From the 16th century onwards a distinction was legally enshrined between those who were able to work but could not, and those who were able to work but would not: between "the genuinely unemployed and the idler".Supporting the destitute was a problem exacerbated by King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, which began in 1536.
The larger workhouses such as the Gressenhall House of Industry generally served a number of communities, in Gressenhall's case 50 parishes.
In England and Wales a workhouse, colloquially known as a spike, was a place where those unable to support themselves were offered accommodation and employment.
The earliest known use of the term dates from 1631, in an account by the mayor of Abingdon reporting that "wee haue erected wthn our borough a workehouse to sett poore people to worke".
The origins of the workhouse can be traced to the Poor Law Act of 1388, which attempted to address the labour shortages following the Black Death in England by restricting the movement of labourers, and ultimately led to the state becoming responsible for the support of the poor.
But mass unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the introduction of new technology to replace agricultural workers in particular, and a series of bad harvests, meant that by the early 1830s the established system of poor relief was proving to be unsustainable.