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My life in the workhouse

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By David Claytonauthor

A recount of a child’s life in a typical Victorian workhouse, complete with a virtual tour. Children can click on hot spots to reveal labels, captions and further information and to hear sound effects.


Leaflet 1 and Leaflet 2 offer extracts from Berlie Doherty’s novel and play Street Child, featuring a London workhouse. This on-screen resource can be used before or after the group reading sessions to explore the fact behind the fiction. It includes a virtual tour of a workhouse. Children can click on hot spots to reveal labels, captions and further information and to hear sound effects.

Before reading

  • What do the children know about workhouses? What do they expect to find in the text? What are their feelings about workhouses?
  • Discuss how to navigate the text and what to click on first.


  • Read the text together or read it in pairs/as a group/independently.
  • Challenge the children to find specific information and to explain how they found it. Was the resource easy to use? How has the writer brought the information to life?
  • Compare a daily workhouse routine with the school timetable.
  • Compare the text with that in Leaflet 1 (from Street Child by Berlie Doherty). How does the purpose and language of each text differ?

Previous learning

Children will need to be able to: use personal strategies to learn new and irregular words; identify and summarise evidence from a text to support a hypothesis; explain how ideas are developed in the text; use organisational features to find information; shape material to write informative non-narratives; combine words, images and other features; clarify point of view.

Key questions

Explore some key questions, encouraging the children to explain their opinions/answers using evidence from the text:

  • Why did the family have to go to the workhouse? How might the fire have started?
  • How would the family’s situation be different today? Are things better or worse now?
  • What groups of people were in the queue outside the workhouse?
  • How would their lives be different if they lived now?
  • What is meant by the word ‘lunatic’? Would we use it to describe these type of people today? Is it a fair description or is there a better word we could use?
  • How might it have felt to be separated from your family?
  • How would you feel about having your hair cut short to prevent lice?
  • How would you have fared in the dormitories? Would you have ended up fighting or quarrelling? Would you have liked to use the barrel?
  • What does ‘there was no hot water there’ tell us about the water they washed with?
  • What do you notice about the way boys and girls are treated in the workhouse?
  • Why was Christmas different? Why did visitors come?

Key learning outcomes:

  • To present a spoken/persuasive argument, sequencing points, defending views/participate in whole-class debate;
  • To improvise/work in role to explore complex issues;
  • To use evidence from a text to explain ideas;
  • To infer writers’ perspectives;
  • To appraise/compare/write narrative/information texts;
  • To develop prediction, visualisation and empathy techniques;
  • To use ICT programs to present texts/communicate ideas.

Useful website

Speaking and listening/drama

  • Hold a whole-class debate or write a persuasive argument ‘for’ or ‘against’ workhouses – either in role as adults from the 1800s or as historians considering whether workhouses should be reintroduced. Explore how connectives can contribute to an argument.
  • Improvise the scene in which the mother tells her family they are to move to the workhouse. Develop a written script.
  • Act out a school lesson in the workhouse – with the teacher as a schoolmaster/mistress.

Ideas for writing

  • Research workhouses further. Create a working wall, pinning up notes, pictures and ideas collected.
  • Find out more about the food inmates were given. Make up recipes using the ingredients.
  • Write a short description of the outside of the workhouse, using figurative language.
  • Write a diary entry of another child in the workhouse.
  • Using the activity sheet below, plan and create a PowerPoint presentation to teach other children about workhouses. Use fiction and non-fiction writing skills and create ‘sound bites’, using inference and empathy skills. Alternatively, design a website about workhouses.


  1. me
    on 24 September 2016



    1out of 5
  2. sam
    on 24 February 2011



    1out of 5
  3. elsa
    on 15 January 2011

    my life in the workhouse

    quite sad just brilliant