Laura Foster, ‘Merry Christmas in the Workhouse’
Laura Foster completed her PhD at Cardiff University in 2014. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the representation of the workhouse in nineteenth-century culture, with a particular focus upon periodical publications and visual material. Her most recently published article, ‘Dirt, Dust and Devilment: Uncovering Filth in the Workhouse and Casual Wards’, is available to read online at Victorian Network.
A perusal of the December issues of the Illustrated London News or the Graphic is a gratifying pastime for anyone indulging a sense of nostalgia for a quintessential ‘Victorian’ Christmas. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, Christmas had become a lavish affair for the affluent classes, complete with decorated trees, cards, gifts, carols, and luxury foods. The Graphic Christmas Number for 1876 captures a sense of the abundance and jollity of the festive season.
In the illustration Worn out with Pleasure (figure 1), for instance, two prettily-dressed little girls are pictured being carried over the threshold of their well-to-do home, tired out after attending a Christmas party.
Stirring the Christmas Pudding (figure 2) depicts the interior of a middle-class kitchen, in which small children are helped to participate in the traditional stirring of the pudding.
Children are again the focus of Returning Home with the Spoils (figure 3), in which five little girls sit fast asleep in a carriage, surrounded by toys purchased by their father on a shopping trip. Together, these illustrations project an appealing vision of the Victorian Christmas that centres upon the child, the family, and the home.
Nestled within these scenes of bourgeois plenty, however, is Hubert Von Herkomer’s Christmas in a Workhouse (figure 4), an illustration that depicts elderly pauper women within the confines of the institution.
The focus on poverty, old age, and loss provides a stark contrast to the indulgence pictured in much of the surrounding material. In fact, representations of the workhouse at Christmas were part and parcel of the festive season; the festivities enjoyed by paupers on this day were frequently featured in the columns of newspapers and visualised in engravings. Although the 1834 New Poor Law had initially sought to ban any Christmas-day extras in the workhouse, the holiday had enough cultural importance that many workhouses, nonetheless, continued to treat their paupers to a festive dinner. By mid-century, the rules governing the workhouse Christmas had been relaxed in the face of popular opinion and opposition from the poor-law guardians, and workhouses were eventually authorised to provide a Christmas dinner out of the poor rates.
The middle classes became increasingly involved with the workhouse Christmas. By providing decorated Christmas trees, organising entertainments, and donating gifts, members of the public were able to participate in seasonal traditions of charitable giving to the poor.
Herkomer’s illustration is in keeping with traditional festive displays of generosity. The subject of the image is charitable giving, and the scene depicts a pauper woman being helped by a younger female assistant to receive a gift of tea from a lady visitor. Beneath the picture, a poem reflects on the transience of youth and the misery of ending life in the workhouse, but concludes with a festive representation of middle-class generosity:
Most days are sad, but not quite all,
For even the cheerless Workhouse hall,
When dawns the Christmas festival,
Looks bright and pleasant;
And then the kindly fairy’s last
Best gift —the tea— in teapot cast,
May bring to mind a far-off Past,
A welcome Present!
The visitor is constructed in these lines as a ‘kindly fairy’, her gift of tea a reminder of happier days.
However, while the poem suggests that Christmas-day charity ameliorates the sadness of workhouse life, the illustration is far more ambivalent. The gloomy interior pictured does not fulfil the ‘bright and pleasant’ description offered in the poem; although festive garlands drape the windows, and banners on the walls read ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘God Bless our Master and Matron’, the image itself feels, overall, rather bleak; the high windows, seated rows of paupers, and evidence of segregation between the genders, all reiterate the disciplinary nature of the institution, and draw attention to the lack of homely comfort for the elderly poor.
The three women foregrounded in the scene form a tableau vivant of gift-giving that covertly draws attention to the staged nature of these ideological rituals. There is a latent sense of performance about this display: each pauper must wait her turn to approach the visitor and the exchange of the gift is watched by both a seated workhouse audience and, implicitly, the readers of the Graphic.
There is, moreover, also a sense of obligation inherent in the depiction of the elderly woman; the younger assistant not only supports the older woman to approach the visitor, but physically holds up her arm in a deferential begging posture. Significantly, the elderly pauper and her helper are privileged over the middle-class visitor by their central position and the light illuminating their figures.
By placing the pauper centre stage, the illustration shifts the central focus of the scene away from charitable giving, and instead asks a viewer to contemplate this individual and her experience of living out old age in the workhouse. Rather than a celebration of philanthropic work, the image works more effectively as a criticism of the state’s treatment of the aged poor.
Published on the opposite page to Returning Home with the Spoils, Christmas in a Workhouse offers a striking contrast to this vision of middle-class consumerism. The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth underlines the fragility of home, family, and wealth, and reminds readers of the Graphic that not everyone would be enjoying a merry Christmas.
 ‘Christmas in a Workhouse’, Graphic Christmas Number, 25 December 1876, p. 30.
Armstrong, Neil, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010)
Durbach, Nadja, ‘Roast Beef, the New Poor Law, and the British Nation, 1834-63’, Journal of British Studies, 52 (2013), 963-989.
Pimlott, J. A. R., The Englishman’s Christmas: A Social History (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1978)
Images in Graphic Christmas Number, 25 December 1876
— Christmas in a Workhouse, p. 30
— Returning Home with the Spoils, p. 31
— Stirring the Christmas Pudding, p. 19
— Worn out with Pleasure, p. 14
Provided courtesy of Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives