The Hackney Workhouse (Notes)

Three of my books are in a Kindle Unlimited promotion throughout March. One of the books is ‘Guardians of the Poor’, the first Larkspur Academy Mystery. Here’s the image of the promo page and the link straight to the exclusive list of titles from me and other authors of historical fiction. I’m particularly interested in the ‘Murder on the…’ series, because of the steam trains.


If you’ve read ‘Guardians of the Poor’ you will know that much of the story concerns the Hackney Workhouse. In fact, the story is about more than that. Yes, I researched what I could about the actual workhouse, as I do, and I realised I’d actually been into parts of it when it was being used as a hospital. The story, though, is also about the Academy and its setting up, and the MC of the book, Dalston Blaze. Through his eyes, we experience not only workhouse life but also we get our first view of the academy, and we meet the Clearwater series characters from the point of view of someone outside of the organisation, someone who’s not yet on Archer’s ‘crew.’ The story, though, is also very much about Joe Tanner, who is deaf, and I put a lot of work into researching what his life would have been like too.

Anyway, the point of today’s post rises from that book, because it’s one in the promo, and because I was sifting through some notes for it, and I found the following. I’m leaving it here as a point of general interest for anyone who is interested in the Hackney Workhouse, Homerton, London, in the late nineteenth century.

My notes, as usual, are taken from a variety of sources including newspapers and journals of the time (quoted), and are in no particular order, and have not been altered since I made them.

Workhouse Details

Plan of the Hackney Workhouse

Hackney: Lower Homerton (N div.)

By 1870s the main block was an inverted U shaped fronting onto the high street.
North side, offices and stores.
West: females.
East: Males.
South, a long block with chapel, children’s school, dining rooms, day rooms.
Either side of southern block were workshops; stone breaking shed on men’s side.
Admin block centre east of the site, casual wards and stone shed fronting Sidney Road.

Roughly 600 inmates (1866)
400 + in 1881 census

Rooms mainly low and narrow but with windows so good light, ditto stairs. ‘A confined air to the whole building.’ Male/female wards on ground floor are dark and cheerless.

I wish that the same could be said of other places where “the Poor Law” is wrested to a harsher punishment than that of the criminal code, and where the grim rule and oppressive dead level of the workhouse ward is but a preparation of the youthful pauper for the no more repulsive discipline of the gaol.

The librarian and superintendent of the Ragged School held in the house that was once the Thieves’ Kitchen, but now filled up-stairs and down with children perspiring in their nightly work of dividing a hundred scholars into classes amongst half a dozen teachers, and distributing the books which they are allowed to take home with them to read.

A blank wooden gate squeezed into a small space in the midst of the neighbouring shops, and indicated by a hoard, on which are painted the regulations for granting medical assistance, and the times at which the applicants for parochial relief will be received by the “Master,” is, as I am informed, the entrance to one of the most constantly occupied, although by no means the largest of the London workhouses, where a large proportion of the inmates come and go so frequently that they might, in some other districts, be almost regarded as “casuals,” and receive no definite settlement in the regular wards.

Christmas at the Hackney Workhouse

Dalston’s Childhood

(Based on a real case)

5 years old. Board of Guardians became his legal guardian when his mother died when he was five. (She died in a fire in Homerton, and was brought in with child, but no-one knew her name and so he was known as ‘The child from the Dalston Blaze’, because that’s where the fire was. The title stuck and became Dalston Blaze.)

The Matron, childless, saw the opportunity to keep him as her own so he was then brought up in the workhouse under the care of the staff.

6 to 13 years old. Sleeping in one room with 23 other children ‘the infant nursery’

Three hours a day instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, Christian religion at the workhouse school.

Corporal punishment on boys only and only by the master.

Boys under 14 could be flogged, but not over 14!

14 able to work, but Matron didn’t want him going to the ships/army, or to local work so kept him in work on site.

Sleep and beds

Seen in the bare wards, where the long rows of low bedsteads, each covered with the same pattern of counterpane, make even the dull walls more monotonous; in the cleanly scrubbed floors; the absence of any furniture save that which is required for the absolute necessities of the place; the walls against which the long rows of bedsteads stand have been coloured a pale blue, as an improvement on the sickly yellowish tint which is peculiar to such apartments.

  • Flock placed on iron bedsteads, with iron laths or sacking.
  • Red, wool rugs (blankets), decent bed covers.
  • Chamber pots under beds.
  • Thin sheets.
  • Very little furniture, no lockers or tables only a few chairs, no mirrors (men’s ward) and no prints/decoration.
  • Chests for foot warmers.
  • A metal sink per ward with soap and two combs (shared, I guess), no hair brush.
  • Towels supplied twice per week.

