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Senate House Library

Women, the Workhouse and Victorian Philanthropy


Written by
Tansy Barton, Academic Librarian - Manuscripts & Book Studies

Our latest blog by Tansy Barton, Co-Curator of Childhood in Dickensian London & Academic Librarian - Manuscript and Book Studies, takes a look at women and the workhouses in Dickensian London.

The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in philanthropy in Britain, particularly among the burgeoning middle-classes. It addressed the growing social issues and deprivation created by urbanisation, industrialisation and inequalities of wealth.

When Charles Dickens was observing and writing about what he saw as the harsh treatment of the destitute in the 1830s and 1840s, charitable work was just starting to flourish. Dickens himself supported many philanthropic and charitable causes including the Hospital for Sick Children (now known at Great Ormond Street Hospital), the Ragged Schools that provided education for the poorest children and Urania Cottage, a home for young women ‘turned to a life of immorality’ that he founded with Angela Burdett-Coutts. By 1869, the year the Charity Organisation Society was founded to co-ordinate the work of many overlapping and disparate charities, there were over 200 individual organisations in London.

A lot of work focused on improving conditions in workhouses. This ranged from diet, to the education and living conditions of children, to care of the aged and sick in infirmaries. Middle-class women took up this work enthusiastically. They believed they were particularly suited to this based on their experiences of caring as mothers and daughters. Often female inmates of workhouses were already performing similar roles, visiting the sick in the infirmary, acting as untrained nurses and caring for children. In this blog we will look at two of the women featured in our exhibition who strove to improve the workhouses. 


Louisa Twining and the Campaign for Workhouse Visiting

Louisa Twining (1820-1912) was the ninth and youngest child of the tea merchant, Richard Twining. Her interest in workhouses and the conditions of their inmates began after a visit to the Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street in 1853. She first went to visit an elderly woman, Mrs Stapleton, who she had become acquainted with in the poor area of Clare Market in Lincoln’s Inn and who had ended up in the workhouse in her last days. Seeing the good her visit did for her friend and other inmates, she resolved to bring more visitors to the workhouse. However, on applying to the chairman of the local Poor Law Board she was told that ‘unpaid and voluntary efforts were not sanctioned.’ Although she was supported by the regional board, she faced a battle with local authorities and came up against ’the power of “red-tape.”’ Women’s involvement and ‘interference’ was not welcomed.

Twining continued to visit workhouses and published two pamphlets reporting her observations with the aim of publicising the problems in workhouses. The most significant step in her campaign came in 1857 with the establishment of the Workhouse Visiting Association with Twining as the honorary secretary. The aim of the society was to create a voluntary system of visitors, principally ladies, and one of their main objectives was ’befriending the destitute and orphan children, while in the schools, and after they are placed in situations.’

Twining observed bad practice in the management of the institutions and particularly in the care and comfort given in their infirmaries. She trained as a nurse and campaigned on the need to provide trained medical staff and specialist facilities in infirmaries for the poor. She published numerous books and pamphlets on women’s work, particularly the role they should play not only as workhouse visitors but as Poor Law Guardians as well, supporting the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians and becoming its chairwoman. Women were allowed to stand as poor law guardians from 1875, and Twining served as a guardian herself in Kensington (1884–90) and Tunbridge Wells (1893–96). Her pamphlet, Suggestions for Women Guardians (1893) is on display in our exhibition.


‘Ladies know nothing of such places and better keep out of them’

Louisa Twining was part of a larger movement of women working to establish a role as workhouse visitors. An earlier campaign is represented in the exhibition with a unique item from the archive of Sophia De Morgan (1809–1892). It is a manuscript-draft of a petition to the ‘Directors of the Poor of St Pancras’ proposing that the women of the parish form a committee to visit the local workhouses, dated circa 1850. This is described as ‘an important sphere of usefulness that is open to ladies’ where, among other things, they would ‘superintend the working of the schools, to observe the conditions of the infant nurseries, and to suggest from time to time, such changes as may appear to us likely to conduce to the well-being of the poor.’ 

Sophia Elizabeth Frend De Morgan came from a family of intellectuals and was acquainted with many great figures of the nineteenth century. Her interests were varied, including spiritualism, women’s suffrage and emancipation and increasing their access to higher education: she was involved in the foundation of Bedford College in 1849, the first higher education college for women in England. De Morgan became interested in workhouse reform after moving to the St Pancras area following her marriage to Augustus De Morgan in 1837.

Sophia De Morgan reminisced on her experiences of improving workhouse conditions in The English Woman’s Review in 1889.  She had heard accounts from the poor people of the parish of the treatment they had received which gave ‘reason to fear that a great deal of misrule and neglect prevailed.’ Wanting to see the truth of the conditions for herself, she applied to visit the workhouse with a letter of recommendation, and, like Twining, was met with refusal and dismissal by the local Poor Law Guardians who saw no value in women being given access to the workhouse. But with changes in the administration in 1854, her persistence succeeded: she was not only  given permission to visit but also to set up the committee of ladies to regularly visit the wards and suggest improvements. The committee was possibly the first of its kind.

The work of the many women like Louisa Twining and Sophia De Morgan had a significant impact on improving the conditions in workhouses and expanding the provision of better care and education for destitute children.  A memoir on Sophia De Morgan in The Woman’s Herald following her death in 1892 noted the improvements made since 1850s. It also stressed the importance of women’s role in philanthropy, particularly involving girls: ‘Naturally their condition would be more hopeful if matters were carried out by a mixed body of men and women, than if treated by men alone. Women are so much more ready than men to perceive and correct the growing abuses which creep into large Institutions.’

Tansy Barton, Co-Curator of Childhood in Dickensian London & Academic Librarian - Manuscript and Book Studies

Picture credits:

Louisa Twining c. 1906. By Elliott & Fry - [1], CC BY 4.0,

Sophia de Morgan - from the Senate House Library collections.