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For a profitable future

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The Workhouse: A Study of Poor-Law Buildings in England

by Kathryn Morrison. English Heritage/RCHME, 1999. 255pp. £40

When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the country was in the grip of a building boom - for workhouses, writes Julian Holder. These gaunt and often giant institutions are one of the archetypal Victorian buildings, but can we see beyond the melodramatic imagination of Charles Dickens to accurately picture their architecture? Probably not.

As a companion to its recent English Hospitals (aj 17.9.98), the rchme has issued this important work, its swan-song before merging with English Heritage. It is a major contribution to our understanding of the institutionalisation of the poor since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century.

Among architects the young George Gilbert Scott was quick to appreciate the demand for new purpose built workhouses following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In his autobiography he recalls that 'For weeks I almost lived on horseback, canvassing newly formed unions.' In later life he chose to minimise this financially important element in his career. Just as Scott tried to forget, so has most architectural history.

In fairness, so many workhouses are now disguised as the hospitals they later became - their early Victorian architecture of deterrence wrapped in the later cloak of welfare - that they have slipped seamlessly into the landscape. This new work, based on a selective survey of former workhouses and their associated buildings (chapels, infirmaries, cottage homes, and industrial schools), examines their extensive, but quickly disappearing, remains.

As the poor are always with us so the Victorian workhouse was ubiquitous - 320 were built between 1834 and 1841 - but its pre-Victorian history is every bit as fascinating as its Victorian hey-day. Largely devoid of the moral tone of reform and retribution, the first purpose built workhouses of the eighteenth century were more domestic in character, and integrated into the urban or rural fabric. Ideally looking like neither a prison nor a palace, the building type occupied a difficult middle ground.

Kathryn Morrison's fascinating text is largely descriptive and analytical. There are few insights into conditions of life within the workhouse, but then the book does not set out to be a social history; it acts rather as a portal to the 700 files now available in the National Monuments Record.

Yet certain questions do rise up repeatedly. Why was the segregation and surveillance of the poor carried out so determinedly? Most searchingly, how do we treat the poor to-day? Among the many illustrations is a photograph of the Bedale Union Workhouse (1839) in the process of redevelopment. Outside is the sign 'Halcyon Homes'.

Julian Holder is an architectural historian

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