The workhouse was a British invention. It became infamous. One of the first records of the word workhouse dates back to 1652 in Exeter, England… — ‘The said house to bee converted for a workhouse for the poore of this cittye and also a house of correction for the vagrant and disorderly people within this cittye.’
Charles Dickens immortalised the squalor in the 1800s, in his fictional story of a boy named Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse, and then sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker.
It is therefore little wonder that the infamous house of correction, the ‘workhouse’, found its way to British West Indian colonies, like the Bahamas. In 1837, the workhouse in Nassau was a place of severe confinement and correction. Those sent there were forced to work. The workhouse was where the poor, the street vagrants and the indigent were sent. By 1837, the streets of New Providence were filled with liberated Africans, emancipated former slaves and indentured apprentices, who now had to fend for themselves.
The workhouse, was also where those charged with crimes, were sentenced. The sentences all came with the stipulations of “hard labour.”
From the General Court of Nassau, in February 1837, we get a glimpse of the type of crimes committed and the length of sentences meted out.
SATURDAY, FEBR’Y 11, 1837.
On Thursday last, to which the day the General Court had been adjourned, the following Sentences were passed on those convicted of offences during the Term:
Patricio Gampian – manslaughter; 2 years’ imprisonment in the work-house. with hard labour.
Samuel Roker – stealing a black cloth waistcoat; 3 months’ imprisonment in the work-house with hard labour.
Joseph Saunders – stealing 2 boxes of raisins; three months’ imprisonment in the workhouse with hard labour.
Catherine Edgecombe – stealing a plate and other articles; 2 months’ imprisonment in the workhouse, with hard labour.
Emeline Lightbourne – obtaining money under false pretences; six months imprisonment in the workhouse with hard labour.
Louisa Johnson and Rose Musgrove – stealing shoes; L. Johnson 2 and R. Musgrove 3 months’ imprisonment in the workhouse, with hard labour.
Alexander Patton – biting off the finger of Frederick Store; 2 years’ imprisonment in the workhouse, with hard labour.
Abel Dorsett – stealing flour at Rum Key; 3 months’ imprisonment in the workhouse with hard labour.