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18th Century Leeds: The Working Classes

The Leeds Workhouse

The workhouse was the last resort for working people - they only went there if they had no other choice. Most poor people lived in their own homes, but received money from the parish to help them. 

Illustration of the Leeds Workhouse showing large buildings with smoking chimneys. and people in the foreground.
Print of the Leeds Workhouse in 1832

People who applied to the workhouse were usually homeless, very young or elderly, ill or unable to get a job. The workhouse was run by the local parish, and a committee decided who would be accepted - only one in five of those who applied. 


A pauper's life

By 1755 43 men, 60 women and 53 children were living in Leeds Workhouse. Diseases, and outbreaks of sickness were common in the workhouse and in 1741 a quarter of the inmates died from smallpox.


There were strict rules in the workhouse and anyone who did not obey would be punished. Sometimes people were asked to leave because they had behaved badly or were thought able to get a job. Inhabitants were supposed to work to 'pay back' the money used for their care, but few earned enough to do so and the tasks they were given were usually very dull, like pulling apart old ropes.


Although the workhouse never managed to end poverty by putting the poor to work, it did help many people. There homeless people found shelter from the cold in winter, and out-of-work families were fed. Many would not have survived without it.


Discussion ideas:

  • What reasons might people have had for going to live in the workhouse?
  • How do you think they felt about being asked to do work like picking apart old rope?
  • What do you think it would be like to live in a workhouse?
  • How are things different today for people who are struggling to make a living?



Apply - to ask for something

Accepted - to take something that is offered

Committee - a group of people chosen to do something

Inhabitants - people living in a particular place

Outbreak - a sudden, unpleasant event

Parish - a local area with its own council and church

Poverty - not having enough money to pay for your basic needs