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Dirt, Dust and Devilment: Uncovering Filth in the Workhouse and Casual Wards

Laura Foster (Cardiff University)


In an era of increasing anxiety about the filth of the slums and the threat of disease, it is little wonder that ideas of dirt and cleanliness come to prominence in discussions about the nineteenth-century workhouse. Cleanliness, with its long-standing associations of health and morality, was an integral part of the disciplinary mechanism of the institution, functioning to contain and control the disorderly pauper body. Many workhouse representations, however, suggest that the ostensible cleanliness of the workhouse space is nothing more than an oppressive facade that obscures a crueller and dirtier reality. In narratives of the workhouse casual wards, descriptions of dirt intensify and the excess of filth is shown to pose a bodily and psychological threat to the poor. This article explores the representation of the workhouse and casual wards through the lens of cleanliness and dirt, and analyses the connection of filth to ideas of contagion; sexuality; the body; and social class.

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