Before the welfare state Britain had the workhouses. These were places were the indigent could be taken off the streets and provided with food and shelter.
This is the workhouse in Ripon in Yorkshire. It was built in 1854. Part of it is a museum and the rest is used as accommodation for Ripon’s Social Services Departments.
Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly desperate destitute would apply. Poverty was seen as the fault of the poor and deserving of punishment. A philosophy that would seem familiar to some US Republicans and UK Conservatives.
Demand for accommodation often exceeded its supply so supply was rationed by making the workhouses unpleasant. Sometimes very unpleasant.
If a man became ill or injured and could not find work, he and his family might be reduced to starving in the streets. The workhouse was a last refuge. On entry a family would be split up. Men, women and children each had separate sections and were not allowed to talk to each other.
Charlie Chaplin spent some time with his mother in Lambeth workhouse. When he and his half-brother returned to the workhouse after school he was met at the gate by his mother, dressed in her own clothes. Desperate to see them again she had discharged herself and the children; they spent the day together, after which she readmitted them all to the workhouse.
All had to work. Often the work was arduous and unpleasant, such as breaking stones, bone crushing to produce fertilizer, or picking oakum. In the Andover workhouse starving paupers were reduced to fighting over the rotting bones they were supposed to be grinding, to suck out the marrow
Workhouses had a bad reputation as the illustration below indicates.
The problem with rationing by nastiness was that life was usually very nasty for the working poor outside the workhouse. Workhouses might seem harsh places by modern standards but when someone was admitted they would be given a bath and a clean uniform, their clothes would be fumigated and they would have somewhere clean and dry to sleep. Food was simple but better than begging in the streets. Some workhouses had schools for children and medical care was available. Neither of which was available to the poor in England living outside workhouses. In some respects workhouse inmates were better off than the employed poor.
As you can see from the photo below the Ripon Workhouse buildings were well constructed on a spacious site. The workhouse had a garden and orchard where inmates could grow their own food.
During the 19th century workhouses became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor.
Ripon began providing overnight accommodation for tramps. After both World Wars there were many men who took to the road. Some would have been shell shocked.
The workhouse had a Tramp Major to look after the tramps.
Some of the tramps were mentally ill and the workhouse had a restraint chair to control them.
Although workhouses were formally abolished in 1930, many continued as Public Assistance Institutions. It was not until the National Assistance Act of 1948 that the workhouses disappeared.