Michael Vestey

Hard times | 15 January 2005

For many, the workhouse, particularly the Victorian variety, still conjures up in the popular imagination an image of dread and fear. I remember being taught about them at school and shuddering at the evocation of the Dickensian horror of these institutions. Everyone remembers the vivid experiences of Oliver Twist from either the novel or the film. For my grandmother’s generation they were still the unmentionable places of shame, the frightening last resort that beckoned if all went wrong. The workhouse was bad enough for what were called the labouring classes, but too much to bear for the more aspiring lower middle classes who’d fallen on hard times, as indeed it was possible to do throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

They were supposed to be abolished in 1930 but, as we heard in The Archive Hour: Enter the Workhouse on Radio Four (Saturday), they lingered on into the 1940s in a more benevolent form than their Victorian forerunners. As the historian Tony Burton, the presenter of this independent Whistledown production, pointed out, the workhouse had existed since the 17th century but serving parishes as places where the poor, the sick, the old and those unable to fend for themselves could be looked after. In the next village to my own, the old workhouse happens now to be lived in by a retired judge. These smaller homes were replaced in the 1830s and 1840s by 600 large workhouses in towns and cities, those in London and Liverpool being grim, monumental and prison-like institutions. In this programme, most of the voices of those who experienced the workhouse were drawn from the archives in recordings collected by local oral history societies, but some of those who lived there as children in the 1920s and 1930s are still alive.

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