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Institutions: Prisons, Workhouses, Asylums

Seminar 3 - Institutions: Prisons, Workhouses, and Asylums


In the early 19th century institutions of care and rehabilitation changed dramatically with new legislation as parish boards were established and their borders negotiated. Important legislation include the New Poor Law of 1834 which expanded the workhouse system, the Lunatics Act of 1845 which resulted in the building of 36 new public asylums in two years, and the phasing out of Debtors’ Prisons into Local and Convict prisons through the Debtors Act of 1869.

*Please note that due to legislative differences workhouses, asylums, and prisons operated slightly differently across the four nations of the British Isles. For example, the 1834 New Poor Law only applied to England and Wales, not Scotland or Ireland. Unless specified otherwise, the bulk of our discussions this week will focus on these institutions in England and Wales.*

Optional intro material:

[PODCAST] 'Life in the Workhouse', History Extra (2021).

Primary sources to view in class:

Core readings:

Shepherd, Jade, ‘“I am very glad and cheered when I hear the flute”: The Treatment of Criminal Lunatics in the Late Victorian Asylum’, Medical History 60 (2016), pp. 473-491.

Ritch, Alistair, ‘Workhouse or asylum? Accommodating pauper lunatics in nineteenth-century England’, Medical History 67 (2023), pp. 109-127.

Williams, Samantha, ‘Paupers Behaving Badly: Punishment in the Victorian Workhouse’, Journal of British Studies 59 (2020), pp. 764-792.

Seminar questions:

· What are the key similarities and differences between these three institutional spaces?

· To what extent were each of these institutions designed to punish or reform?

· What was the role of the state in the running of these institutions?

· Was there room for agency in the Victorian institution?

· What are the methodological issues in studying this topic?

Further reading:

Bartlett, Peter, ‘The Asylum, the Workhouse, and the Voice of the Insane Poor in 19th-Century England’, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 21 (1998), pp. 421-432.

Carter, Paul, James, Jeff, King, Steve, ‘Punishing Paupers? Control, discipline, and mental health in the Southwell workhouse (1836-71)’, Rural History 30 (2019), pp. 161-180.

Crowther, M. A., The Workhouse System 1834-1929: The History of an English Social Institution (London: Routledge, 1981).

Driver, Felix, Power and pauperism: the workhouse system, 1834-1884 (Cambridge, 1993).

Durbach, Nadja, Many Mouths: The Politics of Food in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Hamlett, Jane, At Home in the Institution: Material Life in Asylums, Lodging Houses, and Schools in Victorian and Edwardian England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Hide, Louise, Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Higgs, Michelle, Life in the Victorian & Edwardian Workhouse (Stroud: Tempus, 2007).

Jones, Peter, ‘Looking through a Different Lens: Microhistory and the Workhouse Experience in Late Nineteenth-Century London’, Journal of Social History 4 (2022), pp.

Jones, Peter, and King, Steven, Pauper Voices, Public Opinion and Workhouse Reform in Mid-Victorian England (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2020).

--- ‘Fragments of Fury? Lunacy, Agency, and Contestation in the Great Yarmouth Workhouse, 1890s-1900s’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 51 (2020), pp.

McCrae, Niall, ‘The Beer Ration in Victorian Asylums’, History of Psychiatry 15 (2004), pp. 155-175.

Morrison, Kathryn, The Workhouse: a study of poor-law buildings in England (Swindon: English Heritage, 1999).

Moss, Eloise, ‘Sexual Harassment, Victimhood and Affective Self-Fashioning in Victorian England: The Bolton Workhouse Scandal, 1889-1890’, Gender & History 32 (2020), pp. 465-481.

Ossa-Richardson, Anthony, ‘Possession or Insanity? Two views from the Victorian Lunatic Asylum’, Journal of the History of Ideas 74 (2013).

Ritch, Alistair, Sickness in the Workhouse (Boydell & Brewer, 2020).

Shepherd, Jade, ‘“I am very glad and cheered when I hear the flute”: The Treatment of Criminal Lunatics in the Late Victorian Asylum’, Medical History 60 (2016), pp. 473-491.

Upton, Christopher, The Birmingham Parish Workhouse, 1730-1840 (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2019).

Wallis, Jennifer, Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum: Doctors, Patients, and Practices (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).