Work and workhouses (Georgian and Victorian)


Work was hard for most people, including children. It wasn’t until 1880 that children up to the age of 10 had to go to school. There were many new factories and industries for people to work in. 

Longwick paper-millPaper-making

Although paper mills had started in the seventeenth century, there were more than ever in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Do a search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal to find all the eighteenth and nineteenth century paper mills in Buckinghamshire and mark five on the map of eightenth and nineteenth century paper-mills attached to this page.


Girls worked in the paper mills, shredding bundles of rags, cutting away buttons and hooks and lengths of whalebone because only pure cotton or linen could go into the rag boiler. The boiled cotton went to the beaters to be crushed and soaked in water, which separated the fibres and turned it into a sodden white porridge called "stuff".


The Vatman judged the quality of the stuff, which was poured into moulds on which it formed into paper. The mould itself was a rectangular wooden frame supporting a fine wire mesh of phosphor-bronze. The Coucher (from the French coucher, to lie down) laid down each sheet of paper from the mould on to a thick piece of woollen felt. Two moulds are used together, so that as one is empty it is exchanged for another.


Finally the paper was dried on hessian sheets or ropes of cowhair. It was pressed, and sometimes glazed, and lasted for centuries. What do we use to make paper today? Tick one answer: 

  1. Wood
  2. Rags
  3. Plastic 

That’s right, we use wood! Do you think wood or rags is more environmentally friendly?

Clay pits on Brill commonQuarrying

There were lots of quarries in Victorian Buckinghamshire. Many have been recorded on old maps. Look at the section of map your teacher gives you and shade all the chalk pits you can find.


Gangs would dig for chalk, clay or gravel. What do you think these things were used for?






 Fertiliser, cement


 Roads, railways, cement


Bricks, tiles, pottery


Three Locks on the Grand Junction Canal, at SoulburyWhen it is heated, chalk creates a liquid called lime that can be used as a fertilizer on fields or in cement. Clay would be used for making pottery and bricks. Gravel would be used for roads and railways and in cement.


Something called coprolite was also dug. Coprolite means fossilised dung but this coprolite was proved to be ancient fossilised marine animals. Ground up this was very good as a fertilizer. The first coprolite quarries started in Buckinghamshire in 1869. Coprolites were found at Great Brickhill in 1873. Two fields were dug up to remove them and a tramway was built between them and the Grand Junction Canal. A geologist visited them in 1875 and described how the fossils were taken out of the sand and washed in cylinders where stones were picked out.


Do a search for coprolite quarries in Buckinghamshire on Buckinghamshire's Heritage Portal. Where are they mostly found? 






Verney Junction on the Bletchley to Oxford railwayRailways

The railways brought lots of work, though most workers were drafted in from elsewhere. Navvies worked long days and went where the work took them, living in temporary shanty towns. They were notorious for often getting drunk. Railways had to be built, which involved laying miles and miles of gravel and track, cutting through hills to make the railway as level as possible and building stations. The railways in Buckinghamshire were built between 1838 and 1910. 


One of the most famous railway engineers was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The people who designed the railways were very different to those who worked on them. Most of the men working on the early railways probably never went to school and came from poor families. Brunel’s father was a knight and he himself spent some of his childhood years learning in France.


Dog Kennel Bridge, Great Western Railway, IverThorney Lane Bridge, Great Western Railway, IverPart of Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol passes through Buckinghamshire. Do a keyword search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal for the word Brunel and find out down where parts of his railways survive in Buckinghamshire.


After the railways were built, drivers, porters, ticket sellers and inspectors were needed. These would mainly be local people and probably better paid than the navvies had been. Do a search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal to find out where the railway stations used to be in Buckinghamshire. There were many more than there are today.  

Gomme's furniture factory in High Wycombe

Chair making

One of the industries Buckinghamshire was and is famous for is chair making. This was a big industry in the nineteenth century. Beech trees had been planted on the Chiltern Hills and lots of beech trees can still be seen there. Most furniture factories surviving in the area date to the early twentieth century. Do a search for furniture factories, where are most of them based?


Do a search on the Buckinghamshire Photograph website. Put the word chair into the “Object” field. Find the answers to the following questions: 

  1. Where was the arch of chairs made?
  2. Where was Gibbons Factory?
  3. Where was Whielden Gate? Who was working there?
  4. Find Hampden Woods. What was being made there?
  5. Who owned the Windsor chair?

The Chilterns were the main base for chair making in the late nineteenth century. Part of the work would be done in the woods. Bodgers worked in the woods to turn the chair legs and backs, which would then be sent to the factories where the woodworkers would make the seats and fit them all together. Did you see the bodger’s house in Hampden Woods? Would you like to live there? 


Those who couldn’t get work and were very poor got Poor Relief until 1834. This was money given directly to those who were in need. After 1834 the law changed and the Poor Law Amendment Act said that anyone who could work should be made to work in workhouses rather than just given money for nothing and that conditions in workhouses should be made very harsh to encourage the poor to find proper jobs. Do a search for all the workhouses in Buckinghamshire. Where are most of them based?


Find the list of inmates in Aylesbury workhouse on the internet (your teacher will show you where) and find the answers to these questions: 

  1. Who was the youngest inmate?
  2. Who was the oldest?
  3. How many children are there in the workhouse?
  4. How many people altogether?
  5. Some of the inmates are noted as disabled, what are the terms the Victorians used?
  6. Lace-making doesn’t seem to have been going well. List all the lace-makers:
  7. How many inmates used to work on a farm?
  8. Write the names of those who came from outside Buckinghamshire: 

Would you be willing to work as a navvy, in a quarry gang or in a paper mill to stay out of the workhouse? Imagine you had to choose one of them. Write a story about what working in one of the Victorian jobs above or any other you know about but ending up being thrown into the workhouse.


Go back to find out more about the Rich and poor.