State-provided relief for the poor dates from the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign in 1601, when the passing of an Act for the Relief of the Poor, made parishes legally responsible for taking care of their own poor. The Act provided that materials should be bought to provide work for the unemployed able-bodied...with the threat of prison for anyone who refused. It also stated that housing was to be erected for the impotent poor, the elderly, chronic sick, and so forth.
At that time, parish poor relief was dispensed mostly through "out-relief".....which was grants of money, clothing, food, or fuel, to those living in their own homes. The workhouse, however, gradually began to evolve in the 17th century as a form of "indoor relief", both to save the parish money, and also as a deterrent to the able-bodied who were required to work, usually without pay, in return for their board and lodging. The Workhouse Test Act in 1723, gave parishes the option of denying out-relief and offering claimants only the workhouse, which were many times just ordinary local houses, rented for the purpose, or specially built just for that.
Sometimes the poor were farmed----which meant a private contractor undertook to look after a parish's poor for a fixed annual sum; the paupers' work could be a useful way of increasing the contractor's income. Workhouses were not regarded as a place of punishment, or even privation. Actually conditions could be pleasant enough to earn some institutions the nickname of "Pauper Palaces".
The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes, called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little chance for visitors.
By the 1850's, most of those forced into the workhouse were not the work-shy...but the old, the infirm, the orphaned, the unmarried mothers, and the physically or mentally ill.
Workhouses were not a prison. People could usually leave whenever they wished such as when work became available locally. Some people who were known as the "Ins and outs", entered and left quite frequently, treating the workhouse almost like a guest-house even though it had the most basic of facilities. But for some, their stay in the workhouse would be for the rest of their lives.
Near the end of the 19th century, conditions gradually improved in the workhouses, especially for the elderly, infirm, and children. Food became better and a little more varied. The small luxuries such as books, newspapers, and even occasional outings were allowed. More and more, the children were housed away from the workhouses in special schools or in cottage homes which were in the countryside.
The workhouse era ended officially on April 1, 1930, and the buildings were sold off, demolished, or fell into disuse. Many of them became Public Assistance Institutions and continued to provide accommodation for the elderly, chronic sick, unmarried mothers and vagrants. As for the former inmates of these institutions, life often changed relatively little during the 1930's and 40's. Besides doing away with uniforms, and more freedom to come and go, things improved only slowly for them.