William Foster

Subject Name :  William Foster  (b 1848? – d ?)

Researchers : Mike Brock and Carol Thompson

There is only one certainty about William Foster – it is the name given by a ‘vagrant’ for his night’s stay in the Casual Ward of the Guildford Union Workhouse on 3rd April 1881, the day of the England and Wales’ Census. 

This individual said that he was an unmarried 33-year-old general labourer born in Windsor, Berkshire 1.  However, it has not been possible to show that this was true.  Firstly, there are no admission and discharge records available for the Guildford Union Workhouse, but no other record – birth, marriage, death, Census or otherwise – has been discovered either before or after 3rd April to confirm that ‘William Foster’ was who he said he was.

It was not unusual for vagrants and casuals to give false identities. One of the reasons was that Workhouse rules at that time permitted only one stay every 30 days at each casual ward 2.  Lying about their name could get around this restriction, but if they were recognised, they would have had to remain for two nights and spend the full day between working.  In some cases, they could even end up in prison.

We do not know why William Foster found himself in the casual ward that night.  People like him tended to be homeless ‘tramps’, moving from place to place on a regular basis, perhaps itinerant workers moving from job to job needing one-off accommodation, or ex-soldiers. 

Like all vagrants and casuals, William would ‘pay’ for his accommodation by performing a set amount of menial work lasting about three hours.  He would then have been given a lump of bread before being allowed to leave, which would not have been before eleven the next morning.

The Pauper Inmates Discharge and Regulation Act of 1871 made reference to a Poor Law Board circular letter of 28 November 1868 which had suggested the following tasks of work:

Males:  the breaking of 1½ to 3 hundredweight (75-150kg) of stone, according to the hardness of the stone; or the picking of 1½ pounds (¾ kg) of oakum (unravelling old rope).

Females:  the picking of ½ pound (¼ kg) of oakum or such other task of work as the guardians may have deemed more suitable

The rules changed on 1st January 1883 following the introduction of The Casual Poor Act 1882, which required casual paupers to stay two nights instead of one 3

This was not an incentive to the vagrant, rather the opposite, as they would now have to perform a full nine hours’ work instead of the three hours performed previously. 

The amount and variety of work to be performed by vagrants and casuals also increased significantly after 1882 (see table opposite).

The penalty for being caught returning within 30 days was also increased, to four nights’ detention and three days of work in between.

No work was performed on a Sunday, so Saturday night arrivals would remain until Tuesday morning, and anyone under a penalty would have to remain for five nights’ detention. 

In certain circumstances, and only when agreed by the Board of Guardians, Master of the Workhouse, or the Superintendent of the Casual Ward, some could leave after one night, but most would have had to stay for two.

As for William Foster, back on that early Spring day in 1881 when he left the Guildford Union Workhouse Casual Ward after completing his task, no records have been traced to show where he went or what became of him – we will probably never know the answer.

May 2024

Click here to find out more about what William Foster would have experienced during his stay, and to read more stories about the casuals and vagrants in Guildford Union’s Casual Ward on the night of 3rd April 1881. 


  1. William Foster 1881 England Census for Guildford Union Workhouse, Stoke Next Guildford, Surrey; Class RG11; Piece 778; Folio 95. Ancestry.co.uk
  2. The Pauper Inmates Discharge and Regulation Act, 1871 With Introduction and Notes Author Hugh Owen;  An Act to Regulate and Control the Discharge of Paupers from Workhouses and Wards provided for the Casual Poor.  Pages 26-29.
    Published by Knight & Co, 90 Fleet St, London, Publishers by Authority to the Poor Law Board   Books.Google.com
  3. General Order of the Local Government Board : Regulations with respect to Casual Paupers  Casual Poor Act, 1882 19 Dec 1882, The Gazette; London; Issue 25179, pages 6461 – 6464  TheGazette.co.uk