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Workhouse Uniform

Originally, the Poor Law Commissioners anticipated that union workhouse inmates would make their own clothes and shoes, providing a useful work task and a cost saving. However, they probably failed to realise the level of skill required to perform this and uniforms were more usually bought-in. Uniforms were usually made from fairly coarse materials with the emphasis being on hard-wearing rather than on comfort and fitting.

In 1837, the Guardians of Hereford union advertised for the supply of inmates' clothing. For the men this consisted of jackets of strong 'Fernought' cloth, breeches or trousers, striped cotton shirts, cloth cap and shoes. For women and girls, there were strong 'grogram' gowns, calico shifts, petticoats of Linsey-Woolsey material, Gingham dresses, day caps, worsted stockings and woven slippers. ('Fernought' or 'Fearnought' was a stout woollen cloth, mainly used on ships as outside clothing for bad weather. Linsey-Woolsey was a fabric with a linen, or sometimes cotton, warp and a wool weft — its name linked by some to the village of Lindsey in Suffolk, or simply derived from "Lin" (an old name for flax) and "wool". Grogram was a coarse fabric of silk, or of mohair and wool, or of a mixture of all these, often stiffened with gum.)

By 1900, male inmates were usually kitted out in jacket, trousers and waistcoat. Instead of a cap, the bowler-style billycock hat was adopted in some unions, both in the north such as Doncaster in Yorkshire, and in the south such as Tonbridge in Kent.

Male inmates of Tonbridge workhouse, c. 1897.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Male inmates, c.1911.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In later years, the uniform for able-bodied women was generally a shapeless, waistless shift, often in blue-and-white-striped cotton material, reaching to the ankles, perhaps with a smock over.

Able-bodied female inmates' uniforms, 1920s.
© St James Hospital, Leeds.

Holborn Mitcham workhouse laundry, 1896.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The typical uniform for older women was a long gown, apron, shawl and bonnet or mop-cap.

Old women inmates' uniforms, c.1902.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Old women inmates' uniforms, c.1911.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Doncaster Hexthorpe Lane inmates, 1890s.
Reproduced by kind permission of Doncaster Library and Information Services.

Holborn Mitcham workhouse old women dining, 1896.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Barham inmates, early 1900s.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The daughter of the matron of Ongar workhouse in the early 1900s recalls that:

My mother made all the women's dresses, I think. They were blue and white striped cotton material, lined. Some wore white aprons and some did not. I think the ones who worked wore caps, and the dear grannies who did not work, bonnets. They had woollen material shawls to wear, and red flannel petticoats tied around the waist, thick black stockings and black shoes or boots. The men wore thick corduroy trousers, thick black jackets and black hats, grey flannel shirts, black thick socks and hobnailed boots.

In some workhouses, the custom was practiced of marking out certain categories of inmate by clothing of a particular style or colour. At Bristol, in the 1830s, for example, prostitutes wore a yellow dress, and unmarried pregnant women a red one. In 1839, the Poor Law Commissioners issued a minute entitled "Ignominious Dress for Unchaste Women in Workhouses" in which they deprecated these practices. However, more subtle forms of such identification often continued. At the Mitford and Launditch workhouse at Gressenhall, unmarried mothers were made to wear a 'jacket' of the same material used for other workhouse clothing. This practice, which resulted in their being referred to as 'jacket women', continued until 1866.

Workhouse nurses and cooks wore conventional attire of the period for those occupations - starched aprons and hats etc.

Mr and Mrs Solomon and workhouse staff, 1905.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The workhouse porter often wore a formal uniform with braid or piping.

Burnley workhouse porter and nurse, c.1906.
© Peter Higginbotham.

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