The Archaeology of Poverty


This talk (given on 19 February 2016) was co-presented by Drs. Andrew Gritt and Lewis Darwen and looked at the physical manifestations of poverty on the built environment in Lancashire, with a particular focus on the architecture of workhouses and how it shaped their form and function in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dr. Gritt began the talk by looking at the development of workhouses over the period. He explained that many early workhouses in Lancashire, built during the second half of the eighteenth century, were small buildings very much unlike their large nineteenth century counterparts. They had a ‘homely’ feel, both in their appearance and the way they functioned, catering as they did for elderly people in the local community. The appearance and role of the workhouse, Dr. Gritt demonstrated, changed following the passage of the Poor Law Amendment (also known as the New Poor Law) in 1834. The New Poor Law marked a significant shift in the principles behind social welfare in England and Wales. It placed the ‘less eligible’ union workhouse at the heart of welfare, and slowly unions across Lancashire began building very large workhouses according to this specification. In these new institutions paupers were separated according to age and sex, and strict discipline was encouraged to deter potential applicants for relief. The architecture of eighteenth and nineteenth century workhouses was therefore crucial to the way they functioned as institutions, and changed as the principles behind social welfare evolved. However, this is only part of the story. The New Poor Law was very strongly opposed in many Lancashire unions, and the refusal to erect a union workhouse epitomised the resistance campaign that emerged. This was discussed by Dr. Darwen, who through a case study of the Preston union was able to show how competing ideological convictions over the way poor relief should be administered divided key figures in Preston for over thirty years. On the one side was Joseph Livesey, better known as leader of the Temperance movement, who felt the union workhouse was an impracticable and inhumane solution to poverty in a manufacturing district. On the other, Thomas Batty Addison, a wealthy local magistrate, who felt the disciplined less eligible union workhouse was the only way of reforming the poor. The Preston union workhouse, still standing on Watling Street Road in Fulwood, was finally opened in 1868, and thereafter the number of paupers in Preston declined significantly. Addison was right – workhouses could deter the poor – but at what human cost it was achieved is another matter. 

Dr Lewis Darwen

(photo of Preston Union Workhouse, Watling Street Road, Fulwood, by Dr Andrew Gritt)



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