Lifecycle Poverty and Women’s Experience of the Farnborough Workhouse
(Bromley, Kent), 1845-1881

Hollis, Katarzyna (2020). Lifecycle Poverty and Women’s Experience of the Farnborough Workhouse
(Bromley, Kent), 1845-1881.
Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
Copyright resides with the author.


Destitute women in Victorian society were trapped between contradictory expectations. On the one hand religious theories stressed women’s natural fragility as better suited for domestic duties; on the other hand, women were expected to work, support themselves and their children. When those roles collided, the most vulnerable women were often trapped in lifecycle poverty. This dissertation examines women’s life events such as pregnancies, motherhood, illnesses, widowhood and ageing; and it investigates to what degree those elements had an impact on increased periods of their impoverishment and reliance on workhouses.

The dissertation focuses on Farnborough workhouse in Bromley, which was opened in 1845 and operated until its transition into a hospital in 1907. The workhouse has a rich and fascinating history, and therefore it makes a good local case study and an excellent addition to the historiography on the subject of poor laws and their effect on women. There is a considerable collection of primary sources available to study, however to build a more comprehensive picture this dissertation centres on Farnborough’s early years from 1845 until 1881.

A number of conclusions are drawn from the study, which is divided into three key sections. The first part focuses on national historiography and demonstrates that poor law administrators on national level did not address the reasons behind women’s lifecycle poverty. The next section brings into focus Farnborough workhouse. It argues that the local guardians were preoccupied with everyday running of the institution, but the implications of long-term destitution among their female paupers did not concern them above their line of duty. The third part gives a voice to Farnborough women. It concludes that for some young, single and healthy women the workhouse offered a chance to regain control over their lives. However, for many mothers, widows and sick inmates, Farnborough offered immediate protection, but in a long-term it did not positively alter the course of their poverty-stricken lives.

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