The House of Industry and Why the Poor House Haunts Us Today

During a time of prosperity, industrial growth and technological wonder being explored in

earnest for the very first time, Victorian England held a very dark place beneath its London Fog

(if you are unfamiliar with London Fog, sometimes called Pea Soup Fog or the Black Fog, check

out the article I wrote about it on this website).

That place is called the Poor House. In modern days, this term still exists as a fevered warning

to those who make reckless financial decisions with their lives. You have probably heard of

someone saying (maybe to you), “Well if you do that, you might just end up in the poor house”.

For most of us today, when someone says a line like this to us, we just assume lower income

from a job or unable to pay our bills efficiently. Back in Victorian England though, a poor house

had a whole different meaning and was an actual physical place.

For those who were impoverished that could not land good jobs or if they did land a job it might

not pay enough to survive on, they ended up in places called the poor houses. These

ramshackle places with typically awful amenities also had questionable infrastructure and

hygienics to go along with its generally terrible living conditions.

Ironically, the poor houses of Victorian England were often called the Houses of Industry as

well. The name definitely sounds more appealing than poor houses, yet the reality of poor

houses are far worse than even that name suggests.

So how did these rather despicable government housing units get set up?

As with most terrible political decisions, it began with frustration and anger. At the time the poor

were given stipends by the government if they met various requirements, requirements that

were often ever changing. During this time, many men and women would cheat the system in

various ways. One such way, at least according to those who became angry at the poor, were

women that would have children out of wedlock to receive larger income stipends from the

government. The rhetoric against the poor built up to such a feverish pitch that the poor houses

began to be created.

The idea behind the poor houses were to provide housing for the impoverished homeless, but

also to act as a last resort or final measure. The houses were made on purpose to be of the

lowest quality. Because of the raging rhetoric against the “greedy” poor, and the concept and

worse reality of the poor house, people were ashamed on a deep, integral moral level to be

poor.

So ashamed were many, that they refused even the service of entering into a poor house.

To enter into a poor house, was similar to entering a prison. You had to be without any

resources, so anything you did have was then confiscated by the government. Medical

examiners would go over your body and decide whether you were able bodied for physical labor

or not. And women and children were often separated from each other, often forced into

separate institutions where they became effectively orphans.

Now you know more about the poor houses, you might think twice before telling someone to go

to one!

 

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