A museum housed on the site of an old parish workhouse is putting its past on show.

'The Workhouse: Life on the edge in 18th century Walthamstow' unlocks the history of Vestry House in Walthamstow to reveal what daily life was like for the poor and destitute and those who tried to help them between 1730 and 1841.

The two-storey brown stock brick building, that now houses the borough's largest collection of local archives, was built at the cost of £343, 12s and 3ds in 1730 after the Vestry purchased an acre of land in Walthamstow Village for £6.

According to the exhibition curator, Rowan Bain, it is the "only remaining original 18th century workhouse building open to the public".

And although it was designed as a place to make the poor work, it would have been our equivalent today of the welfare state and NHS.

"Walthamstow was a small rural village so everything was centred around St Mary’s Church," explained Ms Bain.

"The parish thought it was more cost effective to have one building and make them work, but the people who ended up there couldn’t necessarily work as they were either ill, elderly or pregnant.

"Besides the work element, the parish wanted to relieve poverty so made it a comfortable place for the poor to live."

The ground floor room to the left was used for Vestry meetings and the rest of the building was occupied by the paupers.

It also featured a hospital ward and maternity unit where it treated pregnant, sick, elderly and orphaned tenants who had nowhere else to turn.

For those that could work, including children from the age of seven upwards, jobs involved housekeeping, cooking, farming, road building and the “soul-destroying” task of unpicking Ockham.

Records show that during one season, there was a plague of sparrows in the borough and workhouse tenants were paid to capture them.

Throughout her research, Ms Bain said she found many “contemporary parallels” with modern day politicians, and heated debates with charities as to where money should be donated.

She likened church warden Alexander Dalmahoy’s lavish lifestyle of 1779 to the MP’s expenses scandal after he blew tons of money on fine dining.

But life at the workhouse was not long-lived as a change in law in the 19th century led to its closure when the government of the day decided to make them bigger and more of a deterrent.

Inmates were moved to the West Ham Union Workhouse in Langthorne Road, Leytonstone.

Ms Bain, added: "Many people’s knowledge of workhouses is based on popular fiction, particularly Oliver Twist.

"But small parish workhouses like this one actually reveal a more complex picture. Although it was a place to be feared, the people that ran it did genuinely want to make peoples’ lives better".

On display will be original admission registers, unusual seed records, settlement examinations, the only known version of William Hogarth’s moral tale ‘Industry and Idleness’ published for children, from 1768 and children’s work shoes.

A stone-inscribed plaque above the museum's entrance to mark its completion still remains today, and reads: 'if any would not work neither should he eat'.

Following its closure, it re-opened as a police station and then a private house owned by the Maynard family until 1912 when it passed over to Miss Constance Demain Saunders, JP.

The remainder of her lease was offered to the council in 1930 where it was decided it would become a museum.

Council leader Chris Robbins described it as a "thought-provoking exhibition" and said visitors will be fascinated by the stories of the poor.

The exhibition started on September 19 and runs until January 17.