A workhouse was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment. The term was the usual word in England, Wales, and Ireland for the institution more commonly known in Scotland as a poorhouse. Its earliest known use dates from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon in which he reports that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke". The workhouse was colloquially known as 'The Spike' as a reference to the spikes used by the inmates to pick oakum, also specifically the casual ward of a workhouse.
Although small numbers of workhouses were established in other European countries, the system was most highly developed in England. Holland, for instance, had three large workhouses for the entire country, whereas the English county of Cheshire alone had 31 by 1777.[
Living conditions after 1847 were governed by the Consolidated General Order, which contained a list of rules covering every aspect of workhouse life including diet, dress, education, discipline, and redress of grievances. Inmates surrendered their own clothes and were required to wear a distinctive uniform. Men were provided with a striped cotton shirt, jacket and trousers, and a cloth cap. For women it was commonly a blue-and-white striped dress worn underneath a smock. Shoes were also provided.
Inmates were free to leave as they wished after giving reasonable notice, generally considered to be three hours, but if a parent discharged him or herself then the children were also discharged, to prevent them from being abandoned. Food and accommodation were provided free of charge, but by entering a workhouse paupers were held to have forfeited responsibility for their families; men and women were segregated and children were separated from their parents. In some cases, like that of Henry Cook in 1814, the Poor Law authorities forced the husband to sell his wife rather than have to maintain her and her child in the Effingham workhouse. She was bought at Croydon market for one shilling; the parish paid for the cost of the journey and a "wedding dinner
Education was provided for the children, but they were often forcibly apprenticed without the permission or knowledge of their parents. The comic actor Charlie Chaplin, who spent some time with his mother in Lambeth workhouse, records in his autobiography that when he and his half-brother returned to the workhouse after having been sent to a school in Hanwell he was met at the gate by his mother Hannah, dressed in her own clothes. Desperate to see them again she had discharged herself and the children; they spent the day together playing in Kennington Park and visiting a coffee shop, after which she readmitted them all to the workhouse.
There were many well-meaning measures, such as the provision of medical officers and chaplains, but in many ways the treatment in a workhouse was little different from that in a prison, leaving many inmates feeling that they were being punished for the crime of poverty. Some workhouse masters embezzled the money intended for blankets, food and other essential items. Visitors reported rooms full of sick or elderly inmates with threadbare blankets and the windows wide open to the freezing weather.