If you know your Dickens, you will know your workhouses too.
Grim places. If you could not find a job; if you were destitute and helpless, then you might go there, though some would rather die on the streets.
Workhouses were a place to get a roof over your head and food of a sort on your plate. Many of these establishments sought to make themselves pay by using the free labour of their residents to carry out work for local manufacturers. But this did not empower them; quite the opposite. If you went to the workhouse all that lay before you was – all too often – long days of slave labour, separated from your loved ones, on little food.
Wikipedia says the first mention of a workhouse was in 1631: but I’ve got a sign above a door says different.
Reading workhouse, in Berkshire, had a strange name: it was called the Oracle. They used to say the man who gave the money for its founding – one John Kendrick, a clothier – was an oracle, and the building was named after him.
Originally the inhabitants were to work on cloth; but in the end, it was pins which kept the wolf from those great dark wooden doors.
Thousands upon thousands of little, sharp, hand made pins.
The Oracle’s doors stayed open for two centuries. This is it in 1802:
It closed in 1850, and they knocked it down, but not those grim old gates. They stayed for a while longer.
Eventually, those doors were taken down.
And on Saturday I stood in front of them. They have been preserved, extraordinarily, in the town’s museum. And they dominate its ground floor, and loom over everyone who stops to contemplate what they represented to thousands of the poorest Englishmen of their time.
Great, monstrous, monumental portals to poverty. “Leave yourself at the door,” they seem to say, “as you come in.”