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  • Online publication date: December 2014

5 - Paupers and their Experience of a London Workhouse: St Martin-in-the-Fields, 1725–1824


The Workhouse as an ‘Institution’

Although workhouses had been constructed before the eighteenth century some 2,000 were built in England following the enabling legislation of what is often called the Workhouse Test Act of 1723. The workhouse movement in London was particularly vigorous and highly distinctive; most London parishes of any size were operating these establishments by the middle of the eighteenth century. As the geographer David Green emphasizes, the 1834 New Poor Law in London was not followed by a wave of new building, since almost all metropolitan parishes had already integrated indoor relief as part and parcel of their mixed welfare provision. Such workhouses were designed to deter applications for relief, which could be refused if paupers would not enter them. In this sense the Workhouse Test Act anticipated the New Poor Law by over 100 years. The poor were to be subjected to the discipline of work and religious instruction. Lay religious societies, which aimed to reform the manners of the English people, were a further spur to the founding of workhouses in this period.

Tim Hitchcock's doctoral thesis is still the starting point for those interested in the early history of London's workhouses. Green's recent magisterial Pauper Capital (2010) contains the first modern analysis of their role in London's welfare system from the end of the eighteenth century.