21 November 2019

‘By Pity and by Terror’? A contrary view of workhouses

At the end of the seventeenth century, a Bristol merchant, John Carey, followed a successful experiment in the operation of a workhouse in the city, by publishing a pamphlet extolling its virtues.

This proved hugely influential, and as a result began the interest and popularity of workhouses, as a means of providing welfare provision.

By the early nineteenth century, however, tales of workhouse deprivation and scandal had begun to circulate influencing the public perception, decades before the publication of Oliver Twist. Yet these institutions cannot all be viewed in the same way.

The workhouse at Westbury-on-Trym was entirely different. In his description, one historian in the 1960s declared, ‘even today it would be unlikely for an old person in a geriatric ward to receive such good treatment.’

While this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the treatment of inmates at Westbury was meticulously planned and administered with the ‘comforts’ of the poor in mind.

Speaker: Louise Ryland-Epton is studying for a doctorate at the Open University and is a contributor to the Victoria County History of Wiltshire.

This is a UWE Regional History Centre talk.