Treated little better than prison inmates, entire families were placed in the workhouses and fed bread and gruel.
The houses were filled with orphans and the old, the crippled and the mentally ill. Conditions were unsanitary and degrading.
The work was brutal, including eight-hour shifts of step after trudging step on a paddle wheel that provided power to corn mills. The treadmill.
This is what Ebenezer Scrooge is talking about when he's asked to "make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute" in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
Scrooge sent them away, of course. Christmas in the workhouse wasn't just a rare day off from work. It was a celebration that, depending on the largesse of the board of guardians (the local authorities who administered the Poor Law), might mean a single, glorious glass of beer.
In 1885, for example, records show that the 363 inmates at the Basford Workhouse enjoyed roast beef and plum pudding for Christmas. The local brewery came through with 36 gallons of beer.
When the director of the workhouse at Stratford-on-Avon died in the 1930s, his obituary praised him as "considerate and kind to a degree" because the Christmas menu included beer.
"The idea of celebrating the yuletide about a table unadorned by flowing steins is abhorrent to almost any Englishman, and particularly so to those who dwell in almshouses," one news story reported in the 1920s.
"For Christmas is the only day in England when workhouse inmates are granted the boon of quaffing the cup that cheers. To take their Christmas beer away from these unfortunates - well, it simply isn't done . . . "
Leave it to the do-gooders and the tax-cutters to spoil a bit of fun.
As the temperance movement grew in the early 20th century (yes, England had its share of prohibitionists), workhouse managers were pressed to end the beer rations.
In 1905, one letter writer in The Times of London complained about "the object lessons in drinking given by Boards of Guardians at the ratepayers' expense."
In 1922, a Scrooge named Edith Day whined in another paper: "I think it is wrong to spend the taxpayers' money on strong drink.
If a man or a woman can go without beer every day in the year, there is no need for them to upset themselves just because it is Christmas."
Some workhouses gave in to the pressure, callously substituting a cup of tea for beloved beer. At Biggleswade workhouse, the guardians were so tight they wouldn't even serve lemonade.
Day declared, "It is entirely a question of principle which I am fighting." Exactly: The principle that, even when you think that it can't get any worse, there's always somebody who wants to take away our beer.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene,Sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net.Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.