In the workhouse – getting more specific

I think I’ve decided on an approach for my book – I’m going to look at five people or groups of people, choosing a range of situations, and look at the people themselves, what their lives were like and why they might have been in the workhouse. While doing so I’ll take a look at life in the workhouse more generally, and what life and available support was like for people in their situation, so having a general look with a very specific group of people in mind. Comments on that welcome!

So my five groups are:

  • The orphaned Newing family – five children who went in the workhouse after both parents died. In fact my research shows that they went in with their mother a year or so earlier, after the death of their father, were discharged with their mother and then were back in shortly after when she died as well. So what killed her and her husband, who were both in their very early thirties? What fate awaited orphans? How did they escape from the workhouse and what sort of life could they make for themselves?
  • The elderly Goodwins – both in the workhouse at the age of 74. Both died in the workhouse. Was this a typical end for an elderly couple? What can I find out of their life before the workhouse? Was it successful up until then or were they, like some other families I’ve found, frequent visitors?
  • The lunatic John Hearnden – a single man, never married, working as a labourer and a hawker, in the workhouse at the age of 49 branded a lunatic, and moved on to Kent Lunatic Asylum. What was actually wrong with him? How was he treated?
  • The single parent family the Curds – this is the latest research I’ve been doing, and involves Emily Curd, an unmarried domestic servant who at the age of 25 went into the workhouse with two children and left a few months later with three. The youngest died before reaching the age of 2 (possibly on a return visit to the workhouse for the whole family). Emily then married Brice Kemp, who was either the father of her children or adopted them, as he is listed in later censuses as their father, and had three other children.
  • The single lady Sarah May, who wormed her way in by dint of appearing so often in the admission and discharge register, heading in every few weeks, staying a few days and then leaving again. At the time of the 1881 census she was listed as unmarried, 57 and a charwoman by trade.

What I’m finding interesting now is that for tomorrow’s research session, unlike previous sessions where I’ve gone in to see what I can find out generally, I’m going in with specific questions to answer:

  • Can I find the record of the birth of Emily’s baby in the workhouse?
  • Did she die in the workhouse? If so, can I find the entry of her death?
  • Who was listed as the father? Can I find out anything about the father of the other two girls? Was Brice Kemp their father or did he take on two illegitimate girls alongside his new wife?

I also need to find out what sort of records I’ll have access to regarding births, marriages and deaths – I’m not sure whether the only way to see the full records is to order copies of certificates, which will incur costs, or whether it’s possible to read the entries for myself.

I have a microfilm prebooked for me tomorrow. I can’t actually recall what it was, but I have details written down of the resources that I would find useful. Two that I really want to look at are the punishment book and the medical officer’s book, as they might give me more specific ideas of what life was like in there.

I’ve also got books on the workhouse that I purchased but haven’t read yet – I need to get stuck into those, to see what more general information I can find out.

I sent a message to someone on this morning, the first time I’ve made the effort to contact someone who looks like they’re researching the same tree, because not only does it look very certain that it’s Emily Curd’s tree he’s researching, but he actually has a photo of her! It was very strange to look at the photo of this lady standing in a doorway and think that it’s one of the actual people I’m finding out more about via old records.


Leave a comment


  1. This sounds a fascinating project. Good luck with it.

  2. Hi, you have a very interesting project and have picked a wonderful cross section of groups. I would say though, don’t fall for the popular notion that everything about workhouses was ‘grim’. Many people, especially children, were better fed, housed and educated. A lot depends on the location and the date, of course. Have a look at my blog Workhouse Tales and I’d be pleased to help 😊

    • Brilliant, thanks – your blog looks fascinating. And yes, I want to find out what it was really like in there. I’m looking in more detail at the Newings at the moment and trying to find out how they left the workhouse and what provision was made generally for orphans. Although the medical officers report on the invalid wards doesn’t bode well for Mary Goodwin’s last days (next blog post).


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