When Ebenezer Scrooge wondered aloud in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” — in response to a request for a charitable donation, that inquiry should make us wonder today if, indeed, we should make a reformed visit to the workhouse ideal.

The workhouses of the Victorian era were dingy, dull, repressive places that were based on a good idea — if you were poor or indigent, you would be taken in by a charity-sponsored workhouse and be fed and clothed and given a bed in exchange for your labor.

Workhouse dormitories were segregated by age and gender and were mainly populated by women and children. Indigent men were more often placed in prisons than in workhouses.

Workhouses were not only found in the UK.

The idea of a Workhouse in exchange for room and board was a worldwide phenomenon that suffered from a lack of governmental oversight and so many people were abused and forlorn in what quickly became filthy sites of existence.

I don’t think a Modern Day Workhouse needs to be stuck in the muck of the past. Is it possible to reinvent the workhouse as a safe haven for the homeless, the eternally poor and the forever misbegotten who could all begin to live and earn their way back into society via a government-sponsored program that finally reaches beyond common welfare gifts and housing subsidies?

If we removed child labor from the workhouse equation, could workhouses once again become reputable safe havens for those without shelter or a hope in the world?


  1. You don’t have to go that far back. There were more recent programs like the New Deal work programs of the 1930’s or public service employment of the 1970’s. These were decent responses to high levels of unemployment.
    Revisiting the idea would have merit, but would be difficult to do in today’s society.

  2. Right, jonoloan, but were those programs dormitory based and did they also provide clothing and meals? Or did they just provide a paycheck?
    I’m looking for a whole-body restoration that doesn’t just pay someone and have them go away at the end of the day.
    From “The New Republic” in 1931:

    They are rounding up the misery of the East Side. Doing it “intensively” as one census taker puts it. This is a queer census. It is a census of misery. It is the count of despair. In New York City for future reference they will tabulate the hopeless and put between covers of books how many men are wandering around shelterless, no prospect of jobs, no place to stay in the daytime, no place to sleep at night. How many are there—the wanderers from Municipal Lodging House to Salvation Army shelter, to flop-house, to speakeasy? How many are there sleeping in the subway or under the bridge at One Hundred and Eighty-fourth Street?

    Here’s a great New Deal website:

  3. Hey Karvain!
    Don’t halfway houses mainly deal with prisoners and drug addicts?
    Are there programs that are permanent houses for poor people and the homeless and the like?

  4. Most halfways aren’t permanent. So you want a permanent housing, food and clothing program. Isn’t that what the military does?

  5. Karvain!
    Yes, the military does do that — so are you saying we should be sending the indigent and the homeless off to Iraq so they can be clothed and housed and fed?

  6. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, jdavey!
    How would you control the quality of the workhouse and demand excellence from its proprietors if not for some sort of governmental overview with the right to punish and reward?

  7. Possibly a citizen-based organization or NGO. I think western culture is moving toward a more philanthropic, charitable model that would allow for this. As more people become aware of social and corporate responsibility and demand their voices are heard, my optimistic outlook would allow for this kind of control.

  8. What’s an “NGO” jdavey, and remember you’re speaking to an international audience so it is impossible to be too simplistic and too clear in your answer with examples! 😀

  9. An NGO is a non-governmental organization. It’s sort of an international catch-all for a non-profit organization.
    A privately funded (by ordinary citizens through fundraising campaigns and donations) non-profit corporate watchdog group could act as a monitor organization that would use media tools such as internet, blogs, television to expose those workhouses that happen to break the rules. They could prevent this by asking workhouses to voluntarily partner with them in promoting greater corporate responsibility on their own behalf and that of other workhouses. I know it’s kind of fuzzy, but it gives you an idea. This is the type of model we want to move toward in the future. Less government involvement=less bureaucracy and bull, more citizen involvement=greater societal responsibility on a whole.

  10. Excellent, my friend!
    Thanks for the explicit, and rather divine, answer!
    I agree the private sector could make a workhouse work without a lot of governmental red tape as long as there are escapes and remedies included in the process.

  11. Remember that the private sector is the most powerful institution in the world and it is the responsibility of corporations to do good. Some are just a little slower to learn that than others.

  12. jdavey —
    I wonder, though, who would pay for such a private workhouse? Charities have tried and failed in the past.
    Businesses wouldn’t provide workhouses unless they could turn a profit.
    Who — or what — is left to propel the idea forward?

  13. Charities have largely failed because people don’t want a handout, they want to be empowered. The whole idea of employing someone in order to take take of their basic needs is empowering. A private workhouse would earn revenues based on what was produced in the workhouse, plus funding from citizen-run non-profits like the watchdog group I explained earlier. Fund the good one, tear down the bad.

  14. That makes sense, jdavey, I’m just not sure how much money there is to make off of “free room and board” labor that would be accepted in a free marketplace without being exploitative.

  15. That’s the job of the watchdog non-profit. To prevent exploitation. There are always innovative ways to make money. Even in workhouses I’m sure. Just takes a little creative thinking.

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