Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist The Real Workhouse

Charles Dickens was inspired to write Oliver Twist in part by the passage of the New Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This law created many of the structures that are so vilified in the novel, and was largely detested by the poor and certain of their supporters. The New Poor Law gave localized boards of guardians essentially total control over poor relief, so that these boards were largely independent of any centralized control. In the world of Oliver Twist, this is clearly a bad thing, but there are certain cases of the board being more liberal with the paupers it served than the law meant it to be.

The New Poor Law also created the workhouse structure, under the philosophy of the “workhouse test”—that only those willing to enter the unpleasant and liberty-reducing workhouses were poor enough to deserve aid. Those who entered the workhouse system were confined for twenty-four hours a day, separated from their children, parents, and spouses, and subject to rigorous discipline and arduous labor. The workhouse life was designed to be less desirable than the life of the lowest paid independent worker, so that their resources would not be too greatly taxed. Because of this, very few able bodied people chose to enter the workhouse system; the large majority of inmates were aged, infirm, or children.

The New Poor Law was effective in lowering the costs of relief to the poor, which was one of its primary goals. Although it has been largely denounced as cruel, and an example of the coldness and selfishness of the rising middle class, it was not always awful—in certain rural areas, it was much better suited to the societies, and was at least somewhat effective there in lowering the cost of poor relief as well as giving back some independence to those who were able to work.