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The Collation

Philanthropy and Torture: Linking Workhouses and Plantations

An engraving of a woman spinning.
An engraving of a woman spinning.

Content Note: mentions of torture, corporal punishment, child labor, and suggested harm to children

What did instruments of torture have to do with seventeenth-century philanthropy? That was the question I was left pondering when I came to the notes scribbled at the end of a short manuscript in the Folger Shakespeare Library called “Hints to Improve the Management of the Poore Children” (X.d.708). The manuscript was drafted around 1676. It includes just two leaves of brief notes on the management of children in a workhouse. These notes were likely made by Thomas Firmin (1632-1697), a London notable who has been commonly described by scholars as a “philanthropist.”1 Firmin had erected a workhouse in London called Little Britain in 1676 for vagrants and the poor; it was a social improvement project. Among the short notes was the concern that the porter at the workhouse was not teaching the children to read as ordered and the suggestion that it might be more efficient to feed the children “Water Gruel” rather than “Milk Pottage.” This switch to a meaner diet would save time; the children could spend more hours working. On the last leaf of the manuscript at the bottom. there was an alarming final series of notes.

Beggar men & Women to lay only in Strawe
To have no more than they earne
A Whippin Post, Pair of Stocks, Fetters,
hand Cuffs, Thumskrews & C to bee provided for
Such as Shall bee unruly
Noe fire nor candle
Teachers to bee provided for them
Okum to bee pickt by children & aged

A handwritten paragraph of text
“Hints to Improve the Management of the Poore Children,” X.d.708.

My eyes fixed on this last collection of notes for some time. A whipping post? Stocks? Thumbscrews? I would have associated such devices with the brutality of the institution of slavery and not a philanthropic project for the poor. Slavery has been the focus of my research for most of my academic career. Whoever scribbled these notes was recommending that punishment and torture devices be included in the workhouse to instill discipline as part of the larger project of compelling labor. Nearly every note jotted down on the two leaves of this manuscript concerns the management of poor children in workhouses which left me for a moment with the disturbing question of whether these brutal devices were intended to be used on the children or on the “Beggar Men or Women” that had just been mentioned.

By 1678, Firmin had published Some Proposals for the Imploying of the Poor. A second edition, in the Folger’s collection, appeared in 1681.2 There was little mention of torturous punishments in those pamphlets aside from a brief assertion that beggars should be “made to work” or “soundly whipt,” suggesting that they were most likely the intended victims of the many torture devices scribbled down at the end of X.d.708.3 Firmin focused in the published pamphlet on measures to extract labor from the poor, including very young children, and he explained why a life of labor would benefit the poor, yielding moral and social progress. Children were his chief concern. They had to be forced into labor at a young enough age to counter the vices of the poor. The streets in the more downtrodden areas of London, Firmin insisted, were filled with gangs of undisciplined and lazy children. They spent much of their days whipping horses and throwing stones and dirt at carts. They also played at games such as “push-pin, or hide-Farthing or “twenty others.” These games were not “conducing to the health of their Bodies, or to the improvement of their minds.” They taught the children “lying and wrangling, with Twenty cheating tricks.”4

Now, I might counter that that these were useful skills for surviving poverty in a world where hierarchies were entrenched. In the Americas, enslaved people had to become particularly skillful at deception to survive their enslavers. Firmin was, of course, of a different mindset. He maintained that “Idleness” was the “Mother and Nurse of all Mischief, and one of those sins for which God destroyed Sodom with Fire and Brimstone.”5 If poor children were rounded up and taken from their parents shortly after the age of three and forced to labor in workhouses then they would “be inured to labour” while they were still young and, better yet, their poor parents would be “freed from the Charge of keeping them.”6 After long days spinning flax or knitting stockings or winding silk, they could be taught to read and taught their catechisms to help counter the “Wickedness that is found amongst our poor People.”7 Firmin argued that kids as young as five could be made productive enough through long workdays to earn profits of two pence a day.

