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In its most common sense, an institution devised under the 1834 Poor Law to provide a last-ditch refuge for the most helpless in society. Workhouses were deliberately designed to be uninviting, so that anyone capable of coping outside them would choose not to be in one. Also, they were funded collectively from several parishes joined in a "Parish Union", to spread the cost better. Such a system was felt necessary as dissatisfaction with the Speenhamland system grew; that system had costs that fell locally on each individual parish and was implemented in a way that actually encouraged the underlying problems, pushing more people into poverty even while it helped those who were already in poverty.

Nassau Senior did much of the work involved with diagnosing the problems and proposing and implementing solutions like workhouses that fitted the needs of the day.