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Oliver Twist


Workhouses graphic - still image of rows of boys making rope

In the workhouse the boys would have been fed on watery gruel and would have slept on the floor with nothing but sacks for covering, and a constant cold chill from both the wind and the dreary, terrifying atmosphere of the building. The workhouse was a very "Christian" institution concerned with the souls of its inmates. To that end there would be plaques carrying religious messages "God is just", "God is good". The Guardians of the workhouse believed that they were improving the inmates’ morality as well as saving them from decline.

"For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities."


Workhouses were common institutions with their roots going back far further than Oliver’s time. Anybody of any age could be sent to the workhouse for a variety of reasons including lack of work, minor crimes and destitution. The inmates of the workhouse were grouped into seven categories.

  1. Aged and infirm men
  2. Able-bodied men and youths older than 13
  3. Youths and boys between 7 and 13
  4. Aged and infirm women
  5. Able-bodied women and girls above 16
  6. Girls between 7 and 16
  7. Children under 7 years of age

Families were not allowed to stay together. One man demanded the 'release' of his wife and children. He was then told 'you may take your children, but we buried your wife three weeks ago'.

The workhouses had a very strong work ethic. In Oliver Twist we see a typical form of work, that of picking oakum. Other forms included bone crushing and corn grinding. The combination of this severe workload and poor diet resulted in many inmates dying within the walls of the workhouse.

See Also

Street Life
Fagin's Den

Related Activities

Death, Diet and Disease

Elsewhere on the web

A Happy Victorian Britain?
What the Victorians Did for Us
The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum