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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: December 2013

3 - “These ANTE-CHAMBERS OF THE GRAVE”? Mortality, Medicine, and the Workhouse in Georgian London, 1725–1824

from Part One - The Old Poor Law


The major Part of Workhouses may be considered as composed of two principal Divisions, one for the Infirm, Sick, and Diseased; and another for the Necessitous, who notwithstanding are capable of Labor.

—Jonas Hanway, Serious Considerations on the Salutary Design of the Act of Parliament for a regular, Uniform Register of the Parish-Poor in All the Parishes within the Bills of Mortality

The Workhouse as an “Ante Chamber of Death” in Georgian London

It is often forgotten, or overlooked, that it was in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth century, that most London parishes built workhouses to house a proportion of their parish poor. Workhouses were new institutions in the eighteenth century, and in London at least they were large and prominent and until recently have, on the whole, been underexplored by historians. Yet virtually all suburban parishes in the metropolis operated them in the eighteenth century. Usually built in the 1720s or 1730s, they often occupied prime locations in the parish and might well dominate those locations, acting prima facie as purpose-built lodging houses, complete with sick wards for the poor, those who found themselves at the bottom of the social heap. They were often larger than London's public hospitals, sometimes twice as large; their total capacity was certainly far greater.