor to get help. Each parish was responsible for their poor and had to look after them. The middle class weren’t happy with this law as the money funding this law was taken from their taxes, they saw the poor as lazy. After the amendment it meant that if the poor wanted money they would have to go into a workhouse. They would have to wear a uniform and be under strict rules. In the workhouses they had a bad diet of bred and watery soup and conditions were made to be terrible so only the desperate would go there.


They also had a ‘Vagrants’ or casual system where people would get over night accommodation in return for a fixed amount or work the following morning. They ended up changing it to two nights as people would leave before doing any work.


I also read about children’s homes which were actually further East of London in Gray but they often sent children from the Whitechapel workhouses to these homes. They were cottage homes and often had problems with the number of children staying. Although the smaller the number the more the children were able to have secure family life under a foster mother, if the number exceeded 10 they would have a foster father too.


I really enjoyed reading about this side of the history of the area, although it’s sad and they lived and very often died in horrible conditions. It gives the area so much context and makes me think when I’m out and about. I try and spot the locations and wonder what it looked like. I love hearing and learning about history, it makes me wish we could jump back in time for a day.


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