Cold Reality of Workhouses Depicted in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist

Cold Reality of Workhouses Depicted in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist

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Cold Reality of Workhouses Depicted in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist


  Imagine abruptly woken to the harsh sounds of demanding yelling and screaming only to find yourself still shivering from the lack of hole-filled sheets that they call blankets.  Feeling fatigued from another sleepless night and faintly from the malnutrition, you eagerly await your habitual serving of gruel for breakfast.  Extremely weak from the meager portion, the never-ending day begins as you are led to do various different chores throughout the day.  This is the life in a workhouse.

           Workhouses “were places where poor homeless people worked and in return they were fed and housed.  In 1834 The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced which wanted to make the workhouse more of a deterrent to idleness as it was believed that people were poor because they were idle and needed to be punished.  So people in workhouses were deliberately treated harshly and the workhouses were more like prisons” (Internet source – Charles Dickens 1812-1870).  Charles Dickens realistically portrayed the horrible conditions of the 19th century workhouses in his novel Oliver Twist.  Dickens attempted to improve the workhouse conditions and as a result, his novel helped influence changes in the problem.

           Dickens’ novel shows people how things really were in the workhouses during the 19th century.  A child of the parish “ had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world” (Twist p.5).  Here Dickens shows how children were starved, neglected, inappropriately dressed, and mistreated.  His statement also claims that many of the times, the children died in a result to the poor environment.  The encyclopedia provides a more general explanation as it simply states that the “conditions in the workhouses were deliberately harsh and degrading” (The New Encyclopedia Britannica Vol.12 p.755). 

           Another passage in the novel describes how one of the children of the parish was treated when not to their liking.  A boy named Oliver received “a tap on the head [from the cane of the parish beadle] to wake him up: and another on the back to make him lively” (Twist p.

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10).  The boy then received another tap in the back that terrified him more and brought him tears.  Later in the novel, it is discovered that the same boy is sent into the cold weather to “perform his ablutions, every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble [the parish beadle], who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane” (Twist p.15).  These cruel acts show no sympathy to the workhouse children.  Frank Crompton, the author of the book Workhouse Children, writes “life was monotonous and inmates, including children, were given menial and degrading tasks to perform, thus impressing on them their lowly conditions” (p.37).  The people in the workhouses had no choice.  “There was no welfare state, so those who were deprived of land and left unemployed found themselves forced to work in prison-like conditions in the workhouses” (Internet source – Charles Dickens: We Could All Use Some More).  It is obvious that workhouses were an attempt to solve the poverty problem.

           Dickens novel shows the social injustice of the 19th century.  He is an author who wanted a change in society, and helped influence the reformation.  In an essay written by Gareth Jenkins on Oliver Twist, he writes that through the novel, “there is hope that by exposing the horrors of the workhouse, on the brutality and deficiency of education, that decent men and women will take steps to reform society” (Internet source – Charles Dickens: We Could All Use Some More).  In the novel, Dickens shows through the character of a young boy how the poor in the workhouses were beaten by a cane, and nearly starved given “three issued meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and a half roll on Sundays” (Twist p.11).  Dickens used his writings “to tell about the bad conditions that the working classes and poor people had to live under.  He hoped that by doing this that things would change for the good” (Internet source – Charles Dickens 1812-1870).  There is no positive way to find out if Dickens was solely responsible for the dissolution of the workhouses.  However, it is fair to say that he helped influence the change in society as “Dickens and other important people that thought like him gradually got conditions in the workhouses improved” (Internet source – Charles Dickens).

Through the novel Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens shows people the reality of the 19th century workhouses.  Along with many firm believers, Dickens attack on the unjust social system helped influence society, as “conditions in the workhouses improved later in the 19th century, and social-welfare services and the social-security system supplanted workhouses altogether in the first half of the 20th century” (The New Encyclopedia Britannica Vol.12 p.755).
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