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The first authoritative figure for numbers of workhouses comes in the next century from The Abstract of Returns made by the Overseers of the Poor, which was drawn up following a government survey in 1776.It put the number of parish workhouses in England and Wales at more than 1800 (approximately one parish in seven), with a total capacity of more than 90,000 places.
Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply.
The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups.
It proposed that the able-bodied be offered work in a house of correction (the precursor of the workhouse), where the "persistent idler" was to be punished.
Those entering a workhouse might have joined anything from a handful to several hundred other inmates; for instance, between 17 Liverpool's workhouse accommodated 900–1200 indigent men, women and children.
The larger workhouses such as the Gressenhall House of Industry generally served a number of communities, in Gressenhall's case 50 parishes.
According to historian Derek Fraser, the fear of social disorder following the plague ultimately resulted in the state, and not a "personal Christian charity", becoming responsible for the support of the poor.