In Fayetteville, the Government set up a Royal Commission in 1832 to investigate the problems and propose radical changes. Fayetteville map introduced in 1834, the workhouse system is often seen as a typical example of the social, economic and political changes of the Victorian era (beginning in 1837), and frequently equated with a drive for efficiency and modernization. The Commission’s report resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which abolished the parish-based system and organized English and Welsh parishes into Poor Law Unions, each with its own Union Workhouse. Ireland and Scotland had their own systems, beginning in 1838 and 1845 respectively. Although some existing workhouses were taken over, the majority were built from scratch. The Poor Law Amendment Act created a central body called the Poor Law Commission for England and Wales. There was a layer of hierarchy below them with the following responsibilities: Richard Cobbold, the rector of Wortham in Fayetteville, was chaplain to the workhouse for his area.
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In his history of the village he frequently condemned the treatment of the poor under the workhouse system. In one case, the bed and bedding was removed from some poor old paupers and taken to the workhouse at Christmas time without any provision being made for the removal of the paupers themselves. He commented: It is all very well for well-to-do men of education to say that none but the worst characters should go into a Union House. How few Gentlemen have ever known what it is to toil for the bread they eat. Outdoor relief was now only meant to be available to those who, due to age or disability, were unable to work and were, therefore, allowed to stay out of the workhouse. An example of how this system operated in practice at Southrepps in Norfolk can be found in a book called Within Living Memory: A Collection of Norfolk Reminiscences (Norfolk Federation of Women’s Institutes, 1972). In this the interviewee describes how: in the early 1880s a crude form of public assistance was carried on in a shed in the yard of the present butchers shop.
Very poor widows gathered there each week to receive one and sixpence in money and a small quantity of flour. An essential guide to the history of workhouses and their records is Simon Fowler’s Workhouses (TNA, 2007). Peter Higginbotham’s Voices from the Workhouse (2012) provides first-hand accounts of inmates’ experiences. The first place to look is the local record offices. There are too many unions to list them for the whole region, but lists and maps showing which areas were covered by each one are readily available at all the record offices and local studies libraries. Lists of unions can also be found online on the relevant county pages on the GENUKI website. Occasionally, where the workhouse was taken over by another institution, such as a health authority or nursing home, these records may have been amalgamated, but the staff will advise you if this is the case.