But in areas such as the provision of free medical care and education for children, neither of which was available to the poor in England living outside workhouses until the early 20th century, workhouse inmates were advantaged over the general population, a dilemma that the Poor Law authorities never managed to reconcile.
As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals.
The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death in England by restricting the movement of labourers, and ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor.
But mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable.
The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups.
It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the "persistent idler" was to be punished.
These workhouses were established, and mainly conducted, with a view to deriving profit from the labour of the inmates, and not as being the safest means of affording relief by at the same time testing the reality of their destitution.
So keen were some Poor Law authorities to cut costs wherever possible that cases were reported of husbands being forced to sell their wives, to avoid them becoming a financial burden on the parish.The economic downturn following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century resulted in increasing numbers of unemployed.Coupled with developments in agriculture that meant less labour was needed on the land, Many suspected that the system of poor relief was being widely abused, and in 1832 the government established a Royal Commission to investigate and recommend how relief could best be given to the poor.They had been a significant source of charitable relief, and provided a good deal of direct and indirect employment.The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 made parishes legally responsible for the care of those within their boundaries who, through age or infirmity, were unable to work.According to historian Derek Fraser, the fear of social disorder following the plague ultimately resulted in the state, and not a "personal Christian charity", becoming responsible for the support of the poor.