I came across Firmin’s workhouses and the “Hints to Improve the Management of the Poore Children,” quite randomly in 2018 while I was researching a book on seventeenth-century slavery. I had been combing through the Folger catalogue for materials relating to Sir Robert Clayton (1629-1707). X.d.708 lay among Clayton’s manuscripts. Clayton was a very wealthy member of parliament in England in the late seventeenth century and he became director of the Bank of England. He was also a slave trader. He served on the Court of Assistants for the Royal African Company from 1672 to 1681.8 During those nine years, British slave traders brought 80,000 African enslaved captives from Africa through the horrors of the middle passage to the Americas.9 Clayton was a strong supporter of Firmin’s workhouse initiative. In fact, he became vice-president of Firmin’s workhouse. He was also the governor of Christ’s Hospital in 1675 and he would help manage other hospitals later in his life.10 Clayton, an active player in the slave trade, seems to have fancied himself a philanthropist.

Looking at Firmin’s workhouse project alongside these notes in Clayton’s collection, helped me to better understand the mindset of the people responsible for the dehumanizing trade in enslaved Africans. The English elite considered labor, profit, and productivity to be innate goods. They deemed various degrees of violence, forced relocation and coercion as justifiable for compelling labor from slaves and from the poor. In my book, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807, I had argued that there was a “ruthless rationalism” to the Enlightenment that allowed enslavers to believe that the unenlightened should be discipline and forced to labor because such labor “contributed directly to economic progress and inculcated habits of industry that would be morally redemptive.”11 Planters saw economic and moral progress as not only mutually compatible but interwoven. Throughout that book I referred to enslavers for the most part as “planters,” reducing individuals to this portion of their identity.

My short foray into workhouses in England made me realize I need to revise my thinking about the about the mindset of late eighteenth-century enslavers in two critical ways. First, these ideas about the interdependent nature of labor, discipline and social progress were much older than I had once argued. I could see many of the same principles in Firmin’s seventeenth-century proposals for managing and extracting labor from the destitute that I had seen in the advice literature for managing slave plantations in the late eighteenth-century Caribbean. Second, the “planters” and “slave traders” who orchestrated the slave trade in the Americas were, like Clayton, involved in a wide array of investments and projects—some of them charitable from their perspective—and the worldview that enabled them to justify extracting more labor from the enslaved was not restricted to the plantation. They were not just “planters” and “slave traders.” They approached their philanthropic projects from the same basic set of principles and assumptions. Their worldview led them to believe that a workhouse for the poor should include tools of torture such as thumbscrews and whipping posts to violently discipline the poor and compel labor by force. This commitment to forcing labor and the assumptions that productivity was an innate good and that work was morally redemptive were pervasive across the English world.

The drive to make people work had a dark side. When I turned from workhouses back to my research on slavery, I remembered the purported testimony of an enslaved men that encapsulated this English project of compelling labor from everyone and everything. In 1675—just a year before Firmin opened his workhouse—a massive slave rebellion nearly erupted in the sugar island of Barbados. One of the conspirators, a man named Toney, was gruesomely executed soon afterwards. Before he was killed, he was said to have proclaimed:

the devil was in the Englishman that he makes everything work; he makes the Negro work, he makes the horse work, the ass work, the wood work, the water work, and the wind work.12

This English attitude towards work drove the project of colonial expansion and efforts at social reform at home; it led to the casual inclusion of torture devices in plans for London workhouses as part of a philanthropic project to aid the poor; it linked workhouses in late seventeenth-century London with the emerging plantation complex in the Americas.


  1. Dimitri Levtin, Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy on England, C. 1640-1700 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 523.
  2. Thomas Firmin, Some Proposals for the Imploying of the Poor… (London: Printed for Brabazon Aylmer, 1678); Firmin, Some Proposals for the Imploying of the Poor…2d. ed. (London, Printed by J. Grover, 1681).
  3. Firmin, Proposals, 2d. ed., 21.
  4. Firmin, Proposals, 2d. ed., 3-4.
  5. Firmin, Proposals, 2d. ed., 1.
  6. Firmin, Proposals, 2d. ed., 2.
  7. Firmin, Proposals, 2d. ed., 8.
  8. Frank T. Melton, Sir Robert Clayton and the Origins of English Deposit Banking, 1658-1685 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4.
  9. Slave Voyages, Trans-Atlantic Trade, Estimates, (Accessed May, 2023).
  10. Melton, Clayton, 4.
  11. Justin Roberts, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5-6.
  12. Anonymous, Great Newes from the Barbadoes… (London: Printed for L. Curtis, 1676), 6-7.