Previously published in Examiner
Today we look at another area in woman’s rights dating back to Victorian Days, and that is the area of work. This examiner has stressed over and over again how women were often not allowed to work in middle class families. However, that was not the case for the poor who had to work or starve. Women and children worked in the most terrible conditions. In the UK these places were called workhouses, in the USA they were called workhouses and or almshouses.
A workhouse was a place in the UK where the poor and destitute could live, but they also had to work. It is not for certain when these workhouses were first established; however, they predated the Victorian era. The oxford dictionary claims they started in 1652 while other sources date them earlier than that.
In 1579, Scotland legislated the Relief for the Poor and Impotent Act. Under this law, the parish would make a list of all its poor and the incapacitated who were born in the parish or lived there for at least seven years, in order to find them a place to live,
“that the aged, impotent, and pure people, suld have ludgeing and abiding places”(sic). This law also gave the right to the landowners to take the children and make them work for them until the girls were 18 and the boys were 24. They were not paid for their services.
In 1597, the Kirk session allowed the church elders to make the decisions for the parish and that would also entail the fate of these people.
The Elizabethan Poor of the 1600 – 1700 were also given lodging; but, the relief did not extend further than that, no work was provided outside of the workhouses. The poor and the destitute had to work inside, meaning they had to work for free to be able to get housing. Otherwise they were left out in the cold.
The Workhouse Poor Test of 1723 sanctioned this practice of institutionalization. In other words if the poor wanted any kind of help at all, they had to agree to go into a workhouse.
Scotland magistrates (circa 1672) had the right to force beggars and vagrants to go to the workhouses against their will.
To be continued
Montreal’s McGill University is an ivy league University and Concordia University specializes in Women’s Issues.