Oliver Twist In "Victorian Era" US (sort of) or What were almshouses actually like?

Don’t know if this fits here but here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while and haven’t really been able to find an answer to.

So I have a story on my hard drive which I describe as a combination of *Oliver Twist *, Blade Runner and Gangs of New York. It’s the basic Oliver Twist plot with a bit of cyberpunk and steampunk in a future setting which looks a lot like 19th century NYC (well it looks like 19th century Brooklyn which IIRC was only a part of NYC in 1898 and the period the look and society of the setting is based off is the 1830s). So for example there are huge dirigibles which track escaped criminals, Fagin’s kids have back-alley implants which make them better thieves and Oliver is a clone of his dead father.

Now for an Australian I think I know quite a bit about NYC in the 19th century. Oliver’s workhouse would have been an almshouse and he would more likely have eaten mush than gruel. He would probably have slept in the same room with adults who had infectious diseases or suffered from mental illnesses and would normally have been confined in the 19th century. In fact in May 1841 there actually was a baby called “Oliver Twist” in a Manhattan almshouse. Little Oliver was a foundling who died after two months. :frowning:

But what I’m curious about is just how Oliver Twist, the fictional Dickens character would have lived differently if he was American instead of English. Would it really have been all that different? For example were almshouse inmates expected to do the same type of work as British workhouse inmates? Beyond types of food and living quarters what were the differences between U.S. almshouses and British workhouses if there were any? Would there ever have been a situation in which Oliver could have gone up and asked, “Please sir, I want some more”?

In the 1800’s there was a big push for child welfare that resulted in the opening up of a lot of dedicated orphanages that were intended to try to give children a more nurturing environment with other children, so it’s quite possible that your hypothetical protagonist would have ended up in one of those places. There was also a movement to send kids out of the inner city (which was seen as less than an ideal location) into rural areas. These were the so-called “orphan train” kids. Of course, as you’d expect, a lot of these kids ended up on farms in Iowa or Kansas and were abused as unfree manual labor.

Some resources to get you started:


IIRC the Orphan Trains weren’t around until the 1850s.

EDIT to last post: Thanks Robert. That second article was especially interesting.
I remember reading about the Catholic opposition to Children’s Aid Society a while ago.

And the kids working at trades in the orphanages-- it would be pretty much impossible to get away with that today.

The difference is that in Europe, there was no shortage of people, there was a shortage of land. In the USA it was the opposite, hence the huge immigration. I suspect orphans in the USA 1800’s would have been “farmed out” as farm hand adoptees.

@md: Yes they often were…

In fact, there was a program (1920’s? 1930’s?) where orphan childrena ndchildren seized from their parents in Britain were given “a new life awaits you in the colonies”, actually sent to work on farms in Canada. Similarly, the iconic Canadian story “Anne of Green Gables” starts off with Anne being shipped off to live with an older brother and sister who had been expecting to “adopt” a teenage boy to help run their farm.

So there were plenty of places to send poor children, and even unemployed poor adults in North America. Whereas Europe’s problem was the opposite, a lot of poor people and nothing to do with them - so they were typically locked away in poorhouses or workhouses.

In the program “who do you think you are?” I think it was Rosie O’Donnell who tours the 1800’s workhouse where some of her anscestors were housed befor they left for the new world.

@md: That program was known as the Home Children here in Australia. Was it also called that in Canada?

In fact there are a number of children’s historical novels dealing with it (I remember reading one called Orphans of the Queen)

This is a very good place to start.


The popular image of the workhouse is largely a Victorian development, where the purpose was changed so that poverty itself became a punishable condition - good old Victorian values. They became known as ‘Moral and Industrial training schools’

It’s surprising to find just how many former workhouses are still standing and being used for other purposes, with the occupant having no clue to the history around them.

I was born here, but it was a hospital by that time, but given my background, if that had been maybe 50 years earlier, I’d have been a resident.


@casdave: I wonder how different the conditions were in the 17th century.

There was a difference in the concept of the almshouse and the workhouse.

The almshouse was considered as being suitable for the ‘deserving poor’ - these might be individuals with no capacity to work, who were considered to be previously diligent.These might be housed in local poor relief in almhouses where they might be asked to carry out some minor local function such as maintaining village streets, keeping them clean, or looking after a churchyard, but the tasks would not be onerous, and their welfare might even have been considered a duty by locals.

Then there were the ‘underserving poor’. These could include all sorts of folk, and not just the obvious wasters. Such folk were reckoned to be capable of work and needed ‘encouragement’. One problem was that there were always more poor than the almshouses could accommodate, or that the local institutions were prepared to support.

Orphaned children might well be put into institutions where they would be taught a trade, and frequently they went into service.

The absolute grim nightmare workhouse is not a myth, nor is it completely accurate, there were different degrees of workhouse at different times and places.

@casdave: Thanks for that explanation. AFAIK though since we’re talking about the States the terms “almshouse” or “poorhouse” and “workhouse” referred to two different but very similar concepts. “Almshouse” seems to have referred to a place where the poor got food and shelter and worked to maintain the place. “Workhouse” referred to a similar place with more emphasis on work.

Edinburgh had all sorts of different workhouses, poorhouses, etc. in the 19th C. A big new one was opened in 1870 and this page has all sorts of details about it, including room sizes, heating, ventilation, hospital facilities, etc. Also exterior pictures showing that, having been a hospital for several decades, it’s now a fairly prestigious set of apartment blocks. Scroll down to Edinburgh City (Craiglockhart) Poorhouse
When it was built the site at Craiglockhart would have seemed very remote away from the main roads on the periphery of the expanding city…

Very interesting Meurglys!

Anyone know much about American poorhouses? I did find this and this book (which I can’t get, unfortunately).

Details of the food served in US almshouses