The Workhouse Doors

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.


Photo via Wikipedia

Photo via Wikipedia

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.”



27 thoughts on “The Workhouse Doors

  1. We read about things like this and shudder. We are grateful that those were the bad old days. Were they? The settings may have changed, but in many parts the same sorts of misery are institutionalised.
    Quite handsome doors, actually. Is it only the association which makes them seem forbidding?

    1. Probably, Col. Like all philanthropy, it must have begun as well-meaning. You remind me that some of our most beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings are old purpose-built psychiatric hospitals, where horrors happened.The old Bedlam, for example, which is now the Imperial War Museum. Or Broadmoor Hospital

  2. Hardly looks like the entrance to a poorhouse!! Have missed your enlightening posts Kate. Shall try and catch up as best I can.

    1. Hi Madhu! I haven’t been writing daily for a while – family commitments have made it impossible – but I still write once or twice a week. I try to get to see everyone at their blogs at weekends but don’t always manage it; I love my virtual travels on yours.

  3. It’s a good thing the museum preserved something of that old architecture; they never seem to replace the old with anything that has nearly the same amount of character and distinction.

    1. This is so true, Rob. Here they are very strict on preserving buildings these days, though there are horror stories about palladian mansions being demolished even in the fifties. Broadmoor Hospital – a listed building built in the 19th century for the criminally insane – is about to undergo a move into a purpose built facility nearby, and the old building turned into a hotel….

  4. I like the door’s decor, but knowing its dark history makes it rather foreboding. Hope you and the assorted Shrewsdays are doing well, Kate.

  5. There is something special about doors and entryways that remain long after a building is gone. They often are so often preserved as a snapshot of something grand from the past. “Portals to poverty” is a very powerful phrase. You’re good to remind us to look beyond the beauty of the edifice.

  6. But what a great link to the early Seventeenth Century, Kate, even though slightly dark… the term workhouse fills me with dread, it always has done. I love how the museum has made a feature out of them.

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