In a book by Jennifer Worth, Shadows Of The Workhouse, the former nurse and midwife recounts original written accounts and stories told to her by inmates of a workhouse in London’s East End.
“Jane was a pretty little girl and taller than the other seven-year-olds, she was a bright little thing, full of mischief, who liked playing practical jokes on the other children. She was punished, of course, in those early years of the 20th century and sometimes cried herself to sleep, but in the morning, irrepressible, she was laughing again.
If it wasn’t Jane, it might as well have been, so she got the punishment. The master of the workhouse vowed to break the ‘saucy little madam’.
Life in the workhouse was hard, especially for children
When Jane owned up to making a sketch of him with a square head, small eyes and an exaggerated stomach, she was taken to the discipline room, a small cell with no windows and no furniture except for a stool. The master took down one of several canes and beat the little girl so severely that she could not sit down for several days. But if they had expected to break her spirit, they were mistaken. She had lived in the workhouse since birth, after her mother, a servant girl, had been discovered in bed with her employer.
The mother had been allowed to breast-feed Jane before she was incarcerated in the women’s section of the workhouse, never to see her baby again. Knowing nothing of her mother, Jane latched on to a workhouse rumour that her father was a high-class gentleman who worked in Parliament or at the Bar. This idea became a conviction which filled her with joy at the thought that her daddy would one day come for her`.
Workhouses are usually associated with the long-ago squalor of the Victorian underclass. But Jane’s experience – which was to get even worse – is still remembered by people living today.
In the book by Jennifer Worth, Shadows Of The Workhouse, the former nurse and midwife recounts stories written and told to her by inmates of a 20th century workhouse in London’s East End.
Worth’s generation grew up in the shadow of the workhouse. Thousands of people lived in constant dread that some accident or illness would overtake them, leading to destitution and to that place where husbands were separated from their wives, and mothers from their children.
People who witnessed neighbours going into the workhouse never forgot what they saw.
One old man told Worth how, as a boy, he had been loading coke on a barrow one day when he saw, ‘an old bloke come up with his wife. ‘He had a little handkerchief tied round the little things what they had got left, his wife on his arm was crying her bloody eyes out. She was hanging back as they got up to the big doors, but the matron got hold of her and took her away, and the master took the poor bloke the other way. That’s the last they saw of each other.’ The workhouse, in its heyday, was intended to be a form of social welfare for those with nothing. In practice, it was seen as a dark and terrible fate.
Not only the destitute were confined in them: workhouses were used as a dump for the mentally and chronically ill, and the disabled.
Dormitories regularly held 70 people, with beds of narrow bags of straw laid side by side. Heating was minimal, even in the depths of winter.
Paupers’ heads were often shaved to protect against lice, and meals, such as they were, were often eaten in silence. Paupers were allowed to venture outside only with the permission of the master, to look for work or attend a wedding or a funeral. They could discharge themselves at any time, but normally this happened only when a relative found them a job.
The workhouse system eroded all human dignity. Even useful toil was forbidden to inmates. Since cheap workhouse labour would undercut prices and lead to lay- offs, the paupers were given profitless, pointless tasks such as breaking granite with a mallet or grinding animal bones by hand. Women scrubbed the floors, or sewed sails.
Rules had to be obeyed to the letter on pain of harsh punishment, which included flogging and solitary confinement. Complaints about living conditions invited punishment. As did lack of deference to the master, as Jane, in her Docklands workhouse, discovered.
From books she read, in the segregated workhouse area at the local school, where a teacher took pity on the clever child, she built up a picture of her imaginary father’s beautiful house and gardens, fantasising that one day he would come for her. When the teacher showed her a picture of an MP, Jane convinced herself it was her father. And at the age of eight, Sir Ian Astor Smaleigh, a distinguished philanthropist who was spearheading a national movement to give poor children a holiday in the sun, chose Jane’s workhouse for the pilot scheme, and came down in person to announce the good news.
The moment she saw him, she knew. He looked just like the man in the picture.
She rushed upstairs and begged for a clean apron.
Down in the packed hall, Sir Ian seemed to fix his eye on her directly when he announced: ‘I am going to take you away in the summer, to a beautiful place by the sea.’ After the speech, to the horror of the master, Jane impulsively rushed out of the line and flung her arms around Sir Ian, crying: ‘Thank you, Daddy, thank you!’
The master tried to pull the little girl away, but Sir Ian, not at all embarrassed, patted and comforted her, urging her to join her playmates – ‘and I promise you will go to the seaside in the summer time.’ The master was very angry. After Sir Ian had departed, she was called to the master’s office and locked in the punishment room for two hours. Then the master and an officer entered. Calling her an insolent little bastard, the master told the officer to undress the girl and hold her over the stool.
As the master took down the leather-thonged whip, Jane resisted . but the pain of the whip on her back and shoulders was excruciating. By the fifth lash, Jane began to lose consciousness. The master had wanted to give her 20 lashes, but his wife had reminded him that questions might be asked if the girl died, so only ten were given.
