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In the Workhouse – theatrical propaganda from 1911


Post by Naomi Paxton

‘These facts told to a street corner audience invariably arouse great indignation, for the poor know by bitter experience that they are true; to bring them to the knowledge of our legislators is harder.’

The quote above is from Margaret Wynne Nevinson’s preface to her play In the Workhouse (1911), a propaganda piece that directly criticized ‘coverture,’ the legal position of Victorian and Edwardian married women that placed them entirely under the control of their husbands, with no rights to personal property, no custody rights over their children and ‘no veto over or means of opposing’ decisions made by their spouse.

In the Workhouse was first produced by the Pioneer Players as part of a triple bill of short plays on 8th May 1911 at the Kingsway Theatre in Holborn. Edith Craig, the founder of the Pioneer Players had requested a dramatisation of a sketch Nevinson had written for the Westminster Gazette and In the Workhouse was the result. The original sketch, called Detained by Marital Authority, was subsequently published as part of Nevinson’s Workhouse Characters series in 1918 and can be read for free online (see the links at the end of this blog).

Nevinson (1858-1932) was a member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, the Women’s Freedom League and the Tax Resistance League. She had front line experience of the issues she brought to the stage. A member of the Hampstead Board of Guardians from 1904-1922, she was a School Board Manager, a Justice of the Peace and a member of the Council of Woman Journalists. Her husband, Henry, was a journalist, campaigner and suffragist, a founding member of the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement and the United Suffragists.

The campaign for Votes for Women had long criticised legal inequalities such as coverture. There are even moments in the play where the incarceration of the women in the workhouse is compared to that of suffragist prisoners, such as the following:

WILHELMINA:    …Doing time is better than this. Even in ‘Olloway ye runs round the yard and sees a bit of sky for an hour.

At least five of the seven strong female cast of In the Workhouse were members of the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL), founded in 1908 expressly for the purpose of engaging the theatrical profession in the suffrage campaign. One, Cicely Hamilton, also a member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, was a playwright herself. Her 1908 play about the lives of Edwardian shop-girls, Diana of Dobson’s, had been a huge hit at the same theatre. The Kingsway was managed by AFL member Lena Ashwell and In the Workhouse was originally published by the International Suffrage Shop, which was opened by another AFL member, Sime Seruya.

Despite the grandeur of the theatre setting, the play’s message was clear: all married women, regardless of class, were in the same legal position. The play didn’t attempt to sensationalise the workhouse or caricature the women in it. Instead Nevinson worked in stories of women’s lives in which the realities of economic hardship, in combination with domestic violence, hunger, alcoholism and adultery, were presented directly to the audience. She also criticized the officials in charge of the workhouse who didn’t understand or care about the struggles of the married female inmates and the law. One character, Mrs. Cleaver, has been forced to come into the workhouse with her husband and children after he lost his taxi licence for being drunk on duty. She reports that the Workhouse Committee and Board of Guardians has refused her application to leave even though she has work and a home for herself and her children because she has no legal rights separate from her husband – and if he remains in the workhouse, so must she.

The play is set in a workhouse ward, described as follows: ‘Yellow washed walls with a few texts about: “In everything give thanks,” “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” “Little children love one another,” Bedsteads and cots covered with red coverlets.’ The female inmates are dressed ‘in pauper dress: dark blue cotton gowns, ill-fitting, with white caps and aprons.’

Lily, described as ‘a red-faced, Cockney girl,’ is a new mother who is expecting to marry the father of her child. Confident that he will turn up to the hastily arranged wedding, she is at first dismissive of the stories she hears from the other women about the realities of married life. However, by the end of the play she has changed her mind:

LILY:    (walking up and down with her baby) I think we won’t get married, my pet! Better keep single, I say, after what we’ve ‘eard tonight.

The play directly tackles the hypocrisy that deemed married women respectable and yet denied them legal rights over their own lives. Whilst the older Mrs. Jarvis, a widow, remains proud of her married status, Penelope, a younger unmarried mother, has deliberately remained single. She announces that she has five children, each born in the workhouse:

PENELOPE:   I always come into the ‘ouse for confinement, liking quiet and skilled medical attention. I never gets refused; the law dare not refuse such as me – it’s you married ladies as can’t get in ‘ere.

Penelope reveals that she was ‘put off marriage at a very early age.’ Her father beat her mother to death while drunk, leaving her and her siblings to grow up in the workhouse. She has made arrangements with the fathers of her children regarding financial support – and because she is not married, she has full custody of her offspring:

PENELOPE:   The law is all on the side of us bad ‘uns. I’m going back tomorrow to my neat little ‘ome, which my lidy-help is minding for me, to my dear children and my regular income, and I can’t say as I envies you married lidies either your rings or your slavery.

The reaction of the packed auditorium to the piece seemed polarized between those who thought it was offensive and those who championed the message. Nevinson wrote an article a month after the performance entitled A Bewildered Playwright for the newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League, The Vote, including extracts of the reviews of the press and theatre critics to her play. Nevinson quoted positive comments from the Yorkshire Daily Post, the Morning Post and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph amongst others, alongside negative comments from the Times, Daily Mail and Daily Graphic. One reviewer from the Observer seemed to have felt excluded from In the Workhouse because of his gender, not even managing to get the title of the play correct in his review:

 ‘Fortunately, however, even the masculine playgoer could relish the rest of the… programme without any sense of the tasteless indiscretion from which he suffered “In a Workhouse”’ (Observer, 14th May 1911, p. 9)

Nevinson herself was puzzled: ‘the criticisms are strange and bewildering; only about five per cent have at all understood the point of the play…there is an air of injured innocence in the tone of some of the critics revolting and hypocritical to those of us who are prepared to face horrors if only we can reform these evils.’ (Vote, 3rd June 1911, p. 68)

Such a public presentation of the problem with couverture did help to draw attention to the issue. Dr. Susan Croft, who included the play in her 2009 anthology Votes for Women and other plays, credits Nevinson’s play and the suffrage campaign for a change in the law, two years after the production.

A confident and unapologetically passionate play, In the Workhouse is an important piece of theatrical propaganda that remains powerful and thought-provoking today.




Crawford, Elizabeth. 2003. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. London: Routledge

Croft, Susan. 2009. Votes for Women and other plays. London: Aurora Metro Publications

Nevinson, Margaret Wynne. 1918. Workhouse Characters and other sketches of the lives of the poor. London: G. Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Read online at: Hathi Trust Digital Library: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b268536;view=2up;seq=8;

Project Gutenburg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40881/40881-h/40881-h.htm

Archive.org: https://archive.org/details/workhousecharact00nevirich

Shanley, Mary Lyndon. 1989. Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press

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