29 December 2013

Book Review: Life in the Victorian and Edwardian Workhouse

Life in the Victorian and Edwardian Workhouse, By Michelle Higgs|
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd; 07 edition (30 April 2007), second reprint 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0752442143

If your English or Welsh family history leads you to someone who was either an inmate or employee of a workhouse.
The idea behin the workhouse was to provide a social safety net placed at a level where only the most desperate would want to take advantage.

Workhouses had a fearsome reputation severely limiting the availability of out-relief, which had been more broadly available under the Poor Law prior to 1834, and imposing a spartan regimen which separated men from their wives and parents from their children.

In separate chapters Michelle Higgs deals with how the workout system applied to able-bodied men, able-bodied women, children, the elderly, the infirm, lunatics and, vagrants. through examination of specific cases she illustrates the variation one might find between workhouses, the large and the small, the well and poorly managed, the dictates of the local guardians and changing attitudes through the years as reflected by regulations issued by Poor Law commissioners.

I was particularly interested to find as an example of a child Mary Ann Mangan (Manggon) who came to Canada in 1903 through the Crusade of Rescue of the Catholic Emigrating Association, was initially in several unsatisfactory situations in Québec. She moved to Ottawa where she married. She had 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren by the time she died in 1958, certainly contributing her share to the common assertion that one in 10 Canadians has a home child ancestor.

The second half of the book comprises chapters on the management and staff of the workhouse; masters and matrons, schoolteachers, medical officer, nursing staff, Porter, chaplain, guardians, clerk, relieving officer.

The book is currently in its second reprint, testimony to the value to those looking to understand the situation of those involved, in one way or another, in the workhouse system.

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