Jane felt no more pain but was conscious, the little girl fell to the floor, which was slippery with blood.
A nurse and a female workhouse officer took Jane up to the dormitory. The nurse was shocked. She took off her apron, wrapped the child in it and carried her. For several hours she repeatedly bathed Jane’s back with cold water to reduce the blood flow and the inflammation. This kindness probably saved Jane’s life. All night she slipped in and out of consciousness.. It was several days before she could stand and walk, whereupon the master summoned her to his office. Jane had to be dragged downstairs, and she vomited in terror as she reached the office. This time the master did not beat her, although he threatened to half kill her if she ever again called Sir Ian her father.
And to remind her of her infamy, her head was shaved, her clothes were removed and she was made to wear a sack, tied with string around her waist. The bouyant little girl had disappeared, to be replaced by a pallid, shivering child who never spoke or raised her eyes. She started wetting her bed, for which the punishment was to stand on a platform at the front of the dining hall, holding up her wet sheet. She no longer laughed or smiled.
In the Summer the girls were formed in a line to walk to the station. As Jane joined the line, the mistress waved her aside. ‘Not you. Stay where you are,’ she commanded. She was left behind as the workhouse children romped on the sand and were given donkey rides.
At the end of his visit, Sir Ian asked the master: ‘I have not seen that pretty child who came up to thank me when I first met you. Where is she?’
The Master was momentarily speechless. Fortunately his wife chimed in: ‘The child has an aunt, sir, who always takes her on holiday each year. At this very moment, the child is playing happily on a beach somewhere in Devon.’
That cruel deception was not the end of the story. The book’s author, Jennifer Worth, worked for several years as a young nurse and midwife in the Docklands in the Fifties. She was attached to Nonnatus House – the convent of a religious order of Anglican nuns.
One of the people Worth met there was a tall, thin woman with aristocratic features and refined manners. She was aged around 45, but looked older. With her delicate bone structure she could have been very beautiful, but her excessive dowdiness and her shapeless grey hair made her seem nondescript. Her name was Jane, and everything about her was nervous and hesitant.
Jane was highly intelligent and well-read, but her dithering nervousness disqualified her from all but simple jobs. Only later did Worth learn about Jane’s traumatic years in the workhouse, where she endured another six years in that place of torture. When she left, she spent 20 years as a servant girl, bullied by a succession of mistresses who became infuriated by Jane’s inability to master even simple housework.
While Worth was still at Nonnatus House, the Reverend Applebee-Thornton came visiting. A missionary in Sierra Leone for 25 years, he was taking a six-month leave. A friend put him in touch with All Saints’, Poplar, and since the Reverend was planning to introduce a midwifery service in West Africa, he came to lunch.
Aged around 50, Thornton was a tall, distinguished man with a bronzed, sensitive face and a shock of white hair. He was, moreover, a bachelor.
When he asked to be shown round the district’s nursing and midwifery practices, the sister-in-charge, a woman of infinite wisdom, allotted Jane the task. Jane’s legs were shaking. When she reached to take down her coat, her hands twitched so convulsively that the Reverend had to do it for her. But when they returned, Thornton declared that Jane had been an excellent guide.
There were several more tours of the district by the Reverend and his excellent guide. Jane was caught out calling him Pippin. The sister-in-charge watched her plan unfolding. She took Worth aside and tasked her with taking Jane to a good hairdresser and a good clothes shop to get rid of her drab clothes, her baggy lisle stockings and her heavy black lace-up shoes. First, Monsieur Jacques in Regent Street washed and cut Jane’s hair to emphasise her natural curls. Then they went across the road, and Jane emerged from Liberty’s in a lilac blouse and a tailored suit in elegant grey. Shoes, gloves, handbag and stockings were chosen in the same way. Before they set off home to Nonnatus House, Jane looked at herself in a mirror and gave one of her rare smiles. There was no way of telling whether Pippin recognised this transformation. However, the guided tours continued and, shortly before the end of his leave, he came to lunch again at Nonnatus and asked if he could take Jane to meet his choleric old father.
Permission was given. They found him in a bad mood. Enraged by the old codger’s incivility, Pippin was on the point of storming out of the house when Jane went up to him, placed her fingers on his lips and spoke with feeling: ‘Just be thankful that you have a father at all, dear.’
Jane won the old man over. He gave his blessing to their marriage. Jane returned to Poplar for a few days before the Applebee-Thorntons sailed for Sierra Leone. Finally, the shadow of the workhouse had lifted; her tortured, broken childhood could be put behind her.
The workhouses were officially closed in 1930. But since there was nowhere else to house thousands of institutionalised people who could not be expected to adjust to the outside world, they continued under other names well into the second half of the 20th century.
Inmates were allowed out; creature comforts were provided and families were kept together. But they continued to be run as institutions, by masters and officers whose attitudes were often set still in the 1900s. Not all the children reared there suffered the mental and physical torments of Jane. But there are men and women alive in Britain today who will never forget the workhouses.
Original accounts and letters are published in `Shadows Of The Workhouse` by Jennifer Worth, published by Weidenfeld.