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The Act essentially classified the poor into one of three groups.

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.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.The resulting laws against vagrancy were the origins of state-funded relief for the poor.The Poor Law Act of 1388 was an attempt to address the labour shortage caused by the Black Death, a devastating pandemic that killed about one-third of England's population.

The new law fixed wages and restricted the movement of labourers, as it was anticipated that if they were allowed to leave their parishes for higher-paid work elsewhere then wages would inevitably rise.Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike, perhaps the origin of the workhouse's nickname.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.But in areas such as the provision of free medical care and education for children, neither of which was available to the poor in England living outside workhouses until the early 20th century, workhouse inmates were advantaged over the general population, a dilemma that the Poor Law authorities never managed to reconcile.As the 19th century wore on, workhouses increasingly became refuges for the elderly, infirm and sick rather than the able-bodied poor, and in 1929 legislation was passed to allow local authorities to take over workhouse infirmaries as municipal hospitals.Although workhouses were formally abolished by the same legislation in 1930, many continued under their new appellation of Public Assistance Institutions under the control of local authorities.