This growth in the number of workhouses was prompted by the Workhouse Test Act of 1723; by obliging anyone seeking poor relief to enter a workhouse and undertake a set amount of work, usually for no pay (a system called indoor relief), the Act helped prevent irresponsible claims on a parish's poor rate.The growth in the number of workhouses was also bolstered by the Relief of the Poor Act 1782, proposed by Thomas Gilbert.Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike, perhaps the origin of the workhouse's nickname.
The workhouse is an inconvenient building, with small windows, low rooms and dark staircases.
Those entering a workhouse might have joined anything from a handful to several hundred other inmates; for instance, between 17 Liverpool's workhouse accommodated 900–1200 indigent men, women and children.
The larger workhouses such as the Gressenhall House of Industry generally served a number of communities, in Gressenhall's case 50 parishes.
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.