What was life like for the Victorian poor?

Learning Objectives

  • To examine specific details of a visual source in order to work out its meaning.
  • To Extract information from a range of sources and reach conclusions about the quality of life in the workhouse, especially for children.
  • To represent views from the past accurately.


Possible Teaching Objectives

Starter (initial stimulus material)

  • Display the Victorian painting "The Homeless" by Sir Luke Fildes listed in the resources column to pupils, without revealing its title or what is going to be studied in this sequence of learning. Using SmartBoard, examine various sections to slowly reveal what might be happening. Pupils can begin to guess what else might be happening in the picture before moving on to another section. In pairs/groups pupils give the image a title based on their understanding of its content. After class discussion reveal the title of the painting and explain that the people in it are Victorians.
  • Display the layers of inference diagram listed in the resources column and run off sufficient paper copies for pupils to annotate in pairs. The diagram has the painting in its centre. In pairs, pupils annotate the details they observe in the painting itself around it in the inner layer of the diagram under the heading "What can you see?". They then move on to the extend their thinking in the outer layers under the more abstract headings "What does this suggest about the life of the poor?" and "What questions do you want to ask about the life of the poor?" Use the activity to assess their level of knowledge and understanding from any recent study of Victorian Britain. Explain that the aim of the first session of teaching is to find out what life was like for the Victorian poor.


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What was the workhouse like?

  • Introduce pupils to the question "What is a Victorian workhouse?"
  • Explain how the new Poor Law of 1834 established workhouses to help the poor. Show an image of a workhouse. Put up a plan of the workhouse drawn by Poor Law Commissioners and ask: "What does this tell us about what happened to families when they went into the workhouse?", "How does the plan show that the poor were to be treated properly in the workhouse?"
  • Download the support and criticism table worksheet listed in the resources column and distribute paper copies to individuals. Discuss with pupils whether the plan shown that poor people were treated well or harshly in the workhouse. Ask pupils to note any details that seems to show people were treated will and encouraged good behaviour in the support column of the worksheet and any details that show harsh treatment in the criticism column (the table is broken down into different sections et food, rules etc. Give out copies of further sources on the treatment of poorer people in the workhouse to groups of pupils - five sources per group (each group using the same sources). Pupils first work individually and then with their group to find information from each source to work out if it shows workhouses were too harsh (criticism) or if they treated people well and encouraged good behaviour (support) under different heading like family life etc. Head a class discussion on what workhouses were like and what information can be used under support and criticism columns on the table. Encourage pupils to refer to specific details recorded on their tables.


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Debate: Supporter or critic of the workhouse

  • Pupils then use their knowledge of the criticisms and praise of the workhouse to participate in pairs work. One pupil takes the role of a critic, the other of a supporter. Give two minutes for pairs to debate the issues from their assumed point of view. The activity may be repeated, with each pair swapping roles.
  • Plenary: class discussion - why did people disagree about workhouses in


Learning Outcomes

  • Annotate, comprehend and explain the meaning of Fildes' painting.
  • Extract relevant information from historical sources.
  • Use this information as evidence to support or contradict ideas about life in the workhouse.
  • Represent different views about the workhouse based upon arguments used at the time.

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