When we think of children and the workhouse, Oliver Twist is the ubiquitous image that comes to the minds of many people. Whilst the fictional Oliver’s experience as an orphan in the workhouse was certainly the experience of some, it is sometimes forgotten that whole families often lived in the workhouse, albeit not together; mothers, fathers and children were all separated. As a result, growing up in the workhouse had a profound effect on thesechildren, where they were deprived of a family life and the presence of their parents. The mentality behind separating children from their parents was to try and bring them up to be ‘useful’, unlike their parents, otherwise would not have entered the workhouse in the first place. However, this resulted in families only seeing each other at meal times or in the chapel, where they were not allowed to speak to one another.
By 1839, almost of half of the workhouse population- around 43,000 out of 98,000- were children. One of the largest consequences for poor children living in the workhouse was the lack of education. Though the Victorian era saw education become no longer a privilege of just the upper and middle-classes, legislative changes were slow to include the poorest in society. This is reflected in the fact that whilst schooling became mandatory in 1880, it did not become free until 1891. In any case, poor families could often not afford the extra expense of school; either they could not spare the children the time from work to attend school or were in such a position of poverty that their only option was the workhouse.
The standard of education given to children in the workhouse was extremely basic, with neither reading nor writing offered. Instead, the education the children did receive was vocational, and completely dependent on their gender, age and ability. Furthermore, children were made to work, often doing manual labour and occasionally ‘hired out’ to factories and mines.Thisin turn severely limited work prospects upon reaching adulthood, in which unskilled and illiterate workers were at a direct disadvantage in a society where reading and writing had become widely accessible to many. Living in the workhouse meant that the basic physical needs of the children at the time were accounted for but it also meant sacrificing a childhood through no fault of their own.