Dining and food

  • Allowance per adult person:
  • 7 ounces of meat without bones
  • 2 ounces of butter
  • 4 ounces of cheese
  • 1 pound of bread
  • 3 pints of beer
  • Children’s allowance at Mistresses discretion

Listen to the murmured talk, which resolves itself into remarks about food; and then remember that here, as in a prison, extra rations, and an increase in meat and the privilege of beer, are the great topics of conversation. Well they may be, for that dietary scale hanging on the strict enough in its provisions, even if they were administered according to the intentions of the Poor-law Board – is at the mercy of guardians and master and matron, and may be reduced so much below prison fare, that life in a workhouse comes to be but a continuance of that struggle against hunger which preceded it in the world outside those grim brick walls.

Some three hundred paupers, old men, women, and children are at dinner.

at a cross-table under a high desk like a pulpit, the master himself without a coat, and with his throat released from both collar and neckerchief- is carving the meat, and weighing out the allowance for each person according to the dietary scale, which differs but slightly from that of the union where I lately made the acquaintance of the pauper of the north-eastern suburb.

Tin plate and cup, wooden spoon

The ordinary workhouse gruel, known to the paupers as “skillet,”

Hygiene, Health, the sick

For every morning (I am informed) the wards of this great straggling building are scrubbed and purified. The thin withered anxious faces which peer upwards from the white pillows, or rest in a slumber so like death.

Men with VD are placed in the ‘itch ward.’ (Small in capacity.)

Lying-in ward (a small room for birthing).

Imbeciles have their own rooms and day rooms.

A kitchen in the sick ward, but food comes 150 yards from main kitchens.

One fixed bath and one portable bath.

Badly ventilated generally, though some has been put in.

Too many men in each ward.

Only two paid nurses.

A pauper nurse and a helper to each ward men paid 1/6d each week.

Medical officer comes two/three times per week, daily if there’s an epidemic.

Rules (read aloud each week)

[These rules from the Hackney Workhouse 1750s, but (in my story) still in use.]

Morning prayers or lose a meal.

Not leave house without permission.

No liquor, quarrelling or fighting or lose a day’s meals.

Work or be kept on bread and water.

Wake bell at five every morning between Michaelmas and Lady Day.

Bed at nine in summer, eight in winter.

Bells for mealtimes.

No smoking in bed or bedrooms.

Roll call at six, one (lunch) and by eight (winter) if not there, punished.

General good behaviour, no telling lies or else sat on a stool in the dining room with a note pinned reading Infamous Lyar and no meal.

No defacing or graffiti.

You must not… Hang washing outside, go through the velvet lined door (staff).

‘When will somebody come and take me away?’


‘Fisherman short coat’ (see pinterest)


The effect of this is less observable in the boys, who are now coming out in single file, and dressed (sensibly enough this warm weather) in holland-pinafores over their corduroy trousers. Some of them are still masticating the last of the most tasty mouthful reserved as the finish of their mid-day meal; and, as they pass, hear a general resemblance to the other inmates, inasmuch as they stare at me, while they ruminate like so many young cows.

There are amongst both boys and girls many sickly, deformed, and stunted children who will, perhaps, carry with them to the grave these heritages of the gutter and the foul lodging-house where they struggled, like unhealthy plants, into such life as they possess; but in almost all of them I am rejoiced to see something of that elastic spirit which shows that here, too, the old suppression of every hope and promise of youth has been superseded by a gentler and more beneficent appreciation of the difference between poverty and crime.

Again, in the workhouses the church bells may be heard within the whitewashed walls, especially in the stillness of the night, and, when they have the long account of twelve to proclaim, how many are lying awake, staring at the dark and listening! In the old folks’ dormitory, for instance, a woeful watch-night is it for scores of those whose shrunken cheek presses the hard pillow, and the more so, perhaps, after the mild excitement that Christmas brings into even a workhouse ward. It brings couples together that at ordinary times the Poor-law sets asunder; and there is the banquet of roast beef and pudding, and the half-pint of beer, and maybe the unwonted luxury of a quarter- ounce of snuff or a half-ounce of tobacco. All very proper and enjoyable to such an extent that for the time being it makes the grey- haired paupers forget everything but the treat in progress. But the worst of it is, after such stirring times, there comes reaction.

The Master

The master is in a great heat from the exertion of [- 71-] carving and weighing, although he is a tall muscular gentleman, with somewhat of a military bearing, and (notwithstanding his open collar) a way of holding his head, as though he had at one time looked at the world over a stiff leather stock.

daily visit to the different wards after resuming his neckerchief, and a particularly fresh-looking linen coat.


The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 – Chapter 4 – A London Workhouse

Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883]

1881 census