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In one such case in 1814 the wife and child of Henry Cook, who were living in Effingham workhouse, were sold at Croydon market for one shilling (5p); the parish paid for the cost of the journey and a "wedding dinner".
The workhouse is an inconvenient building, with small windows, low rooms and dark staircases.
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.
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.
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.
It put the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales at more than 1800 (approximately one parish in seven), with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places.
Gilbert's Act was intended to allow parishes to share the cost of poor relief by forming unions – known as Gilbert Unions – to build and maintain even larger workhouses to accommodate the elderly and infirm.