People ended-up in the workhouse for a variety of reasons. Usually, it was because they were too poor, old or ill to support themselves. This may have resulted from such things as a lack of work during periods of high unemployment, or someone having no family willing or able to provide care for them when they became elderly or sick. Unmarried pregnant women were often disowned by their families and the workhouse was the only place they could go during and after the birth of their child. Prior to the establishment of public mental asylums in the mid-nineteenth century (and in some cases even after that), the mentally ill and mentally handicapped poor were often consigned to the workhouse. Workhouses, though, were never prisons, and entry into them was generally a voluntary although often painful decision. It also carried with it a change in legal status — until 1918, receipt of poor relief meant a loss of the right to vote.
The operation of workhouses, and life and conditions inside them, varied over the centuries in the light of current legislation and economic and social conditions. The aims of many pre-1834 workhouses are well expressed in this 1776 sign above the door of Rollesby workhouse in Norfolk:
[For more information about the history of The Workhouse, and how church parishes have had a role in "looking after their own poor" please visit http://www.workhouses.com/]