WORK-HOUSES in Europe & Colonial America©

By: Victoria Brady

During the eighteenth century (on which we are focusing our attention) everyone was expected to provide for themselves and their families and indolence, alcoholism, imprisonment, and other unsatisfactory habits could land one in the workhouse rather than on the manner of public assistance one sees today.  Children were no exception. 

The workhouses in America were similar to those in Europe and were often extensions of churches that considered it part of their ministry to help support the poor who had fallen upon hard times through no fault of their own, while those who refused to help themselves, the “rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars, and other lewd, idle, dissolute, profane and disorderly persons” were considered lazy never-do-wells to be kept separate from the former.  In Connecticut, the latter were put to hard labor until released by order of Law.

Many such persons were taken from European workhouses and jails and banished to America and other countries where their slovenly habits often continued. 

St. James Parish reported the ages of persons housed in the workhouse as follows. 

Not exceeding 10 years:  51

10 to 20:  61

20 to 30:  90

30 to 40:  79

40 to 50:  79

50 to 60:  128

60 to 70:  129

70 to 80:  76

80 to 90:  18

90 to 100:  2

Total:  713. 

This included 226 that were infirm, 33 infants, 7 blind, 210 sick, 28 lunatics and ideots [sic] (mentally challenged), 33 with itch (scabies) or venereal complaints.

A brief report in “The Gentleman’s Magazine”, 1706, included a woman work-house resident aged 103.

In Pennsylvania one work-house was annexed to the goal (jail) near the state house.  In 1787 there were 4060 debtors and 4000 criminals, housed separately. The Quakers operated their own facility for the aid of their own single persons and families who contributed toward their support partly through large gardens, “from which the city is supplied, at very moderate prices, with every kind of medicinal herbs common to the climate”. 

A facility in Stroud discussed, “a very old deaf woman in the House, who knits well, and is useful that way, considering her age.  We have likewise several other women and some are able to wash, dress victuals, &c. and even the most infirm can reel, sew, and mend the children’s cloaths and are serviceable in one respect or another”. 

Children were expected to earn their keep whether it was working in the home or on the farm for their parents or in institutions.  “As soon as the children arrive at a proper age, and opportunities offer, the boys are put out to apprenticeships, and the girls to service; the latter, if they have behaved well, generally get a small gratuity for buying clothes.”

Circumstances under which children found themselves in the workhouse or other institutions included the illness or death of parents, impoverishment of families through crop failure or act of nature, abandonment, parental drunkenness, etc. 

Expectations of the children varied slightly from one place to another but generally they were taught sewing (gowns, petticoats, shifts, caps, aprons, shirts, etc.), embroidery, spinning (cloth and twine), weaving (“Callico) cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, shoe-making, picking cotton and oakham, and “other menial offices”.  They were expected to make and mend their own gowns, petticoats, and, “and all their Cloaths”, knit their own and the boys’ stockings, and make the boys’ linen.  “They…do Needle-Work for Hire”. 

“There are at this time many girls in the school, who, at twelve years of age can make a shirt fit for the most respectable Inhabitant to wear, and make her own gown and other cloaths, wash, iron, cook, clean and scour the house, make beds, and do every thing that qualifies them for good and useful servants.”

The boys of the previous home made their own cloaths, and cloaths for hire; mended their own and the girls’ shoes, “the rest are employed in Heading of Pins”.   

Both boys and girls were taught such skills as knitting of stockings, and spinning of wool, sewing shirts and other linens. 

A workhouse in Edinburgh reported the children spun 209 yards of woollen and 203 yards of linen cloth between Aug 1, 1773 and August 1774; 236 yards of woollen and 238 yards of linen between August 1774 and 1775; and 312 yards of woollen and 264 yards of linen between August 1775 and 1776. 

A workhouse run by St. James Parish in Westminster reported that in one year’s time children made 6331 shirts, 1167 shifts, 115 Dusters and Rubbers, 1282 handkerchiefs, 148 sheets, pairs, 69 table cloths, 112 pillow cases, 33 stockings, 5 shirts repaired, 132 napkins, 4 stocks, 7 bed gowns & Pockets, 24 Neckcloths, 407 towels as well as the boys heading pins and doing slop-work, shoe mending and tailor’s work. 

The parish placed 738 children into apprenticeships between October 1782 and December 1796 where they learned the finer points of a trade. 

When orphans in that facility were “hired out”, the officers of the home usually collected their wages and “provided every Thing they want” which probably meant the bare necessities but they were fed and clothed and were not a drain on society.  By and large citizens had rather work and manage than be looked down upon by those who contributed to their welfare.    


“Statutes of the Corporation of the Orphan Hospital and Workhouse at Edinburgh”.  1777.

Salzmann, Christian Gotthiff.  “Elements of Morality, for the Use of Children”.  1792. 

“Sketch of the State of the Poor 1756 and Present”.  Parish of St. James Westminster.  Published 1797.

“An Account of Several Work-Houses for Employing and Maintaining the Poor…”.  1725.  London.

Anburey, Thomas.  “Travels Through the Interior Parts of America”.  1789.

“Laws of the State of New York…”.  Published New York 1792. 

“Acts and Laws of the State of Connecticut, in America.  1796. 

Morse, Jedidiah.  “The American Geography…”.  1794.

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