Monday, 1 July 2013

Secrets of the Workhouse

Secrets of the Workhouse is the latest programme produced in“Who Do You Think You Are” Style and brought to UK television screens by ITV.

Below is the TV Trailer  - Courtesy of YouTube

The series follows 5 celebrities; actress Felicity Kendal, author Barbara Taylor Bradford, actor Brian Cox, model Kiera Chaplin (Granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) and presenter Fern Britain.

The stories of the celebrities are to some extent interwoven across the individual programmes, but that does not detract from the overall value of the programme or what it has to offer the viewer.

The workhouses, which are to around 1 in 3 Britons(statistic given in programme one) , the only safety net in which our ancestors had during the late 1800s up until the Second World War apart from family. These institutions existed as the only mechanism of support and help outside the family unit. These establishments existed before the benefit system and before the National Health Service formed.

They were harsh establishments in the main. They produced fear, shame and every other human emotion that you can think of.

My Great Aunt told me in a whisper on a glorious sunny afternoon during the summer of 1989 that her great uncle, her grandmother’s brother, had died in the workhouse. She touched my hand, closed her eyes and shock her head ever so gently as she whispered, “oh the shame of it”

My genealogical mind, desperately wanting to know answers too many questions, his name, the reason he was there; but that afternoon was not the time to ask such questions. Over the course of the next few weeks I was told his name and why he was there and I asked where was the workhouse building reducing my voice to a whisper, although why I did so is curious as we were completely alone. Aunt revealed the location of the workhouse and then said “it was where you were born you know.”

This one sentence, linking my generation to a previous one suddenly seemed, I don’t know, special perhaps. Like many of the workhouse type buildings after the formation of the National Health Service in 1948 they were turned into the local hospitals and within a generation the harshness and grimness of their existence wiped away; unless of course you were my Great Aunt and could remember it all in very fine detail.

Therefore as I sat and watched the recorded version on Wednesday morning I recalled that afternoon with my Great Aunt where she had shared those details with me. In fact we had many, many afternoons like that one, where she would talk of the past and share facts, gossip and snippets of our family history. What I will never forget is that some 80 years later she still felt the shame of association with the work house.

The internet genealogical world is very active and a recent discussion that I watched revealed that actually not all workhouses were harsh as we left the Victorian era behind.

Like with any large institution the inmates, as they were called were provided with a uniform on admittance. Their belongings taken away for fumigation and stored ready for the moment they left, if of course they did leave.

Once admitted the work was harsh and monotonous, the meals basic, boring but at regular intervals. Typically Women, Men and Children all lived in separate blocks. Health care and that is a huge general term was provided to a fashion. Those that were infirm or suffering from an illness were generally speaking provided for in separate accommodation.

It is worth noting that conditions that are fairly common and treated now were not always. Conditions such as hypothyroidism that can if untreated lead to dementia type conditions, epileptics and those with mental health conditions were potentially admitted received limited treatment and were potentially transferred to asylums.

These institutions were a product of Victorian success; where should you fall on hard times was not viewed as unfortunate fact of life, but more that you did not try hard enough to prevent it. With that mindset, the workhouses and hospitals were harsh establishments and ones that you went to when you had no other choices left.

As the Victorian era due to a close, and a new Century dawned the mindset and harshness softened somewhat, we headed our way towards a system that showed a glimmer of humanity.

For me this first programme was a rediscovery of those notes and afternoons with my Great Aunt. It is a chance to explore the social and economic lives of my ancestors in rural Surrey in the early 20th Century, and whilst it is too late for my Great, Great Uncle, someone 100 years later does care enough to ask


A fantastic website looking at Workhouses can be found HERE


  1. Thanks for your take on the show. (Unfortunately I haven't found a way to view it from Australia. I hope we get it here eventually).

    It is interesting to hear the view of the workhouse from your Great Aunt who had a personal connection with the workhouse through her ancestor, and how the stigma was carried through the generations.

    1. What a shame Anne that you can not see it in Australia. I dare say that you will get it at some point.

      It occurs to me that my Great Aunt must have had some interaction with her Great Uncle, in much the same way as I did with her; and yes she was still very conscious of the stigma of the workhouse.

  2. I hope I get to see this programme. My ancestress was in the workhouse at Kirkby Stephen in the north, so it was probably a converted cotton or woolen mill.


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